The UMBC men’s basketball team enjoyed hot starts to open the first and second halves of its America East tournament semifinal against visiting Hartford, and it almost did not matter.
That’s because the No. 4 seed Hawks mounted a furious comeback in the second half, overcoming a deficit that grew to 26 points to take a one-point lead before the No. 3 seed Retrievers prevailed, 90-85, in double overtime before an announced 3,042 at the UMBC Event Center in Catonsville on Tuesday night.
UMBC, the darlings of the 2018 NCAA tournament after becoming the first men’s No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed with its stunning upset of Virginia, is now a win away from returning to the big dance.
The Retrievers (21-12) earned a spot in Saturday’s title game at 11 a.m. (ESPN2) and will meet host No. 1 seed Vermont (26-6) for the second straight season after shocking the Catamounts with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Jairus Lyles to reach the NCAA tournament last year. Vermont easily dispatched No. 7 seed Binghamton (10-23), 84-51, on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Hartford (18-15) lost for only the second time in its past seven games and was denied its first trip to the tournament final since 2008.
UMBC coach Ryan Odom said the significant advantage in the second half was an unfamiliar feeling for his squad.
“When you have a big lead like that, quite honestly, we’re not a team that’s used to playing with huge leads like that,” he said. “We haven’t had many of those where we’ve run away a little bit. So it was an unfamiliar position for us — certainly for me as a coach and for these guys as well. We’re used to playing in tight games. Eventually, it did become tight, and we got more comfortable, ironically.”
After taking a 37-18 advantage into halftime, the Retrievers went on a 10-3 spurt to begin the second half and took their biggest lead of the game at 50-24 with 16:17 remaining.
That kicked off an improbable rally by Hartford, which used runs of 10-0, 8-0 and 11-2 to chip away at the deficit. The Hawks, who went to a zone defense in the second half, were aided by a UMBC cold stretch resulting in zero points over a 5:12 span.
Graduate student forward Joe Sherburne, who was three assists shy of a triple double with 12 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, said the players tried not to let panic creep in as they watched the lead drain away.
“We were saying the right things in the huddles,” he said. “We were trying to stay positive. It didn’t really work out that way. We didn’t let ourselves feel tired. I felt at one point, I was thinking about my legs and how I couldn’t really feel them, but Coach told me I wasn’t tired, too.”
A layup and ensuing free throw by senior point guard J.R. Lynch gave Hartford its first lead of the game at 68-67 with 16.3 seconds remaining in regulation. On the next possession, Retrievers junior point guard K.J. Jackson was fouled. He made only one of two free-throw attempts with 3.7 seconds left, but his block of Lynch’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer sent the game into overtime.
In the extra session, the Hawks took a 76-74 lead with 15.1 seconds remaining. UMBC sophomore forward Brandon Horvath was fouled on the ensuing possession and made both free throws with 8.5 seconds left. Lynch’s jumper banged off the back iron, and the game went to double overtime.
With the score tied at 85, the Retrievers sank five of six free throws to cement the victory. Hartford sorely missed Lynch, who fouled out with 1:37 remaining in the second overtime and finished with 22 points and four assists.
Jackson, who led the Retrievers with 21 points and eight rebounds, also blocked freshman guard D.J. Mitchell’s jumper in the paint that would have knotted the score at 87 with 30 seconds left.
“I’ve got Joe, I’ve got Brandon, I’ve got everyone here with me playing just as hard,” said Jackson, whose playing time of 45:33 was exceeded only by Sherburne’s 47:21. “It’s not time to be tired and stuff. It’s time to go make plays, and that’s what I did.”
The Retrievers, who have won seven of their past nine games, opened Tuesday’s game by scoring the first eight points, a spurt capped by Sherburne’s 3-pointer from the right wing. That prompted Hartford coach John Gallagher to hastily call a timeout.
The Hawks scored five quick points out of the timeout, but UMBC responded with an 11-0 run over a 3:34 span to assume a 19-5 advantage. Junior forward Arkel Lamar scored five points on a 3-pointer and a layup to fuel the spurt.
Hartford scored four of the next six points before the Retrievers scored seven unanswered points to enjoy their largest lead of the game at 28-9 with 5:36 remaining in the first half.
UMBC maintained that 19-point advantage until halftime, its second-biggest lead at the break this season. Only a 50-23 advantage over Division III Centenary on Dec. 31 was larger.
Hartford was paced by senior guard Travis Weatherington’s game-best 25 points and six rebounds, and senior forward George Blagojevic added 18 points, three rebounds and three steals.