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UMBC men use strong second half to beat UMass Lowell in American East quarterfinal

UMBC ran into trouble early and often in the first half of Saturday’s America East men’s basketball quarterfinal against UMass Lowell. The River Hawks scored the game’s first 10 points, controlled play at both ends and took an 11-point halftime lead.

The second half, though, was a much different story.

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No. 2 seed UMBC increased its intensity on offense and defense, and quickly turned the game around after halftime. Jairus Lyles, K.J. Maura and Jourdan Grant (Archbishop Spalding) led the way as the Retrievers scored 51 points in the final 20 minutes and defeated seventh-seeded UMass Lowell, 89-77, at the UMBC Event Center.

UMBC (22-10) advanced to the America East semifinal for the first time in five years. The Retrievers will play that game against Hartford at home Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m.

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With conference tournaments picking back up over the weekend, here’s what you need to know about the few local teams still standing.

UMBC did not start well in its first postseason victory int its new arena.

The Retrievers had beaten UMass Lowell (12-18) twice in the regular season. This time, though, the River Hawks never trailed in the first half en route to a 49-38 halftime lead.

“We knew we would be in for a battle, and they certainly threw the first punch,” UMBC coach Ryan Odom said. “We weren’t defending at a high level, which is what we’ve been doing for a majority of the season. Our guys just picked it up in the second half.”

The Retrievers ramped up the pressure on defense in that second half.

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In the first half, UMass Lowell repeatedly beat UMBC down the floor in transition and found many wide-open shots.

“We weren’t really pressuring the ball like we usually do in the first half, and they got a lot of easy shots,” Lyles said. “We knew, in the second half, it starts with us guards. We had to ball pressure, make them uncomfortable in everything they do.”

The plan worked as UMBC outscored the River Hawks, 51-28, in the second half. Lyles led UMBC with 18 points overall and scored 12 in a row later in the half as the Retrievers stretched a 70-66 lead to 82-70. In addition, Lyles had five of the team’s eight steals and scored 16 of his 18 points in the second half.

K.J. Maura ranked second in the America East and 29th nationally in steals per game, behind only UMBC teammate Jairus Lyles.

Maura finished with 16 points and seven assists while Grant also scored 16 points. Center Daniel Akin, a 6-foot-9 freshman from England, scored seven of his 11 points in the second half to help the Retrievers get the ball inside more, another reason they shot 66.7 percent from the field in the second half.

UMBC turned the game into more of a track meet in the final 20 minutes, often with defensive pressure. The Retrievers forced 13 turnovers, which they turned into 27 points.

UMass Lowell got just six points off 10 UMBC turnovers.

“We knew it was a win-or-go-home situation,” Maura said. “So, we started pressuring the ball … [and it] eventually it gave us the tools for us to win the game.”

Jahad Thomas led UMass Lowell, making its first conference playoff appearance, with 18 points and 16 rebounds. The River Hawks led the America East in scoring during the regular season, but UMBC was much more aggressive in the second half, often driving to the basket and kicking the ball out to someone for an open shot.

“They play unselfish basketball, so I love to watch it,” Odom said.

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