With only a handful of games under the Towson men’s basketball program’s collective belt in what has been a coronavirus-abbreviated season, coach Pat Skerry has been searching for ways to galvanize his players and ramp up their energy levels.
Skerry might have found his muse in Demetrius Mims, whose thunderous dunk punctuated a 21-4 run to open the second half in the host Tigers’ 78-74 victory over North Carolina Wilmington at SECU Arena on Tuesday afternoon.
The Tigers improved to 3-5 overall and 2-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association and completed a two-game sweep of the Seahawks (6-5, 0-2).
Mims, a redshirt sophomore from Baltimore who transferred from Long Beach State, wasn’t even the team’s top producer. That honor belonged to redshirt senior point guard Zane Martin, who collected 24 points, six rebounds and five assists. But Mims’ coast-to-coast, two-handed jam at the 11:54 mark that was the penultimate basket in Towson’s half-opening spurt was the one cited by his teammates and Skerry as the exclamation point in the win.
“Demetrius’ dunk, I felt like, propelled us over the top right there,” said sophomore power forward Charles Thompson, who contributed 17 points, six rebounds and two blocks. “I’ve never seen the whole bench [react that way]. Even Wan [redshirt senior small forward Juwan Gray] who is down with his injury [a torn left Achilles tendon], even Wan was wheeling around on the sideline. It was just great. It brought everybody together. Everybody on the sideline was energized and focused and locked in. It really boosted our momentum.”
Added Martin, who was on the sideline during the former Poly star’s dunk:“It was big to watch the guys come off the bench. That’s what they’re there for. We need everybody. It’s going to take everybody to win each and every game. It’s not just going to be me, it’s not just going to be Gibby [sophomore point guard Jason Gibson], it’s going to be the whole team, and I feel like that showed that we’re deep.”
The Tigers struggled for much of the first half, sliding into a 10-point hole with 2:09 remaining before trimming the deficit to 36-32 at halftime. But they enjoyed bursts of 9-0 and 8-0 to begin the second half, and Skerry said the team started to feed off the momentum.
“I thought we were a little bit lifeless, and we haven’t been together much,” he said, alluding to two coronavirus-induced halts in December. “So I’m still trying to figure out how to get this team to have that type of killer instinct all the time. We’re still trying to put roles together and energy and chemistry with pauses and injuries and everything else. Hopefully, this gives us a little life, and we can build off of it.”
With Towson leading by as many as 15 points with 4:40 left in regulation, UNCW mounted a furious comeback. After senior shooting guard Mike Okauru hit a layup to make the score 68-55 with 4:30 remaining, he fouled Gibson and fell on top of him at the 3:39 mark.
Gibson, a Severna Park resident who scored 10 points, did not appear to appreciate Okauru’s physicality and threw Okauru’s leg off of him. Okauru took umbrage with the gesture, and redshirt power forward Solomon Uyaelunmo (12 points and seven rebounds) came to Gibson’s defense, exchanging shoves with Okauru before players and coaches stepped in.
After a video review, officials assessed both Gibson and Uyaelunmo with technical fouls. Okauru converted all four free throws and then two more after getting fouled on the Seahawks’ ensuing possession.
After Thompson was whistled for traveling on the inbounds play, Okauru was fouled again. He made the first and missed the second, but sophomore forward Joe Pridgen grabbed the offensive rebound, drew another foul, and sank both free throws. So in a 21-second span, UNCW scored nine points and drew to within 68-64 with 3:18 remaining.
“I didn’t see what happened,” Skerry said. “If we kicked a guy, we can’t do that. Whether or not a foul should have been called earlier, we can’t do that.”
Trailing 76-74 in the final 15 seconds, the Seahawks had two chances to send the game to overtime or win it in regulation. Okauru’s wayward layup attempt was rebounded by Pridgen, and coach Takayo Siddle used a timeout with 8.2 seconds left. After the timeout, Pridgen faked a handoff with a teammate and drove the right side of the lane. But Thompson stayed with Pridgen, who missed the layup, and redshirt sophomore shooting guard Nicolas Timberlake grabbed the defensive rebound, was fouled, and converted both free throws to clinch the victory.
For the second game in a row, the Tigers had to make key defensive stops to ensure the win. That’s usually a recipe for ulcers and hair thinning, but Thompson said the players embrace the challenge of closing out tight games.
“That’s Towson brand basketball – defense, rebounding and toughness,” he said. “If we have to get three stops in a row to win a game, that’s what we’re going to be able to do every time we go out there. The CAA’s going to be a dogfight. I feel like that will help us over time.”
The Tigers shot 60.7% (17-of-28) and scored 46 points in the second half – both of which are season bests for any half. Martin said Monday’s 72-69 win against UNCW helped the team craft a game plan.
“I’ll say it was easier because we knew what to expect,” he said. “We knew that they were going to give us their best shot because we beat them yesterday. We just wanted to come out and perform and execute like Coach wanted.”
Okauru paced the Seahawks with a game-high 25 points and chipped in four assists, and freshman shooting guard Jamahri Harvey came off the bench to score 21 points. But junior shooting guard Jaylen Sims, who led the team in scoring on Monday with 19 points, was limited to four points on 2-of-9 shooting and sat on the bench for the final 11:21.
Siddle seemed to indicate that Sims’ benching was not accidental.
“I have a standard, an expectation of the way we should play, and I felt like the unit that we had out there did a great job,” he said. “They put us in a position to tie the game up and take us into overtime. I’m just coaching my basketball team.”