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Towson clamps down on UMBC in 78-65 win, continuing Baltimore-area dominance

The Towson men’s basketball team was squeezing out the last bit of life from UMBC on Saturday afternoon when star guard Jairus Lyles pump-faked, drove inside and met Tigers guard Eddie Keith II in the lane, the only obstacle between the Retrievers and a pulse.

There might be better scorers and better defenders on Towson than Keith, but there is no better emblem of the Tigers’ grit than the 6-foot-5, 240-pound senior. When UMBC coach Ryan Odom, after his team’s 78-65 loss at SECU Arena, said of Towson, “Their bodies are a little different than ours,” he might as well have been pointing a trembling finger at Keith, who’s built like a refrigerator with light feet.

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Lyles is the Retrievers’ best-ever scorer, but as he tried to cut Towson’s double-digit lead to eight with less than three minutes remaining, he found Keith impassable. Lyles couldn’t get around him, couldn’t jump over him and the ball predictably ended up in both their hands after another misfire. UMBC couldn’t score after retaining possession on the jump ball, and the Tigers pushed their lead to a dozen the next time down the floor.

“We're going to guard,” said Keith, who also finished with 12 points and a game-high 15 rebounds. “That's no question. Our defense is going to travel. That's, like, our mantra this year. Our defense is going to travel wherever we go.”

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So far, it has taken Towson to new heights under coach Pat Skerry. The Tigers’ win before an announced 1,632 was their 10th straight, matching the program’s longest winning streak in Division I. (The team won 23 and 17 in a row in the late 1970s, during its Division II days.) Only Texas Christian (15 games) has been unbeaten longer than Towson (10-1), and only the 1976-77 Tigers team, which started the year 25-1, has enjoyed a better beginning to a season.

There was no better testament to the Tigers’ defensive bona fides than their effort midway through the second half, after UMBC had taken a rare lead. Despite minor injuries to some of its best players over the season’s first month, UMBC (6-5) entered the game leading the America East Conference in scoring (83.6 points per game) and effective field-goal percentage (57.3 percent). It had scored 78 points at then-No. 3 Arizona and 98 at The Citadel on Dec. 2.

But from the moment Retrievers sophomore forward Arkel Lamar hit a fadeaway 3-pointer for a 54-51 lead with 12:39 remaining until Lyles’ layup 8:47 later, UMBC didn’t hit a single shot from the field. There were nine missed attempts. There were six turnovers. And there was Towson turning defense into offense, a three-point deficit becoming as much as an 11-point lead.

“Our guys had kind of hung in there on a night when we weren't really making shots, and I think their defense had a lot to do with that,” said Odom, whose Retrievers finished with a season low in points and field-goal percentage. They hadn’t shot worse than 39.3 percent before Saturday, when they finished at 29 percent.

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“They crowd the floor. They wear you down. They're very physical. You're having to not only keep them out of the paint, but then when the shot goes up, we're trying to block out, and their bodies got to us.”

For the first 20 minutes, the only thing falling regularly around the arena was snow. Jump shots certainly weren’t. UMBC made just eight of its 33 field-goal attempts (24.2 percent) in the first half, five of them 3-pointers.

Towson fared somewhat better (40.6 percent shooting) and had 35 points heading into halftime. But it also had the Retrievers in the double bonus with about six minutes remaining. Twenty-seven of UMBC’s 33 first-half points came at the foul line or from beyond the 3-point line.

Before long, though, the Tigers played like Saturday’s game was their last for a while. Towson, which next plays Dec. 20 at Oakland, has beaten the Retrievers five straight times and Baltimore-area teams 10 straight times with a tried-and-true formula: Defend with intensity and rebound with effort. As the Tigers held Lyles (game-high 21 points) and fellow starting guard K.J. Maura to a combined 4-for-15 from the field in the second half, as they doubled up the Retrievers on the glass (26-13), everything else fell into place.

Sophomore guard Zane Martin had 13 points in 17 minutes — one of eight Towson players with at least three points in the second half — and the Tigers finished with the kind of second-half shooting line UMBC is more accustomed to seeing: 50 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from beyond the arc and 90.9 percent from the foul line.

“They're really hard to stop,” Skerry said, “and our defense really carried us.”

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