CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Larry Brown was starring in the Philadelphia suburbs. Broadneck's Matt Campbell was one of Anne Arundel County's best. Scooter Alexander was a reserve for Dunbar.
Devin Boyd, a fifth-year senior who sat out last season with a broken elbow, is the only Towson State player who remembers the particulars of the Tigers' last defeat in a conference tournament game. The fourth anniversary is tomorrow, and Boyd still thinks the Tigers might have survived a 1989 East Coast Conference semifinal against Lafayette if he hadn't sprained an ankle the night before.
After Towson won three straight ECC titles and advanced to the NCAA tournament twice, the ECC lost its automatic bid and Towson State moved to the Big South Conference. The competition and setting have changed, but the results haven't. The Tigers went 14-2 in the regular season and are the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament at the North Charleston Coliseum. Their only March losses since 1989 were to Oklahoma and Ohio State in the NCAA tournament.
"Those experiences were so good, we don't even view them as losses," said Brown, a senior forward who is a three-year starter. "When we're playing people from our level at this time of year, something happens. We don't know what it's like to lose. At tournament time, things kick into gear. Even if you're not getting along, you put the differences aside."
There haven't been many frowns since the Tigers dropped consecutive road games at Winthrop, their quarterfinal opponent tonight, and Campbell. They've won their last nine, but the victory that gets better with age is a 77-74 win at Coastal Carolina Jan. 16, which got them to 6-6 and .500 after a 1-4 start.
The second-seeded Chanticleers also are peaking; four transfers start with senior forward Tony Dunkin, who could become the first in Division I history to win a conference's Player of the Year honor four times.
"Our win down there was the difference in the regular season," Towson State coach Terry Truax said. "If we lose, we're both 13-3, and Coastal gets the top seed because they beat third-place Campbell twice.
"I like what we're doing right now. We're the only team here that's beaten every other team in the conference, and we're not the kind of team that will have any anxiety over the win streak."
Coastal Carolina won the 1991 Big South tournament, the first with an NCAA bid. Campbell is the defending champion. No one else in the field has been to the NCAAs.
There is room for a spoiler, such as sixth-seeded UMBC (11-15), which plays Campbell in today's first quarterfinal. It's the last season on coach Earl Hawkins' five-year contract, and his cause has been hurt by lost personnel. Derell Thompson, the Retrievers' top player, was suspended last November, and Artie Walker, his replacement, suffered season-ending leg injuries seven games ago.
Point guard Dana Harris has been slowed by injuries, but the Retrievers have a solid inside-outside combination in juniors Sonique Nixon and Skip Saunders. UMBC is headed to its fourth straight losing season, fueling speculation that Hawkins' contract might not be renewed.
"I'm not sure if the team thinks about that as much as it should," said senior forward Brian Watkins, who played for Hawkins at Crossland High. "He's told us that school comes first and basketball second, and he bends over backward to help people out."
Towson State brings an eight-game win streak in conference tournament games into the Big South Conference tournament. The Tigers won the East Coast Conference tournament the past three years. Their last conference tournament loss came in the ECC semifinals in 1989, to Lehigh, 80-79, in overtime. The victories:
Opp. ......... Round ....... Score
Rider ..... '90 quarters ... 74-63
Del. ...... '90 semis ...... 85-71
Lehigh .... '90 final ...... 73-60
UMBC ...... '91 semis ...... 78-76
Rider ..... '91 final ...... 69-63
Buffalo ... '92 quarters .. 122-58
Rider ..... '92 semis ...... 90-77
Hofstra ... '92 final ...... 69-61