The good news for the UMBC men’s basketball team is that it can still capture a share of the America East regular-season championship and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
The bad news is that the Retrievers have one final chance to meet that objective.
UMBC could have reached that accomplishment Thursday night by defeating Vermont, but the visiting Catamounts nearly led from start to finish in an 80-71 victory at the UMBC Event Center in Catonsville.
With the America East ending the regular season after Sunday, the Retrievers (13-5, 9-4) need only to return the favor to Vermont on Friday night at 5 p.m. to claim their first regular-season title since the 2007-08 season. A win would also give UMBC the No. 1 seed and homecourt advantage throughout the conference tournament because the Retrievers own the first tiebreaker after sweeping Albany, the first common opponent.
The Catamounts — who clinched at least a piece of the league’s regular-season title for the fifth straight season and can still capture the No. 1 seed in the tournament — split with the Great Danes.
“I think both teams have to understand the big picture,” UMBC coach Ryan Odom said. “Neither of us are going to secure an NCAA tournament berth this weekend. That’s not to say that both teams are feeling one another out because we’re both trying to win. Winning a share of the regular-season championship is right where we want to be. But if we play really well and lose by one tomorrow, all is not lost. We have to understand that there is a big picture.”
Junior shooting guard R.J. Eytle-Rock led all scorers with 23 points and added seven rebounds and three assists. He was joined by junior shooting guard L.J. Owens, the Annapolis resident and Severn graduate who chipped in 12 points and four rebounds, and junior shooting guard Keondre Kennedy, who came off the bench to contribute 11 points and three assists.
Odom said he wasn’t unhappy with the offensive production.
“We scored enough to win,” he said. “I think one of the strengths of this team is that we’re going to have different guys to score baskets for us. There are certain matchups that we attack, and it may not be the same guy every game. [Senior forward] Brandon [Horvath] obviously is an important player for us, and there were some that he normally makes. He was 3-for-11 [for seven points], and Brandon knows that he can play better offensively. If he makes a couple of those threes, he’s feeling a little different, and maybe we’re feeling a little different. If a couple of those rim shots around the basket go for him, maybe we’re right there.”
Vermont (10-3 overall and in the America East) had a torrid start that included a 14-2 run for a 17-4 advantage with 13:20 left in the first half. The Retrievers, who had a lead for all of 19 seconds at 23-22 with 5:35 left in the period, tied the score four times in the second half, but just couldn’t get over the hump.
“They came out blazing at the beginning of that game,” Odom said. “Was really impressed with the overall performance for them. But I was proud of our guys. We got down 17-4 and for us to come back a deficit like that against a really good team, it’s not easy to do. It was a one-point game at halftime [32-31], and now it’s a real game at that point. They gained control midway through the second half.”
The Catamounts’ bench was outscored 19-6 by UMBC’s, but that was negated by the play of their big three of junior power forward Ryan Davis, redshirt senior shooting guard Ben Shungu and senior point guard Stef Smith. Davis finished with 21 points and six rebounds, Shungu had 20 points and eight rebounds, and Smith compiled 20 points and four rebounds.
“They were well-balanced and they knew where they were going with the ball,” Odom said. “If you look at the stat sheet, they had three guys that dominated the game in a lot of ways. Is some of that controllable? Well, yeah, it is. We can do better than we did, and we’ve got to do better if we want a chance to win. We can’t give their Big 3 guys 20 points each in a game and expect to win. It was probably a miracle that we were in it given the circumstances. … We’ve got to do a better job certainly on those three.”
After finishing the first half without a trip to the free-throw line, Vermont sank all 12 of its free throws in the second half. Meanwhile, the Retrievers missed seven of 18 free throws.
“We kept them off the line in the first half, and in the second half, they obviously made it to the line in the end, but they were getting to the line at key times when they didn’t make baskets, and they knocked them all down,” Odom said. “We’ve been shooting the ball really well from the free-throw line, but we didn’t today unfortunately.”
The silver lining for UMBC is that the team has yet to be swept in two-game series implemented by the conference this winter to reduce exposure during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The bottom line is we’ve got to refocus and we’ve got to regroup,” Odom said. “We can’t put our heads down. We’ve got to get ready for the next battle tomorrow, and that’s a great thing, that we get to play tomorrow.”
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