After Kurk Lee graduated, Towson State needed a scorer to step forward. In last night's Beltway Classic game against UMBC, the Tigers showed it would be a collective effort.
Junior forward Chuck Lightening had a team-high 19 points to lead five players in double figures, as Towson fought off a late UMBC rally for an 83-75 victory in a game that doubled as the East Coast Conference opener for both teams. Towson (1-2, 1-0 in the ECC) will face Loyola in tonight's final.
"We're not used to being 1-0 in the conference so early in the season," Towson coach Terry Truax said. "We did approach it as a conference game, but at the same time, we wanted to get into the finals of the tournament."
The way Towson plays at the Towson Center, reaching the finals almost seemed like a sure thing. The Tigers were 12-1 on their home floor last season.
Add to the fact that UMBC's top point guard, Bobby Mills, watched the game from the bench with an injury and it all resulted in a long night. The Retrievers had a sophomore and two freshmen running the point, which was no match for the experienced Towson backcourt.
"We just picked it up defensively and got a few quick turnovers," said Towson guard Lewis Waller, who had 16 points. "We always put pressure on the point guard, and the turnovers motivate us."
Despite its inexperienced backcourt, UMBC stayed close in the early going and led, 15-13, on a banker by Emmanuel Fasaye five minutes into the game. But a 17-7 spurt later in the half helped the Retrievers to a 27-20 lead.
UMBC cut the lead to 30-29, but Towson outscored the Retrievers, 17-4, at the end of the half -- including the last eight points resulting from four turnovers by freshmen guard Skip Saunders -- to take a 47-33 halftime lead.
"We dug a hole and couldn't work our way out of it early," UMBC coach Earl Hawkins said. "In general, we had problems with our offense."
Towson built its biggest lead -- 58-40 -- on a jumper by Devin Boyd early in the second half. But the Retrievers picked up their defensive intensity and scored nine straight points to cut the lead to 58-49.
But UMBC, which would get the lead down to 69-60, eventually become undone by its inability to hit the outside shot. Towson, playing an aggressive man-to-man defense, collapsed on UMBC's front line, making it difficult for Derrick Reid and Jim Frantz to score.
Still, the Retrievers rallied in the final minutes and cut the lead to 81-75, when Derell Thompson hit a three-pointer from the right corner with less than a minute to play. But Towson's Larry Brown hit a layup at the other in the final seconds to seal the win.
"In the middle of the second half, we began to relax and hit a few shots from the outside," said Hawkins, referring to the run the Retrievers made late in the game. "But early in the game, we missed a bunch of chippies. And we didn't make our free throws. We could have been in the game had we made our shots from the line."
Reid led all players with 25 points, but Hawkins didn't sound pleased with his effort -- or that of anyone else on the team.
"I don't think he had a good game offensively or defensively," Hawkins said of Reid, who also had eight rebounds. "As a team, we have to learn to play solid defense."
After two road losses, to Dayton and Maryland, Truax was happy to get his team at home before a mostly Towson crowd. And, with Lee in the crowd looking on, he was happy the team stepped forward to fill in the offensive gap.
"No one player should lead us in scoring every game," Truax said. "We got a lot of offense off our defensive pressure. But there's no question it will help when they get Mills back."