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UMBC takes big lead, fends off Wagner bid; Top-seeded Retrievers get late scare in 63-56 win


NEW YORK -- It took awhile, but the throwaway prophecy for UMBC's Northeast Conference tournament opener against Wagner last night came true.

The gospel was that UMBC couldn't look past the Seahawks on their home court.

And, indeed, before they moved on to a semifinal matchup with Central Connecticut State, the Retrievers (19-8) had to sweat it out in front of 2,610 at the Spiro Center on Staten Island.

The Retrievers saw a 20-point second-half lead shrink to four in what seemed like an instant, before a timely defensive play from Kennedy Okafor and a regained shooting touch from the foul line rescued them.

With 2: 05 left and UMBC leading 56-52, Frank DeBlasi looked to cut that lead to two or even one. But Okafor -- who led all scorers with 22 points -- stole the ball from DeBlasi. While the Retrievers failed to convert on a three-on-one opportunity, they made six of nine free-throw attempts down the stretch to advance.

They did so despite an offense that produced 28 percent shooting in the second half, and because of a defense that held Wagner to 25 percent shooting for the game.

UMBC coach Tom Sullivan, never speachless, didn't have much to say about Connecticut State, which won last night's first game over Long Island, 67-58. Instead, he preferred to cling to a victory that almost wasn't.

"At this time of year, I try to at least enjoy the night and not think about losing the next game," Sullivan said. "I can't say that early in the year. Early in the year, victories leave very fleetingly."

UMBC was the top seed playing the lowest seed, but this was supposed to be a tough game for the Retrievers. Wagner had not only won four of its last five games, but had nearly won in Catonsville on Jan. 7.

Furthermore, the Seahawks seemed like a team on a run of luck. Seemingly out of contention for a playoff spot a month ago, it fell into their hands as St. Francis, Pa., lost its final nine games of the season to cede eighth place and the right to play UMBC.

"We knew it was going to be a struggle," Sullivan said. "Wagner had been playing well coming in and they had been playing well all year."

But this negativity lasted about five minutes for the Retrievers, who allowed Wagner's star center, Frantz Pierre-Louis, to hit a couple of baskets as the Seahawks took a 7-4 lead at the 17: 15 mark.

From there, UMBC went on a 17-4 run, going up 21-11 on a lay-in by Staten Island product Tim Hyland with 10: 34 remaining in the first half.

Hyland was one of four Retrievers to score during a stretch in which they held Wagner scoreless for four minutes at one point.

The Seahawks would respond by closing the gap, and Bobby Bok's three-pointer with 7: 47 remaining made the score 24-19.

But UMBC's answer was 10 unanswered points from four different players, good enough for a 34-19 lead with 2: 58 left.

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