When Rider beat Towson State by two points a little more than a week ago, it cost the Tigers a share of the East Coast Conference regular-season title, a perfect home season and probably any outside chance the team had of postseason play.
"They beat us on our court, and we couldn't wrap up the title," Towson forward Chuck Lightening said. "So we definitely were ready for them this time."
The Tigers didn't appear ready early yesterday, falling behind by as many as 10. But Towson recovered and came away with a 90-77 win and a berth in tonight's ECC tournament title game against Hofstra at the UMBC Fieldhouse.
Towson (16-13) will be making its fifth appearance in the tournament championship game in the past six years. In their final ECC game and perhaps the league's last game, the Tigers will try to become the first team to win three straight ECC tournament titles.
The seeds for Towson's championship game berth were planted on Saturday, when Rider guard Darrick Suber severely sprained his right ankle in his team's quarterfinal win over Brooklyn. In two games against Towson this season, Suber had averaged 32 points -- including a career-high 39 against the Tigers at the Towson Center. But it was clear before the game started that last year's tournament MVP would not be a factor.
"In the layup line, I said to myself, 'No, this doesn't feel good,' " said Suber, who hobbled throughout the game and was on crutches afterward. "I was very reluctant in the first half. It was real frustrating."
The go-to guy for Rider (16-13) all season, Suber, whose 23-poinaverage was second in the league, didn't take his first shot until there were just over 10 minutes left in the half. Despite his tentative play, Suber (16 points, four of 16 from the field) still commanded a lot of attention, which opened up things for his teammates, who started the game with a 9-1 run and led 26-16 with 11:18 left in the half.
Towson guard Terrance Jacobs went to the bench with his third foul 11 seconds later, and Rider seemingly had control, leading by eight after Jerome Culmer's layup made it 35-27 with 6:19 left in the half. But with Lightening playing effectively (23 points, 16 in the first half) and little-used reserve guard Myron Ray scoring all seven of his points in the last 3:25 of the half, Towson ended the half with a 9-1 run and had a 45-42 lead at the break.
"Defensively, we played well and we rebounded, but it was hard to maintain that when we went to our bench," said Rider coach Kevin Bannon.
Suber hit his first field goal and scored four during a 12-6 Rider run at the start of the second half that gave the Broncs a 54-51 lead. But Rider went 6:10 without scoring, and Towson scored 11 to take a 62-54 lead with 11:25 left. Later, a three-pointer by Suber got Rider as close as 67-63, but Towson scored the next seven to put the game away and led by as many as 15 on the way to its seventh straight ECC tournament win.
Much of the credit had to go to Towson guard Terrance Alexander, who had a carer-high nine rebounds and tied a career high with 26 points. Sixteen of those came in the second half, when he also was playing tight defense on Suber.
"These are the last games of the season, and I felt I had to go all out," said Alexander, the ECC Rookie of the Year, who hit 10 of 17 shots. "I just looked to turn things up a notch because this is the tournament."
The tournament title game will be the last in the ECC for Towson, which takes on a Hofstra team that has surprised everyone -- including coach Butch Van Breda Kolff -- with 20 wins this season. The teams split their two games this season -- Towson won, 80-70, at the Towson Center on Feb. 6, and Hofstra won on its home floor, 89-87, on Feb. 22.
"Hofstra obviously not only has the better coach, but he's more rested," said Towson State coach Terry Truax of Van Breda Kolff, who was ejected from yesterday's semifinal win over UMBC.
Lightening, who had 27 points in two games against Hofstra this season, said he is looking forward to the tie-breaker.
"We have a lot of talk back and forth between the two teams, so I'm sure they'll be ready," Lightening said. "For us, this is it. I'm going to look to contribute as much as I can."