Before the season, Towson men’s basketball coach Pat Skerry had a plan for the defense his Tigers would play and a wish for the defenses his Tigers would face.
The plan: Press and press and press some more, up and down the court, wearing teams out with Towson’s depth and length. The wish: that teams would dare the Tigers to shoot 3-pointers, as opponents often did last season.
It was only Game 3 in a season Towson hopes stretches well into March, but in a thorough 95-72 win Friday night at Loyola Maryland, the Tigers proved not just willing of defending from baseline to baseline and shooting from outside the paint. They looked downright capable of it, too.
Towson (2-1) shot 50 percent from 3-point range (8-for-16) and 61.8 percent overall, both season highs, on the way to scoring 41 more points than it did in its season opener, a tough 57-54 loss at Old Dominion. The Greyhounds (0-3), before an announced home crowd of 1,704 at Reitz Arena, were less accurate — 37.9 percent overall, after a dismal 27.6 percent showing in the first half.
“When a team shoots 60 percent from the field, they shoot 50 percent from 3-point line,” Loyola coach G.G. Smith said, “there's nothing else to do.”
The win sends the Tigers to the Florida sunshine on a high. Before breaking for Thanksgiving at Skerry’s home, Towson will play three games in three days as part of the Florida Gulf Coast Showcase starting Monday in Estero, Fla.
Their crosstown neighbors, meanwhile, will take their winless streak into next week. After an encouraging showing in the season opener at then-No. 19 Northwestern, a 79-75 loss that went down to Loyola’s final possession, the Greyhounds fell Tuesday at Fairfield. Tuesday’s home game against Division III Goucher should be a good tonic.
On Friday, the tone-setters came early. When the game was still close early in the first half, Loyola sophomore guard Andrew Kostecka (12 points) leaked downcourt for a one-on-none layup opportunity. The ball limped off the rim. Then Kostecka stole it back. Then he missed an open 3-pointer.
Minutes later, with the clock winding down and the Greyhounds in a 2-3 zone defense, the Tigers swung the ball around until they found senior guard Brian Starr (game-high 21 points) at the top of the arc. He had no choice but to rise for a shot. The long ball swished through the net as the buzzer sounded.
“It makes you look like you're coaching when the ball starts moving and then guys put it in the basket,” Skerry said.
On defense, the effect of their pressure was not as immediate as a good-looking 22-foot jumper — Loyola finished with just nine turnovers — but it was hard to ignore. Towson hounded Greyhounds star Andre Walker (2-for-9 shooting, five points) on every pick-and-roll, blitzing the senior point guard and other ball-handlers with the ball-screen defender.
At one point late in the first half, the Tigers hedged high and hard on a screen. When Towson junior guard Jordan McNeil (Mount Saint Joseph) saw Loyola junior guard James Fives look for an outlet pass, he jumped the gap. One take-it-and-make-it layup later, the Tigers had a 40-20 lead.
It went that way for much of the night. When Towson wanted to run, it did. When the Greyhounds wanted to play their game, the Tigers wouldn’t let them.
“I feel like we slowed teams down, getting them to play at our pace,” said sophomore guard Zane Martin, who finished with 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting.
Towson was aggressive from the opening tip, which was a problem only for senior guard Mike Morsell, the team’s top player. He was called for two fouls within a minute of each other, and was on the bench by the game’s third minute, the Tigers trailing 4-2.
When he re-entered, with 6:55 remaining in the first half, Towson had more than managed. The Tigers led 25-16 and, two minutes later, had scored seven straight to double up Loyola. It didn’t matter that he ended up missing more than 14 minutes on the bench. Teammates simply weren’t missing.
Starr was 4-for-4 in the first half and 7-for-7 by game’s end, making all three of his 3-pointers. Sophomore forward Justin Gorham (Calvert Hall) was 5-for-5 from the field in the same period.
It all made for an eye-catching box score. In the first half Monday against visiting Division III Frostburg State, Towson shot a respectable 52.8 percent. Against Loyola, the Tigers shot 60.7 percent in the first 20 minutes. That was their worse half Friday. They just kept putting it “in the drink,” as Skerry said afterward, hanging another 50 points on 63 percent shooting after halftime.
“I've been here as an assistant coach and head coach the last 11 years,” Smith said. “It's by far the best Towson team since I've been here.”