UMBC handles Hartford in America East semifinal, 75-60, advances to final vs. Vermont

The UMBC band on the baseline pointed and laughed, because how could it not? What the drummers and cymbalists, their faces covered in black-and-gold paint, could see as easily as the Retrievers men’s basketball team on the court and the announced 2,234 in attendance was a basketball blooper, and this was one.

Late in the first half of second-seeded UMBC’s 75-60 America East Conference tournament semifinal win Tuesday night over third-seeded Hartford at the UMBC Event Center, Retrievers senior guard Jourdan Grant had been clapping and Hartford guard Jason Dunne had been dribbling nowhere. Where Dunne moved, Grant followed. When Dunne attempted a crossover, it was missing one ingredient: the “over” part.

As he swung the ball from left to right, it knocked clumsily off Dunne’s left knee and rolled softly to Grant. He picked it up, took cover as Dunne lunged for his turnover, heard the foul called and started to smile wide. The moment played on the video board overhead as Grant marched downcourt to extend UMBC’s lead at the foul line, and the belly laughs rolled out as if it were a clip from “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

The Retrievers are one win away from their first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade because they have maybe the program’s most gifted scorer ever, fifth-year guard Jairus Lyles (13 points), and an offense that can move the ball as if it were from an instructional video, but also because UMBC has defended unlike last year’s team: The Retrievers (23-10) held Hartford (19-13) to 40.4 percent shooting and forced 14 turnovers, and it felt routine.

“Once we get our defense going, we know we can get our offense going,” said Grant, who had 11 points and two steals off the bench. “We take pride in our defense. Last year, we weren't such a good defensive team. This year, we really stepped it up and changed it.”

Added senior guard K.J. Maura, the conference Defensive Player of the Year: “I think them plays are the most important plays of the game.”

Now comes the hard part: Saturday’s final at defending champion Vermont (27-6), against which UMBC has played 36 games all time and lost 32. This season, two more losses: the first by 15 in Burlington, the second by 28 in Catonsville, at the grand opening of the UMBC Event Center. The Catamounts lost just one time in conference play this season, and even that was a huge upset.

The Retrievers’ win Tuesday was not. Although the Hawks had won six straight road games, UMBC earlier beat Hartford by 22 in Catonsville, where the Retrievers are 15-2 overall this season, and by nine in Connecticut.

“A lot of times, people say, 'Well, it's hard to beat a team three times,' ” second-year coach Ryan Odom said. “Well, if you want to be a champion, you're going to have to do that.”

The game was close for much of the first half as UMBC worked to figure out Hartford’s 1-3-1 zone defense. At one point, as the Retrievers looked to beat the zone to its spot in transition, Grant (Archbishop Spalding) threw a fast-break pass to the first row of the Hawks’ cheering section behind the bench.

Eventually, they settled down. A 3-pointer by Maura (team-high 18 points) gave UMBC a 25-22 lead, and it grew to seven at halftime. The Retrievers all but punched their ticket to a third game against Vermont in the opening moments of the second half. UMBC scored 12 points in under four minutes, and Maura had nine of them.

The Retrievers led by 20 midway through the second half, and Hartford never again got its deficit within single digits. That seemed to anger the visitors. After another missed Hawks 3-pointer with just over two minutes remaining — they finished 10-for-29 overall from beyond the arc — Hartford center Hassan Attia and forward John Carroll (team-high-tying 15 points) surrounded Lyles, who’d rebounded the miss. A foul was called on Carroll, but Attia refused to let go of part of the ball Lyles held. They exchanged words, then had to be separated.

Lyles and Attia were called for matching technical fouls. Lyles could afford it; Attia could not. It The technical foul was his fifth foul, and he slunk to the end of the bench, near the band that had another target for ridicule.

“There were times that we were disciplined [on defense] last year,” Odom said. “They know our scheme much better now. They knew our offensive scheme pretty well last year, and I think they know that [this year], too. They know how to finish games more now than in the past.

“Our defense has taken a huge jump, without a doubt.”

HARTFORD (19-13): Carroll 6-13 3-5 15, Attia 0-0 3-8 3, Lynch 3-8 1-2 8, Weatherington 3-6 0-0 8, Dunne 5-16 1-4 15, Hobbs 2-5 0-0 6, Blagojevic 2-3 0-2 5, Twyman 0-0 0-0 0, Ramirez 0-1 0-0 0, Plousis 0-0 0-2 0. Totals 21-52 8-23 60.

UMBC (23-10): Akin 0-0 1-2 1, Lyles 6-16 0-1 13, Maura 6-11 3-4 18, Sherburne 3-10 4-4 11, Lamar 4-6 2-4 13, Curran 2-3 0-2 4, Gerrity 2-4 0-0 4, Grant 3-5 3-4 11. Totals 26-55 13-21 75.

Halftime—UMBC 32-25. 3-point goals—Hartford 10-29 (Dunne 4-11, Hobbs 2-4, Weatherington 2-5, Blagojevic 1-2, Lynch 1-5, Ramirez 0-1, Carroll 0-1), UMBC 10-27 (Lamar 3-4, Maura 3-7, Grant 2-4, Sherburne 1-5, Lyles 1-7). Fouled out—Lyles, Lynch, Weatherington, Carroll, Dunne. Rebounds—Hartford 32 (Blagojevic 8), UMBC 37 (Sherburne 9). Assists—Hartford 11 (Lynch, Dunne 4), UMBC 15 (Maura 5). Total fouls—Hartford 26, UMBC 19. Technicals—Attia, Hartford coach John Gallagher, Lyles. A—2,234

jshaffer@baltsun.com

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