Towson State, the defending champion at home, and the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the stretch runner trying to salvage a lost season, staged a four-star thriller at the Towson Center yesterday.
And the Tigers required all of their resources to survive a scare and advance to the East Coast Conference championship game for the fourth time in five years.
In a game with eight ties and 14 lead changes, UMBC finally relented, 78-76, when Towson State's Terrance Jacobs hit a game-winning jumper from the wing with 14 seconds left.
"We beat UMBC three times, but we didn't beat the same team three times," said Towson coach Terry Truax. "The other two were totally different.
"I thought once we got up by 10, they might get down. But they never, ever got rattled. I couldn't tell who the home team was."
The Retrievers (7-22) had a chance to tie, but Jim Frantz's jumper from the top of the foul circle bounded off the front rim, and Lewis Waller rebounded for the Tigers to set up a meaningless free-throw sequence.
For most of the game, though, UMBC big man Frantz didn't miss, making 12 of 15 shots, many from the perimeter, to score a career-high 25 points.
But the Tigers, who face Rider -- a 77-75 upset winner over Delaware yesterday -- in tomorrow's 5 p.m. final on ESPN, fended off every surge for their fourth straight ECC tournament victory.
"Sure, UMBC is on our level," said Towson point guard Devin Boyd, who scored 21 despite a hip pointer that bothered him on defense. "You can't look at anybody's record and expect to go out and win. This is a new team and season."
The game developed into a faceoff between UMBC's big men, Frantz and Derrick Reid (17 points, 12 rebounds) and the Tigers guards, Boyd and Jacobs, who outscored the UMBC starting backcourt, 21-0, in the first half.
But UMBC's Derell Thompson got into the flow in the second half, as the Tigers began double- and triple-teaming Frantz and Reid. Thompson hit three three-pointers and scored 11 second-half points to pick up the offense.
"Derell hadn't played well, and he made up his mind to do that. It wasn't anything more," said Retrievers coach Earl Hawkins.
But after UMBC went ahead, 73-70, its biggest lead of the game, Chuck Lightening counterattacked for Towson. He scored three baskets and two free throws in succession in the final four minutes.
"I didn't say, 'I'm going to score three in a row,' " said Lightening. "It just was then or never."
In the winning sequence, Boyd and Lightening were isolated on the right side, but Jacobs got the shot.
The first two local schools to meet in a postseason tournament here since 1978 put on a winner. But, for UMBC, it was a tough defeat for a team that had won five straight and finished playing better than at any time all season.
"It's very disappointing," said Hawkins. "We thought we could win. We wanted to be in the big show tomorrow night and in the bigger show down the road [National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament].
First round (Saturday) UMBC 67, Hofstra 58
Delaware 99, Central Conn. St. 85
Rider 71, Drexel 68
Semifinals (yesterday) Towson State 78, UMBC 76
Rider 77, Delaware 75
Championship (tomorrow) Towson State vs. Rider, 5 p.m.