With less than a minute left in the game, the chant from the rTC
Towson State fans began to fill the UMBC Fieldhouse: "N-I-T, N-I-T, N-I-T . . ."
A berth in this year's National Invitation Tournament probably is wishful thinking for Towson State, but that surely didn't stop the celebration last night after the second-seeded Tigers defeated top-seeded Hofstra, 69-61, for their third straight East Coast Conference tournament title.
After all, Towson had come a long, long way just to reach this point.
With its entire starting lineup back from last season's 19-11 team, Towson was expected to breeze in its final season in the ECC. But then ECC Player of the Year Devin Boyd was lost for the season, breaking his elbow in the opener against Colorado. The Tigers struggled to a 4-11 record, only to turn it around with a 13-2 stretch, including three straight ECC tournament wins culminating with last night's championship.
"At one point we were 4-11, but we stayed positive," coach Terry Truax said. "It's a credit to this team."
Towson (17-13) became the first school in the league's history to "three-peat." The two previous years the Tigers' tournament championship meant trips to the NCAA tournament. But with no bid for the NCAAs this year -- and a trip to the NIT a very long shot, at best -- Towson's season appears to be over.
"You look forward to going to the NCAAs because you watch it on TV every year," said Terrance Alexander, the freshman guard from Dunbar who helped fill in for Boyd and was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. "But I really can't say anything about that, because it's out of my hands."
You can credit Towson's defense with the win, as the Tigers held Hofstra (20-9) to a season-low 25.8 percent from the field (in 12 regular-season games the Flying Dutchmen shot 53 percent from the field). Hofstra's two best players had horrendous games shooting: All-ECC guard Demetrius Dudley hit just three of 21 field goals and scored 13 points, nine below his average. Reserve guard Keith McMillan scored a game-high 19, but hit seven of 16 from the field.
"Everything lacking was on offense. It was horrendous," said Hofstra coach Butch van Breda Kolff. "That's the trouble sometimes with the three-point shot [Hofstra was six of 25]. We had been shooting it well this season. Tonight we didn't."
Towson senior Chuck Lightening had a good shooting night, scoring a game-high 22 points on eight of 13 shooting. It was Lightening, playing in perhaps his final game, who had the big effort for the Tigers. When Hofstra cut a 15-point lead to 54-51 after McMillan scored on a layup with 5:52 left, Lightening scored six straight points -- the last four on jumpers -- to give the Tigers a 60-51 lead with 4:34 left and put the game away.
"It was a nice run we made and they just couldn't counter," said Lightening, who scored 65 points in the three games and was named to the all-tournament team. "This [championship] is what we wanted. It's what I wanted."
Towson got it despite a slow start. It failed to score on its first six possessions and fell behind 9-0. It was shades of Towson's ECC title game against Lehigh in 1988 when Towson fell behind 11-0 at the start -- and spent the rest of the game unsuccessfully trying to catch up.
But a 12-2 run gave Towson its first lead, 12-11, and with 1:50 left in the half the Tigers built the margin to 29-15. Hofstra closed the half with an 8-2 run to go into the half down 31-23.
The Flying Dutchmen were the best-shooting team in the league this season, shooting 49.7 percent. But in the first half Hofstra hit 20.7 percent (six of 29) from the field. Dudley was two of 11 and McMillan was 0-for-4.
"At halftime I was happy," van Breda Kolff said. "It was good news and bad news. The bad news was that we were losing by eight. The good news was we were losing by eight."
The deficit was down to five at the start of the second half, but Terrance Jacobs, the ECC Player of the Year, converted a three-point play and scored five points during an 11-1 run that gave the Tigers their biggest lead, 42-27, with 16:04 left.
But Hofstra, which took a nine-game winning streak into the game,began to slowly chip away at the Towson lead. And after McMillan scored four straight points with 5:52 left, the Flying Dutchmen were within 54-51, the closest the Flying Dutchmen had been since midway through the first half.
But Lightening put the game away. He hit two free throws, and then followed with consecutive jumpers during a personal 6-0 run that gave Towson a 60-51 lead with 4:34 left. He later scored the last four of a 7-0 run that gave Towson a 68-55 lead and put the game away.
"Our defense was good -- we didn't give them easy baskets," said Truax. "The only time we got in trouble was when we didn't execute offensively.
"Chuck Lightening deserves some credit for the way he defended Demetrius Dudley," added Truax.
With the conference tournament season winding down, bids for both the NCAA and NIT tournaments will be handed out this weekend. Although a 17-13 record is not an ideal mark for a team such as a Towson State to have for postseason play, the team has played both Oklahoma and Ohio State tough in first-round NCAA games the past two years. That past history has the players hoping.
"I would like an NIT watch," Lightening said. "But whatever happens happens. If we don't go, I ended my season on a good note. And I'm happy."