UMBC lost a home opener for the first time in 10 years last night, but coach Earl Hawkins was hardly discouraged by his team's effort.
The Retrievers played a taller, more seasoned North Texas team even for more than 37 minutes. But with 2:35 left and the score tied at 66, UMBC's 7-foot-2 senior center, Pascal Fleury, was whistled for his fifth foul.
Fleury had grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked nine shots. Without his intimidating presence, the Eagles (3-0) were able to work the ball inside or draw repeated fouls. They scored the next six points and held on to post a 76-72 victory before a crowd of 820 at UMBC Fieldhouse.
"I took a gamble leaving Fleury in with four fouls and we lost," said Hawkins. "But that wasn't the only reason. We made some defensive mistakes and rushed some shots in the last few minutes."
Playing without last year's top scorer, forward Kevin Bellinger, whom the school ruled academically ineligible for the first semester, the Retrievers (0-1) got a big offensive lift from sophomore forward Marc Lay, who scored a career-high 23 points, and freshman guard Matt Skalsky, who made an impressive college debut with 15 points, including four three-point shots.
A three-pointer by Lay with 13 seconds left pulled UMBC within 74-72. The Retrievers then tied up Eagles guard Tom Etchison in backcourt, but the possession arrow allowed North Texas to keep the ball.
Tony Thompson then fouled Etchison with six seconds remaining, and the 6-8 senior guard converted both free throws to end UMBC's home-opener streak.
Blessed with good size in the backcourt and a well-balanced floor game, the Eagles were able to draw repeated fouls, and this proved the major difference. They made 26 of 30 free throws, compared to four of six for the Retrievers.
"They got to the line too much," said Hawkins. "We concentrated on stopping their perimeter shooting, but when Fleury fouled out, they were able to get it inside to Adam Smith [19 points, 15 rebounds]."
Still, Hawkins was encouraged by the season debuts of Lay and Skalsky, who both displayed excellent three-point range.
"Coach Hawkins asked me to step it up offensively and look for my shot more this season," said Lay, who began to blossom late in his freshman season.
But Skalsky, a Michigan All-State choice in basketball and baseball at East Lansing High, could prove to be a major recruiting plum for Hawkins.
"We went to scout one of Matt's teammates his junior year," said Hawkins. "We didn't get that kid, but we really liked what we saw of Matt. And when he broke his wrist his senior year, a lot of other teams that were interested dropped out, and we got
Said Skalsky: "I wasn't really nervous. I got my shooting stroke back a couple of days ago, and my shot just kept falling."
Lay and Skalsky will need to stay on target with a visit to Maryland next Monday.