The UMBC men’s basketball team opened the America East tournament Saturday afternoon with a win — much as last year’s squad did en route to the championship and a berth in the NCAA postseason. And if you believe junior forward Arkel Lamar and coach Ryan Odom, that’s pretty much where the similarity ends.
Moments after the third-seeded Retrievers’ 62-54 victory over No. 6 seed Albany in a conference quarterfinal at the UMBC Event Center, both Lamar and Odom emphasized that this season’s playoffs have a much different feeling than the 2017-18 version. A year ago, UMBC began with a 12-point win over UMass Lowell and ended with a three-point nailbiter over Vermont for the program’s second America East title.
“Just honestly not thinking about last year,” Lamar said. “[We are] focusing in on who we have this year and the group of guys that we have this year. We’re competing for that one common goal. We’re not worried about last year at all. We’re focused on the future.”
Minutes later, Odom echoed that sentiment.
“Last year can’t help us anymore,” he said of the team that became the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed (Virginia) in the NCAA tournament before falling in the Round of 32 (Kansas State). “It’s over. We’re so proud of it, but at the same time, this is the team we have right now. We’re different, totally different, and we’re finding ways to win. We’re just happy that we’re able to spend another few days together preparing for the next game.”
There is, however, a little carryover. Saturday’s outcome gave UMBC (20-12) its third consecutive 20-win season, which marks a first for the program. Perhaps more pertinently, the team has won of six of its past eight games and advanced to the league’s tournament semifinals for the second year in a row. The Retrievers will host fourth-seeded Hartford (18-14) on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
The last time UMBC hosted Albany, the Retrievers forced overtime on a layup by Lamar with 15 seconds left in regulation before escaping with the win.
UMBC had a somewhat easier time Saturday, enjoying a double-digit lead for much of the second half. The advantage was as large as 18 points with 5:34 left in the game before the Great Danes whittled it down to the final score.
The Retrievers, who lead the conference in scoring defense at 63.3 points per game and entered the game ranked 20th among all Division I schools, were stingy once again. Albany shot just 42.2 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from 3-point range, which was a far cry from shooting 56.3 percent and 48.1 percent, respectively, in an 84-75 win against UMBC on Feb. 23.
Junior point guard K.J. Jackson, who was part of the defensive effort that hounded freshman guard Cameron Healy into taking zero shots in the second half, said the players spent a significant portion of their practice time earlier in the week staying with their assignments around the perimeter and avoiding falling for ball fakes.
“That’s our identity,” said Jackson, who tied Lamar with a game-high three steals. “That’s what we do. We led the America East in defense, and the times where we didn’t live up to that, we lost, and it wasn’t a close loss either. So we kind of know that if we want to win games, this is what we have to do. This week, guys really stepped up and locked into that and just did their best not to focus on missing shots or turning it over, but just sprinting back and focusing in on what your task is at this particular point of the game.”
Meanwhile, UMBC got a balanced effort on the other side of the floor. Five different players scored at least nine points — a group paced by Jackson and Lamar, who finished with 11 points each.
The output marked Lamar’s first double-digit showing since a 15-point outing against Vermont on Feb. 21 — a span of four games, which he noted.
“The last couple games, I didn’t play too well offensively,” he said. “I wasn’t really hitting 3s. So they sank in more than they should have. My teammates just had faith in me, and I knocked them down.”
Odom said Lamar’s energy can be infectious among his teammates.
“I was really happy for him because he’s been struggling as of late, and to see him break out of that was tremendous because he has a tendency to get down on himself sometimes,” he said. “His teammates and coaches have so much confidence in him.”
Freshman forward Malachi De Sousa led the Great Danes (12-20) with a game-high 15 points. But coach Will Brown, who started an all-freshman lineup, said the Retrievers’ ability to turn 14 Albany turnovers into 14 points was too much to overcome.
“I thought the one thing that could really hurt us was live-ball turnovers, and that really haunted us today,” he said. “I thought we turned the ball over, and they got some easy baskets, and in a conference tournament scenario, usually the team that can find ways to get some easier baskets and give up fewer easy baskets is the team that’s going to win.”