Towson State was in the waning moments of snuffing UMBC's valiant upset bid in the East Coast Conference tournament semifinals yesterday afternoon when some zealous Tigers fans took liberties.
"We want Delaware . . . we want Delaware," was the chant that wafted down over the floor of Towson Center, oblivious to the fact Delaware still required a victory over Rider in the other semifinal to complete the dream matchup.
Before the second chorus was done, Rider College coach Kevin Bannon was hopping out of the stands, armed with extra incentive for his players.
"It got our guys inspired," Bannon would say later. "I was sitting with my wife, and the players had just come up [from the locker room] for warmups."
Bannon called an impromptu huddle right there in the far corner of the gym to stress the point "in case our guys didn't hear it." Then Rider went out and beat Delaware, 77-75 in overtime, to foil the best-laid plans of Blue Hens and Tigers alike.
Whether the Broncs' motivation actually was heightened by the chant is open to debate. But one thing is certain. That moment stood as the shining symbol for two days of upsets in the ECC, when three favorites fell in the first five games.
Towson narrowly avoided joining the list when it got a 15-foot jump shot by Terrance Jacobs with 14 seconds left to squeeze past equally inspired UMBC, 78-76.
Now, the defending champion Tigers (18-10) get sixth-seeded Rider (14-15) -- instead of second-seeded Delaware -- in tomorrow's 5 p.m. championship game on ESPN. The winner goes to the NCAA tournament, the loser goes home.
"I think there were a lot of premature plans for Delaware," Towson coach Terry Truax conceded after surviving the day of the underdog.
"We might have had a little more motivation because of what Delaware did to us more recently, but we don't have any less respect for Rider because of what it did to us in January."
Let the record show that Delaware taunted -- and beat -- the Tigers 75-74 just 12 days ago to split the season series. Towson beat Rider twice, coasting in early February by 17, but squeaking by only four at home in mid-January.
If the Tigers were disappointed by the turn of events, they didn't let it show.
"It's just the rivalry between us and Delaware that makes it so intense," Towson's Chuck Lightening said. "But Rider or Delaware . . . it doesn't matter. We want to win the league championship."
Lightening did his part to set the stage. At a point when UMBC (7-22) was threatening to take over yesterday's semifinal, he scored eight straight Tigers points to forge a 76-76 tie with 1:42 left. After freshman John James blocked a layup attempt by the Retrievers' Dana Harris at :56 and Towson took a timeout at :49, the Tigers ran the clock to :14 for Jacobs' winning shot.
UMBC's Jim Frantz, who scored a career-high 25 points on 12-for-15 shooting, missed the tying basket with three seconds left on a jumper at the top of the key. Then, after a missed Towson free throw, Derrick Reid (17 points) was short on a desperation, three-quarter court heave at the buzzer.
Devin Boyd, the ECC Player of the Year, scored 21 for Towson despite a hip pointer he suffered last week. Jacobs, a 6-foot-3 guard, finished with 16 points and a team-high nine rebounds.
In Rider's win, Darrick Suber's off-balance jumper in the lane with 15 seconds left forced overtime. No less critical, however, was a goal-tending call against Delaware's Anthony Wright a minute earlier. Wright's spectacular rejection of a Suber shot hit the floor and caromed 20 feet above the backboard. The irony, Suber said, was that the shot "might have ended up a little short." Suber finished with 28 points.
In overtime, Rider's Jay Bizyak hit a three-pointer and a three-bounce two-pointer to put the Broncs over the top at 73-70. And Marcus Pryor, Rider's regular point guard, came off the bench with a sprained ankle to score the final two points at the foul line. His status for tomorrow is questionable.
"That was probably the best game I was ever involved in as a player or coach," said Bannon, a second-year head coach.
"It took all year, but I think our team has finally arrived. It's crazy to say that after the 29th game. But tonight I saw something in their eyes. I really liked the way we battled."