Of all the comfort the Towson men’s basketball team could take from a four-game road losing streak that had robbed it of Top 25 votes, knocked it to the bottom of the Colonial Athletic Association standings and even undermined some of its identity entering Friday night, the most helpful consolation might have been that the Tigers had been there before.
Worse off, actually. Last season, they lost their first four games in CAA play. Then, a course correction: wins in 11 of their next 14, good for a third-place finish in the league and heightened expectations in 2017-18.
This season, because Towson had won 10 of its first 11 games, because it had seemed like the league’s best team, a skid of any kind was cause for alarm, evidence that the Tigers were just another mid-major. But with an 89-71 victory Friday night over UNC Wilmington, Towson looked more like the team from the season’s first month, not the flawed version of the past two weeks.
“Four in a row hurts,” Tigers coach Pat Skerry said. “We just didn't do a good enough job down the stretch. If we've learned from that, that's going to help us. We're going to have seven more tough road games.”
Before an announced 1,251, Towson (11-5, 1-2 CAA) was very much at home in its first game at SECU Arena since a Dec. 9 victory over UMBC. In finishing with their second-most points against a Division I opponent this season, the Tigers shot even better from deep (54.5 percent on 22 attempted 3-pointers) than they did overall (54 percent). More importantly, their defense of old was back, holding the overmatched Seahawks (4-11, 1-2) under 45 percent shooting and coming away with 11 steals.
No play better illustrated the unit’s return to form — or maybe the serendipitous bounces of home-court advantage — than a four-second sequence midway through the second half. As UNC Wilmington freshman guard Jay Estime’ tried to swing the ball from near the top of the key to the corner, Towson sophomore forward Justin Gorham (Calvert Hall) alertly shot his arms up, rerouting the ball. Possession pinballed neatly into the hands of senior guard Brian Starr (12 points, team-high four assists), who coasted up the court for an uncontested and on-target jumper moments later.
That pushed the Tigers’ lead over 20 points for the first time. Eight minutes remained. The game was effectively over.
“It felt like we were traveling for a long time,” said senior guard Mike Morsell (game-high 24 points). “So it felt good to come home and shoot on rims that we were used to.”
That was only part of the problem in the team’s first swoon. The root of Towson’s demise in each of the four previous game had varied little. Against Oakland, the Tigers couldn't stop anyone, especially not former Illinois guard Kendrick Nunn, who had 31 of the Golden Grizzlies’ 97 points, the most Towson had allowed since a 104-103 double-overtime win in February against Drexel.
At Pittsburgh, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s worst team, the Tigers were in control for much of the game until fading late, undone by the Panthers’ 6-for-12 3-point shooting after halftime. The College of Charleston shot over 51 percent from the field and nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc. Towson was more accurate than Elon (50.8 percent to 48.3 percent overall) but made three fewer 3-pointers and four fewer free throws, again losing late.
Last season, the Tigers finished third in CAA play in field-goal-percentage defense (.438). Through two games entering Friday, the sample, while small, was disconcerting: 49.5 percent, very much middle of the pack.
“It's been a big challenge,” Skerry said. “It still bothers me. I love these guys, but it still bothers me. We can score. We're still not as committed consistently defensively as we need to be to win a championship. That's the bottom line.”
The first half offered the best of both worlds for the Tigers. On offense, Towson finished 17-for-31 from the field, including 7-for-12 from beyond the arc, and limited its turnovers to six. On defense, the Tigers held a block party, swatting a shot just about every three-plus minutes, and forced nine turnovers.
They entered halftime up 45-35 after a 14-7 run to end the period, momentum they carried into the second half and, they hope, into Sunday’s home rematch against College of Charleston, the CAA’s preseason favorite.
“We came out today like we need to get our identity back, strap it up,” said Gorham (10 points, 10 rebounds), one of six double-figure scorers for Towson. “So that's what we did.”