The backcourt has been the heart of Towson State's team from the outset of this season, as UMBC found out for the second time last night.
Ralph Blalock and Scooter Alexander, the main weapons in the Tigers' three-guard alignment, came back to present matchup nightmares for the Retrievers again. They combined for 43 points and 14 rebounds, as the visiting Tigers took control early in the second half, then withstood a three-point barrage for an 86-79 victory before 1,537 at UMBC Fieldhouse.
The victory, Towson State's 11th in its past 13 games, sends the Tigers (16-8, 11-3) into a battle for first place in the Big South against Campbell tomorrow at the Towson Center, where the Tigers have won 17 straight. The Tigers also will try to avenge a 21-point loss at Campbell last month.
UMBC (5-17, 4-10), headed in the other direction in the conference standings, dropped its sixth consecutive game.
"Campbell is a very dangerous team, but I didn't want us to look past UMBC," Towson State coach Terry Truax said. "I didn't like the way we started. UMBC came out a little more energized than we did. They're down in the standings, but they're a no-quit team."
The Retrievers trailed by 16 points on several occasions in the second half, then resorted successfully to the three-point shot to climb back into the game. They hit eight of 10 three-pointers in the second half-- 11 of 18 overall. Guard Eric Wyatt (15 points) went 5-for-5 from beyond the arc after halftime, and his last basket cut Towson State's lead to 84-79 with 19 seconds left, the closest the Retrievers would get.
Wyatt was one of five UMBC players in double figures. Guard Skip Saunders (14 points) hit four three-pointers, while guard Spencer Ferguson (11 points) and forward Kevin Bellinger (12 points) had solid games. Center Pascal Fleury had a career-high 15 points to go with 13 rebounds and six blocks -- both game-highs -- while pleasing the crowd with several rim-bending, slams.
But they couldn't stop the Tigers,especially Blalock anAlexander. Blalock scored a game-high 23 points, grabbed seven rebounds and added five assists. Alexander shook off an invisible first half (two points) to finish with 20 points and seven rebounds. Together, they led an offense that shot 58 percent in the second to break open the game.
"UMBC has some good guards, but our size helps us take advantage of them," said Blalock, who combined with Alexander for 44 points in an 89-78 victory over the Retrievers two weeks ago.
"I think we have two or three more notches to go. I see us as a little better team than the way we've played," Blalock added. "We have to continue to play solid, smart basketball."
Besides allowing the Retrievers numerous open outside shots down the stretch to keep the game interesting, the Tigers handled every other phase of the game. They made 17 of 19 free throws, including 14 of 15 in the second half. They beat the Retrievers decisively on the boards, 42-32. And they made the Retrievers pay for sloppy transition defense with numerous fast-break layups.
Towson State also got another lift from the rapidly-improving Stevie Thomas, the sophomore forward who scored 13 points and grabbed four rebounds in 16 minutes. In the final minute, after UMBC had pulled to within 78-70 on a steal and layup by Saunders, Thomas converted a three-point play, then broke the Retrievers with a fast-break slam that gave the Tigers an 83-73 lead with 41 seconds left.