All season, the UMBC men’s basketball team had done many things right — until Saturday.
The Retrievers, the top seed in the America East tournament, squandered a five-point lead with 2:42 left in the second half, and No. 6 seed UMass Lowell took advantage with a closing run to pull off a 79-77 upset in a tournament semifinal at the UMBC Event Center in Catonsville.
UMBC had navigated the season with only one pause related to the coronavirus pandemic and shared the league’s regular-season crown with Vermont — the school’s first such title since 2008. But that seemed insignificant after it lost for the first time as a No. 1 seed, dropping to 14-6 and missing out on a chance to advance to what would have been its third title game. (The 2008 squad went 3-0 en route to the program’s first conference tournament championship and debut in the NCAA Division I postseason.)
Meanwhile, the River Hawks (11-11) continued their Cinderella run. After failing to win a single playoff game, they have now won three in a row and will make their first championship final appearance next Saturday at 11 a.m. against either No. 2 seed Vermont (10-4) or No. 3 seed Hartford (13-8).
The sting of Saturday’s result may last a while for the Retrievers.
“It’s a huge disappointment for us,” coach Ryan Odom conceded. “It was a very quiet and somber locker room because you go in at halftime and you’re playing well. Not that you don’t expect that this result could happen, but we were playing pretty good going in at halftime, and we played well coming out of halftime. So we haven’t seen our team do that very often.”
UMBC appeared to be in a solid position to advance to the championship final. The offense scored 13 of the game’s first 18 points, took a 40-28 advantage into halftime, and enjoyed two 16-point leads — their largest of the game — in the second half with the last one occurring at 51-35 with 15:34 remaining.
But the Retrievers struggled to make shots or even get high-quality looks at the rim, and UMass Lowell pounced by outscoring them, 44-26. Much of the damage was done by the duo of sophomore small forward Connor Withers and senior shooting guard Obadiah Noel.
Withers scored a game-high 28 points on 9-of-13 shooting from behind the 3-point arc, including 19 points in the second half. Noel scored 15 of his 22 points over the final 20 minutes.
Noel, the conference’s leading scorer at 21.8 points per game, drew much of UMBC’s defensive attention and adjusted his game accordingly. Frequently, he began a drive to the basket and then kicked the ball out to Withers standing alone on the perimeter.
“That’s probably the most 3s I’ve ever hit in a game,” said Withers, who finished with just one fewer 3-pointer than the Retrievers (10-of-21). “But I’ve felt like that a couple times.”
Still, UMBC had a chance to win in regulation or send it to overtime. After Withers converted one of two free throws with 18.8 seconds left, the Retrievers ran a stagger set that freed junior shooting guard L.J. Owens for a 3-point attempt from the top of the key. Even though the Annapolis resident and Severn graduate’s shot was long, junior shooting guard R.J. Eytle-Rock grabbed the offensive rebound.
But Eytle-Rock’s jumper from the lane was blocked by freshman forward Max Brooks. The ball squirted back out to Owens at the top of the key, but his second 3-point attempt with one second remaining was blocked again by Brooks, who grabbed the loose ball and ran out the clock.
Odom said he was pleased with Owens’ first look, saying, “He was wide open on that one, and no one wants to have that shot back more than L.J.” But Odom blamed himself for not using a timeout before Eytle-Rock’s attempt in the paint.
“My only regret probably is once we got the rebound, I thought we were going to get fouled there going up to the basket,” he said. “I don’t think they did, and when it was apparent we weren’t going to get a great shot off, I probably should have called timeout there. That’s on me.”
The River Hawks’ comeback was ignited by greater care of the ball. After turning the ball over eight times that UMBC turned into 16 points in the first half, UMass Lowell committed just one giveaway in the final 20 minutes.
Coach Pat Duquette said despite the 12-point hole at halftime, he found reasons to be optimistic.
“They banked a 3-point shot, we had a few 3-pointers hit the back rim. So I didn’t feel like they were crushing us,” he said. “They were the better team at halftime, but I felt like there were a few things that had they gone our way, I think we would have been even. And sometimes it’s good that they don’t go your way because they make you think, ‘Hey, we’ve got to be better and play harder,’ and I think that’s what we did.”
Critics may cite the Retrievers’ 15-day break since defeating Vermont, 66-55, on Feb. 19 as a factor in their setback, but Odom dismissed that speculation.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow for our guys,” he said. “They expected to play in the championship game. We didn’t talk about the NCAA tournament, we didn’t talk about the championship game at all. All we talked about was beating UMass Lowell for one week. We knew it was going to be somebody, and our focus was what it is always — go 1-0. So this was not a look-forward-to-the-championship or anything like that. It’s tough. You can blame it on a lot of different things, but we played well enough out of the gate. … We just didn’t finish the game.”