The University of Maryland-Baltimore County was ready for this one.
Armed with nine days of rest, an emotional team and the home-court advantage, the Retrievers ended Towson State's two-year grip on the Beltway Classic title last night with an impressive 93-83 victory at the UMBC Fieldhouse.
Their inspired play ended a five-game Tigers winning streak in the series and gave UMBC, a 4-8 team in the league last season, an early start in the East Coast Conference race dominated by Towson the previous two seasons.
The Tigers never recovered from an early blitz by UMBC, which had time to rebound from some nagging injuries after last playing Nov. 26. UMBC scored the first 10 points and roared to a 26-9 lead.
Towson never got closer than eight the rest of the way.
"We were juiced," said point guard Dana Harris, who had 11 assists and was one of five Retrievers with at least 13 points.
"We hadn't beaten them in our three years here, and we had a good week of practice preparing for them. We just wanted to play good pressure defense. If they could fight through that, they deserved to win."
The Retrievers kept the intensity up throughout the game and never showed signs of wavering. Towson helped by missing 18 of 38 free throws.
"UMBC was very well prepared," said Tigers coach Terry Truax. "They had some time to think about this game and there's no excuse for us not making it a bigger one. I think right from the beginning we looked like two different teams."
While the winners played body-bumping man-to-man defense and matched Towson's quickness, the Tigers opened in a zone and stayed with it much of the way.
With Soni Nixon (18 points, 14 rebounds) dominating inside and the transition game blazing with Harris in command, the Retrievers never relented.
"It's about time," said UMBC coach Earl Hawkins. "We had eight or nine days to get ready, and the focus was there. We've been pointing to this tournament for a while. We have to play this hard every night."
Towson's three top scorers, Chuck Lightening, Terrance Jacobs and Terrance Alexander, combined to make only 25 of 58 from the field (43 percent). Jacobs had 29 points, but needed 27 shots to get them.
"You have to give us some credit for their shooting percentage," said Hawkins. "It was straight man defense, and we played it well."
Towson's only other loss in this tournament was to UMBC in the 1988-89 championship game.
The Retrievers will play Loyola, a 98-94 overtime winner over Mount St. Mary's in the opener, at 8 tonight for the title. But it won't be any bigger than last night's triumph if they win.
"Definitely, this was the biggest win we've had in our three years here," said UMBC forward Derell Thompson. "We tried to stop them from running and run ourselves as much as we could."
The formula worked in the first Division I tournament game ever played at UMBC.