The most obvious objective in many sports is to score more points than your opponent does. That’s especially true in college basketball, but for the UMBC men’s program, limiting the opposition in that department is just as important.
“When we’re on defense, it’s almost sometimes like we’re two times more locked in just because that’s what we’ve got to do to win games,” junior point guard K.J. Jackson said.
A good portion of credit for the Retrievers’ 20-12 overall record, 11-5 mark in the America East and No. 3 seed in the conference tournament can be traced to their performances on the defensive end of the floor.
They held Albany to 54 points in Saturday’s eight-point win in a playoff quarterfinal, which were more than nine points less than their league-leading average of 63.6 at the end of the regular season. They also finished with nine steals — a category in which they also paced the America East with 7.9 per game.
Thirteen different offenses have scored less than 60 points this winter against UMBC, which is 12-1 in those games. The last time the program limited that many opponents under 60 points was the 1999-2000 season (13).
The Retrievers will get a chance to add to that total when No. 4 seed Hartford (18-14) visits the UMBC Event Center in Catonsville for a semifinal matchup on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
While the offense’s average of 67.4 points falls short of last year’s rate of 73.1 points per game, coach Ryan Odom pointed out that the current squad’s strength is rooted in its defense.
“If [the score is] going into the 80s or high 70s, that’s hard for us to be able to sustain and score enough baskets to be able to make that and still win,” he said. “This is the way we have to win. We have to defend like crazy and on offense get great shots. We take a whole lot more time on offense than we have in years past. In years past, it was, ‘Let’s get it up there as fast as we can and let’s get the best shot we can in seven seconds or less.’ That’s not this team. That’s not what’s best for this team.”
Practices at this stage of the year are shortened to preserve the players’ legs, but enough time is devoted to dissecting an opponent’s forte on offense and then crafting a strategy to neutralize that advantage. Odom likened it to “taking your daily vitamins. We work on specific things relative to the team that we’re about to play, and then you just tweak it a little bit going into each game because you have to take away certain things that a team does that might hurt you.”
Odom said the players understand the emphasis on defense, a sentiment echoed by junior forward Arkel Lamar.
“The mindset is execution,” he said. “When we’re in practice, we have to do everything perfect. Well, not perfectly, but to the best of our abilities, and that’s what we’ve been doing lately.”
That plan worked in the victory over the Great Danes. Recognizing that Albany used ball screens to get enough separation for its shooters to connect on 56.3 percent of its shots and 48.1 percent of its three-point attempts in an 84-75 loss on Feb. 23, UMBC concentrated on avoiding slipping under screens and applying pressure as soon as the ball was inbounded.
Redshirt freshman guard Cameron Healy, who amassed 21 points in that nine-point victory, finished with only nine in the quarterfinal and did not take a shot in the entire second half. Freshman guard Antonio Rizzuto, who had 13 points on Feb. 23, had only three on Saturday.
“That’s what UMBC is known for — just picking up and trying to cause chaos and havoc,” Great Danes senior forward Devante Campbell said. “I don’t think they really did anything out of the ordinary except for that ball-screen coverage where they stayed with Cam and Antonio. But by the time you get to half-court, you’ve got to be very deliberate in what you’re running because they’re already taking time off by guarding you full-court.”
The constant pressure on Albany’s guards when moving the ball up the court contributed to five shot-clock violations in the first half. Coach Will Brown noted that junior guard Ahmad Clark was the team’s only player who could consistently break the pressure with little time elapsed.
“UMBC was disruptive,” he said. “They picked up full-court, and you lose seven or eight seconds once you get the ball over. And then what are we in and then you get into it and the clock’s winding down and we got ourselves into too many of those situations today.”
Tuesday’s semifinal game may present the Retrievers with their biggest challenge though. The Hawks finished the regular season ranked second in the America East in both scoring (74.7 points) and field-goal percentage (.456) and led the league in three-point field-goal percentage (.383).
And Hartford was the only team in the conference to sweep UMBC. In those two games, the Hawks averaged 68.0 points, connected on 20 total three-pointers, had 27 assists on 42 baskets, and went to the free-throw line 42 times, connecting on 32 of them for a .762 percentage.
Odom said the presence of a trio of seniors in guard J.R. Lynch (44 points and eight assists in two games against the Retrievers) and forwards George Blagojevic (29 points and 12 rebounds) and John Carroll (21 points and 24 rebounds) means that UMBC will have to pay attention to Hartford’s perimeter and inside game as well as its transition offense.
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“They’ve got a good balance of inside scoring and outside shooting and penetrating,” he said. “So when you have teams that can do both, it provides a challenge. If you have a team that’s one-dimensional and all they can do is shoot threes, you can kind of key in on that and force them to do something they don’t want to do. But when you have teams that are well-balanced like that, you kind of have to pick your poison in what you’re going to take away.”