Towson State is back in the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament.
The Tigers became the first team to win consecutive East Coast Conference titles since the 1982 St. Joseph's (Pa.) team, outlasting Rider, 69-63, last night before 3,425 Towson Center fans and a national cable audience.
They did it the hard way but in characteristic style for a team that had trouble putting away opponents all season. After squandering a 10-point second-half lead, Towson had to come from behind in the final 1 minute, 6 seconds on key baskets by Devin Boyd and Chuck Lightening.
Of 13 games regular-season ECC champion Towson played at home this year, nine were decided by six or fewer points.
The finish ruined an inspiring run by the sixth-seeded Broncs, who upset No. 3 Drexel and No. 2 Delaware by a total of five points and reached their first final in seven years.
"Give Rider all the credit. Their play had a lot to do with anything we didn't do well. A lot of No. 1 seeds aren't playing anywhere right now," said Tigers coach Terry Truax.
With the Broncs ahead, 61-59, and playing a triangle-and-two defense with Boyd and Lightening as the targets, Boyd went to the low post against freshman Mark Wilcox.
The ECC Player of the Year hit a basket, drew a foul and converted the free throw to put Towson ahead to stay, 62-61.
"It was designed for me to go to the block. Fortunately, he was playing behind me," Boyd said. "I just turned around and got it."
On the next Rider possession, Lightening stole the ball from William Kinsel near midcourt and soared to a dunk that brought the crowd to a frenzy. The Broncs (14-16) answered with a basket by Kinsel to pull within one again, but freshman John James, who also rejected five Rider shots, made two free throws to start the celebration.
Tournament MVP Darrick Suber -- checked hard all night by Terrance Jacobs and Boyd -- and Wilcox missed shots after that, and Jacobs rebounded to crush Rider's final hope.
Suber had 50 points in the first two tournament games but hit only six of 18 from the field in the final and said, "I saw that kind of defensive pressure the whole tournament, but Jacobs a a better job than anyone else on screens."
Rider coach Kevin Bannon said he thought Suber (14 points) "put a lot of pressure on himself early in the game and was rushing his shots. But he still gave us a shot to win."
Towson (19-10) was in command for almost 30 minutes before Suber packed nine of his points into a 20-5 run that gave Rider its biggest lead of the game, 48-43.
Shortly afterward, Lightening had a six-point flurry and the lead swayed back and forth until Boyd scored the go-ahead basket.
"Towson played hard. Their kids have everything you need to be a conference champion -- depth, size and intelligence," Bannon said.
But the road will get more hazardous. The Tigers were seeded last in a 64-team field last March by the NCAA and drew the nation's No. 1 team, Oklahoma, in the first round.
Nobody at Towson is looking forward to playing the No. 1 team, Nevada-Las Vegas, this time, and the Tigers might avoid that distinction because of their good showing against Oklahoma and the addition of three play-in conference winners.
"No one in the country wants UNLV," Boyd said. "I'd like to get another shot at Syracuse. If we do play them again, hopefully it won't be in the Carrier Dome."
Towson played its best game of the season against the Orangemen, losing, 78-73, in Hershey, Pa.
"I think they would play better, and I'm not sure we can," said Truax. "Realistically, I think the best we can hope for is to play a second seed somewhere."
NOTES: The all-tournament team included Suber, Boyd, Lightening, Jacobs and Alex Coles of Delaware. . . . Rider completed its season never having won more than two games in a row. . . . Boyd said his hip pointer was "sore in the tournament, but I've got all year to rest it." . . . Lightening was strong defensively against Jay Bizyak, who had one three-point field goal after scoring 32 in the first two games. . . . The Tigers will hold their pairings party at the University Union on Sunday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. so that more students can attend than were able to last year.
First round UMBC 67, Hofstra 58
Delaware 99, C. Conn. State 85
Rider 71, Drexel 68
Rider 77, Delaware 75, OT
Towson St. 78, UMBC 76
Towson State 69, Rider 63