Over its first nine games this season, the Towson men’s basketball team had played on Florida’s Gulf Coast and Northern Ireland’s East Coast. It had won in blowouts and on last-second jumpers, as in Saturday’s Basketball Hall of Fame Belfast Classic final.
But what happened in Belfast — the seventh and eighth wins of the program’s best-ever start in Division I — would be moot if business were not taken care of in Baltimore. The Tigers have been workmanlike under coach Pat Skerry in that respect, having won eight straight games against Baltimore-area teams coming into the “Battle for Greater Baltimore” against Morgan State.
Their win Wednesday night was maybe the most memorable of Towson’s young season, and the circumstances of it perhaps the most unexpected. Against a Bears team missing one of its top players, the Tigers needed a late 3-pointer to force overtime in a wild 82-78 win before an announced 2,456 at SECU Arena.
“They should've really put the game away, but we missed a couple, they threw in a couple crazy shots, the whistle blows,” coach Pat Skerry said, “and then you've got mayhem going on.”
At the center of it all was Zane Martin. Towson’s sophomore guard finished with a career-high 25 points, including the tying 3-pointer and eight of the Tigers’ 15 points in overtime, finally wearing down Morgan State (4-5) and its star, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Preseason Player of the Year Phillip Carr (25 points, 10 rebounds).
With Bears senior guard Tiwian Kendley, a preseason first-team All-MEAC selection, again in street clothes on the bench because of a violation of team policy, the Tigers (9-1) were sitting pretty for much of the night. But gradually, a double-digit second-half lead withered. After Martin’s 3-pointer with 11:55 remaining gave the Tigers a 55-39 lead, Towson’s offense went quiet, as it has had a habit of doing in years past, undone by turnovers and missed layups.
A dunk by Morgan State freshman guard LaPri McCray-Pace (14 points) cut the lead to 10, 55-45. Another dunk by sophomore guard Stanley Davis Jr. made it six. His 3-pointer two minutes later halved that deficit. Next came a baseline jumper by Carr (59-58) and two more free throws by the senior forward (60-59).
“I just think that it's us growing and having to be better at maintaining our focus,” coach Todd Bozeman said of his team’s bipolar play.
The Bears extended their lead to 62-59 before the real craziness kicked in. Tigers senior forward Eddie Keith II hit a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to tie the game with three minutes remaining. Then he blocked a go-ahead, get-on-a-poster dunk attempt by Carr — only Towson fumbled the transition opportunity, and in the ensuing scramble fouled junior guard Martez Cameron, who hit two free throws for a 64-62 advantage. The next minute was a parade to the foul line, and after two free throws by Cameron, the Bears led 67-64 with 24 seconds remaining.
On Towson’s previous possession, senior guard Mike Morsell (17 points) had missed the would-be game-tying 3-pointer from the right wing. On its last possession of regulation, Martin took the shot from nearly the same spot. “I had my feet ready, stepped into it,” Martin said. This one was all net, and his celebration was all machismo: arms flexed, face scrunched in determination. He even chest-bumped a fan sitting courtside in a green sweater before the teams huddled up.
Morgan State could not complain about its last shot; it got two. But Davis, after sprinting by Martin, had his layup blocked by sophomore forward Dennis Tunstall. The same fate awaited Carr, whose buzzer-beating 3-pointer was target practice for Tunstall’s big paw.
“I love blocking shots,” Tunstall said. “It's what I do.”
Added Skerry: “We like that he likes blocking shots.”
Morgan State came to the “Battle” shooting blanks. The Bears missed 12 of their first 13 shots, and their second field goal, a 3-pointer by junior guard Antonio Gillespie, didn’t come until 6:21 into the first half. Towson senior guard Deshaun Morman answered the next time downcourt with a 3-pointer — one he banked in from the wing, of course.
After Morsell’s layup gave Towson a 16-5 lead seven-plus minutes in, Morgan State called timeout. The Tigers’ bench was a picture of contented serenity; the Bears’ was of a volcano ready to explode, Bozeman pointing demonstratively at the floor and his team, his instructions audible above the din of the public-address announcer. Only a 24-20 surge by Morgan State kept the game close, and Towson went into halftime up seven.
“I thought we had them on the ropes,” Skerry said. “Couldn't put 'em away.”
Note: In his postgame news conference, Bozeman was complimentary toward Towson and Skerry but critical of the officiating. He vowed to never again agree to play non-“guarantee” nonconference games, such as Wednesday’s, without a “split” officiating crew. Bozeman acknowledged that last year’s home meeting against Towson featured all MEAC officials, and Skerry told The Baltimore Sun that Wednesday’s game officials come from a consortium that handles games in the Colonial Athletic Association and other nearby conferences.
“Got to have a split crew,” said Bozeman, who was assessed a technical foul in the second half after objecting to a call. “Not fair to my guys every time we come over here. It's crazy. … I mean, we talk about stuff in all other walks of life, but we don't talk about this. That's just crazy, how they treat us and how they look at us.”