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In return from injury, R.J. Eytle-Rock sparks UMBC men’s basketball to 86-77 win over Coppin State

R.J. Eytle-Rock demonstrated what the UMBC men’s basketball team had been missing.

The sophomore guard returned from a seven-game absence caused by a pair of lower-body injuries to score 10 of 12 points in the first half and spark the host Retrievers to an 86-77 win against Coppin State on Sunday afternoon before an announced 2,164 at the UMBC Event Center in Catonsville.

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The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Eytle-Rock also added seven rebounds and six assists in his first game since Nov. 16, when the team handled Division II‎ Georgian Court, 60-48. He said he was happy to help UMBC (6-6) end a three-game losing streak.

“It was really hard just sitting out and watching my teammates go out every night,” he said. “I just wanted to be out there with them, but unfortunately, I had injuries going on. So it was best for me to take my time and recover.”

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Eytle-Rock was especially pivotal in the game’s first 20 minutes. His 3-pointer tied the score at 10 with 13:42 left in the half, and he stole the ball and sank one of two free-throw attempts to give the Retrievers a 13-10 lead at the 12:50 mark.

In the final five minutes of the half, Eytle-Rock sank his second 3-pointer, made a steal and fed senior guard K.J. Jackson for a layup in transition, and nailed another 3-pointer that catapulted UMBC to a 42-26 advantage at halftime.

“It was a great start,” Eytle-Rock said. “My teammates were finding me on the 3-point line, and I just happened to be knocking them down. So shout out to my teammates for getting me open for shots. I’ve just been working and practicing all week, and I was feeling confident out there.”

Coach Ryan Odom said Eytle-Rock brings a stabilizing presence to the floor.

“Everybody’s a little more comfortable when he’s out there, and there are reasons for that,” Odom said. “On offense, he’s a willing passer. He protects the ball. He’s not hungry to shoot, but he shoots when he’s open. He takes lanes when he’s open, but he’s willing to give the ball to others. Defensively, he gives us a bigger body on the perimeter, and he can match up with different guys. We definitely needed that recently.”

Eytle-Rock’s return coincided with a more balanced effort from the Retrievers. Besides Eytle-Rock, junior forward Brandon Horvath (a team-high 16 points), senior guard K.J. Jackson (14), sophomore guard Keondre Kennedy (12), sophomore guard L.J. Owens (10) and junior forward Daniel Akin (10) each finished in double digits.

“When we get everybody on the same page and attack aggressively and everybody knows what their spots are and where to be, guys can put the ball in the hoop with confidence,” said Jackson, who added a game-best seven assists and five rebounds. “Everybody went out today and just went over the game plan and did exactly what we practiced. Guys just stepped into their shots and knocked them down.”

Kennedy has been a recent pleasant surprise, coming off the bench to score 10 points and five rebounds in the first half. The 6-6, 180-pound guard has scored 27 points in his past two games, including a career-high 15 on 6-for-10 shooting in Tuesday night’s 77-71 loss at Towson, and credited a degree of confidence to his coaches, teammates and mother.

“She talks to me every day about my confidence,” he said. “Like, ‘You can’t lose your confidence. I know it’s not falling, but it’s going to start falling. Just keep putting in the work and staying confident.’”

UMBC outscored the Eagles 17-6 on second-chance opportunities and 16-5 on fast-break chances. Odom was particularly pleased to see the Retrievers rack up 21 assists compared with Coppin State’s four. He noted that the players were driving the lane and firing cross-court passes to counter the Eagles’ defensive strategy of trying to pin UMBC to one side of the floor.

“I thought our guys did a nice job of getting it in there and kicking it out and then being ready once those balls were kicked out,” he said. “It’s not easy to do against a defense like that. I was impressed with the guys’ ability to find guys even when they’re driving in there.”

Redshirt senior Kamar McKnight paced Coppin State (4-8) with a game-high 23 points, and junior guard Dejuan Clayton chipped in 17. Junior forward Koby Thomas put up his second double double in as many games with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

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Trailing by as many as 24 points in the second half, the Eagles trimmed the deficit to seven with 2:17 left. But the Retrievers made three free throws, coach Juan Dixon was assessed a technical foul and Owens (Severn) added two more free throws to regain a 12-point advantage.

Dixon acknowledged that the call blunted some of his team’s momentum.

“We were fighting, we were cutting into the lead,” he said as Coppin State was denied a chance to tie the program record for wins against non Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Division I opponents in a single season. “But I asked [the referee] why, a simple, ‘It was right in front of you.’ And I guess he doesn’t like if I look at him a certain way. He said, ‘I’m not going to play this game.’ I don’t understand what game he’s talking about. So I’m just going to keep coaching and keep fighting for our guys.”

UMBC@Georgetown

Capital One Arena

Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.

TV: Fox Sports 1

Coppin State@Miami (Fla.)

Saturday, 2 p.m.

Video: ACC Network Extra

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