Forget big. UMBC thought small last night, and the downsized Retrievers ran past Central Connecticut State for a 91-80 victory that maintained their second-place standing in the East Coast Conference.
For the second straight game, UMBC was without the services of sophomore center Sony Nixon, as its leading scorer and rebounder remained sidelined with a hip pointer. Reserve forward Dion Andrews was out with a back ailment, and for most of the game, coach Earl Hawkins used no one taller than 6 feet 5.
Not to worry. The smaller, quicker Retrievers turned up the pressure on the perimeter in the first half, forcing 15 turnovers and converting most of them into easy baskets. En route to a 57-37 halftime lead, fueled primarily by junior forwards Derell Thompson and Brian Watkins, UMBC converted 23 of 40 field-goal attempts, or 57.5 percent, a significant improvement over its season-long shooting.
UMBC moved out to a 50-26 lead with 4:23 left in the first half and had a 21-point bulge with 10:33 left, but the pace seemed to tire the Retrievers. Down 74-53, the Blue Devils scored the next ++ nine points, and twice drew within nine, the last time at 82-73 with 2:51 left.
The Retrievers made just 37.5 percent of their shots in the second half and struggled at the free-throw line, as they passed on a chance to put away the Blue Devils. Unhappy at the end, the UMBC players decided to run some sprints after the game.
"I don't know if it was fatigue, but it seemed like we backed off a little bit," UMBC coach Earl Hawkins said. "Whatever, we needed a win."
Thompson had a season-high 23 points, a career-high 15 rebounds and five assists. He spent much of the game in the lane, where at 6-4 he's hardly an overwhelming presence.
"The last time I played center was in high school," said Thompson, a graduate of Fairmont Heights High School in Prince George's County who's been starting since his freshman year. "With Sony out, we have to approach the game differently. He's a third of our offense and a third of our rebounding, and we've got to make up the difference by committee."
Brian Watkins, another Prince George's County product, out of Crossland High, complemented Thompson with 22 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Sophomore forward Stanley Wright had 11 points, sophomore guard Skip Saunders had 10 and junior point guard Dana Harris had six assists. Central Connecticut got 22 points from junior guard Damian Johnson.
In ending their two-game losing streak, the Retrievers exorcised a demon left over from 1990-91. The Blue Devils' only road win then came at UMBC, as the Retrievers fell behind by 28 and saw their record fall to 2-20. They didn't need to be reminded of that episode yesterday.
The Retrievers did regroup to win six of their last seven regular-season games last year, and Hawkins hopes they can build similar momentum before they play host to the ECC tournament March 8-9. It won't be easy, as UMBC's next three games are at Rider, Hofstra and Towson State, the three teams picked in the preseason to finish ahead of them in the ECC.
UMBC's next home game is Feb. 17 against Penn State at the Baltimore Arena.