They came into the game with memories of a blowout win on their home court over UMBC, but when the Nittany Lions of Penn State walked off the court of the Baltimore Arena last night, they felt lucky to have survived.
After falling behind by 15 in the first half and with the possibility of a blowout in front of their home fans looming, the Retrievers came out determined in the second half -- and held a two-point lead with 12:51 remaining -- only to fall, 81-77, before 2,808.
It was the third straight loss for UMBC (7-17), but coach Earl Hawkins could hardly fault the effort of a team that still had the memories of the 93-59 loss at Penn State Feb. 1 fresh in their minds.
"I'm very pleased with our determination and effort," said Hawkins, who was upset with his team's effort in Saturday's 113-103 loss at Towson State. "A lot of it has to do with confidence and believing you can win when you play with these types of teams. If you believe in yourself, and believe in your system, you'll be fine."
There was a lot of belief in the second half as UMBC hit 19 of its 29 field-goal attempts (65.5 percent). Forward Derell Thompson, who was coming off a school-record 43 points on Saturday, recovered from a six-point first half to score 17 in the second half.
Trailing by 11 at the half, Penn State increased the lead to 45-32 after a jumper by Eric Carr on the Nittany Lions' first second-half possession. But it was 11 points by Thompson during a 19-4 UMBC run -- the final four points coming off a dunk and layup by Thompson -- that put the Retrievers up, 51-49, with 12:51 left.
That was the last lead UMBC had as Penn State regained the lead and went up by as much as 75-68 after two free throws by DeRon Hayes (13 points) with 48 seconds left. But a layup seven seconds later by UMBC center Sonique Nixon cut the lead to five and, after Penn State's David Degitz missed two free throws with 31 seconds left, Skip Saunders hit a three-pointer that had UMBC within 75-73 with 28 seconds left.
But time was on Penn State's side and the Nittany Lions, who shot just 29 percent from the field (nine of 31) in the second half, were able to hit their final six free throws.
Penn State guard Monroe Brown, a graduate of Aberdeen High School who scored a game-high 30 points in the first game, played the entire 40 minutes last night, scoring 10 points.
"I didn't think I was pressing," said Brown, who had two busloads of fans from Aberdeen come down for the game. "It just wasn't a good night."
"We really thought it was going to be a tough game," said Penn State coach Bruce Parkhill. "I've been impressed with them [UMBC] all year because they're aggressive and they're a more athletic team than we are."
UMBC also played better the second time around because point guard Dana Harris and center Nixon were able to stay in the game. Harris (seven points, six assists) missed the first Penn State game with a sprained ankle while Nixon (14 points) played just 16 minutes because of foul trouble.
"It's a lot different having Sonique for a whole ballgame because the defense has to use a lot of players worrying about him," Hawkins said. "And Dana's a tough player who really means a lot to this team."
But the game ended in a loss for UMBC, which fell just short of what would have easily been the biggest win in the program's history.
"It would have been tremendous to beat a team that has been an NCAA team," Hawkins said. "It would have been a big feather in our cap. It would have given our guys confidence."