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Short on stars, Towson will try to grit its way through CAA tournament

Perhaps because it's so fresh in his mind, but more likely because it says so much about his young team's strengths and weaknesses, Towson men's basketball coach Pat Skerry told the story of his team's loss at William & Mary often this week.

Over nearly 20 minutes in a late February game, Towson missed 27 straight shots. The Tigers later fell behind by 23 points, but they cut the deficit to five with 3:28 remaining to put the game into a statistical category that defines their season.

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Sixteen of the Tigers' 18 Colonial Athletic Association games have been within five points in the final five minutes. Towson has just four wins in those games.

"It's funny, and not so funny," Skerry said. "We've been resilient, I think, in our effort. However, we haven't been as resilient as we'd like to be in our execution. That needs to quickly change."

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A year removed from being the No. 2 seed in the CAA tournament's first season at Baltimore's Royal Farms Arena, Towson (12-19, 5-13 CAA) is second from the bottom as it enters this year's tournament. The No. 9-seeded Tigers face No. 8 Elon (14-17, 6-12) in one of two first-round games Friday night, meaning they need four wins in four days to win the championship and earn the league's automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.

Inexperience on offensive goes a long way toward explaining the Tigers' struggles this year, but Skerry's trademark rebounding and defense have kept them in games, providing a base for not only future seasons but perhaps a surprising tournament run.

"It's tough because you know you're right there in the game," junior forward Timajh Parker-Rivera said. "Obviously, we don't want any moral victories, but we know that we can beat these teams, and in our league, it's tough. All the top teams have six losses, so it's a tough league this year. It's very up and down, so knowing that we're that close, we go into the tournament looking at it like we can surprise a lot of teams."

Comprised of both newcomers and veterans who only knew how to be complementary pieces around departed two-time CAA Player of the Year Jerrelle Benimon, Towson had to grow into itself this season, Skerry said.

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It took longer for some of the questions on offense to sort themselves out than he would have liked, but the production is arriving. Sophomore sixth man John Davis averaged 11.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game this season, leading the CAA with 12 double-doubles. Junior guard Four McGlynn led the team with 12 points per game. Skerry and Davis both praised freshmen Mike Morsell and Byron Hawkins for their improvement during conference play, but there's no go-to star.

"We really realized that we had to figure out where our shots were going to come from," McGlynn said. "How do we get the young guys acclimated to our system? And I think now, everybody's pretty much bought in to [the idea that] no one's going to go out and score 30 a game. We have to do it by committee, and I think lately, we've been playing a lot better."

The young team — which graduates just two bench players after this season — got by early by winning the effort categories. Towson pulled down an average of 8.4 more rebounds per game than its opponents this year, best in the conference for a third straight year and eighth-best in the NCAA. The Tigers allowed opponents to shoot just 41 percent from the floor, best in the league for a third season running.

That allowed the Tigers to compete in those close games, even if they didn't finish them with wins. It also provided a strong baseline entering the tournament as the offense begins to come around.

"We haven't had very many games where four of us or five of us have played really well," McGlynn said. "I think we've been hitting our stride offensively in practice. I think if that carries over, we might have one of those nights where everybody plays well, five people have really good games. And if five people have very good games for us, it's going to be hard for teams to compete, especially the way we defend and rebound."

Towson has two wins over first-round opponent Elon. The Tigers gave back an 18-point, first-half lead before holding on for a 57-53 win Jan. 5 at SECU Arena, then won 53-51 two weeks later at Elon on Morsell's game-winner with under two seconds to play.

The Tigers both defended and rebounded in those games, holding Elon to two of its three lowest point totals of the season while outrebounding the Phoenix by 21 in the season series.

Skerry joked that watching film of the games made it seem like he and Elon coach Matt Matheny had "called up their middle linebacking corps and told them to go play basketball and just bludgeon each other." Elon has gone small since then, leading to some of its late-season success, but Matheny still knows "it'll be a fight."

"That's been the staple of this program," McGlynn said. "When you play defense and rebound, above everything else, that's something that can keep you in a game. That's something we realized, especially going into this tournament. We don't have to make shots to be in games.

"Obviously, it would help to make some shots, but … the ball hasn't bounced our way a few times. Hopefully that's going to change this weekend."

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