If UMBC coach Tom Sullivan was having trouble convincing his players that they could do more than just make an early exit from the Big South Conference tournament, yesterday's game drove home his point.
Junior forward Marc Lay made two free throws with 1.6 seconds remaining, and the Retrievers overcame a horrendous start to upset North Carolina-Asheville, 62-61, before 1,208 at UMBC Fieldhouse.
Lay went to the line after rebounding a miss by freshman Alhamisi Simms, whose two free throws with 37 seconds left had given UMBC a 62-60 lead.
Asheville's Josh Pittman then drove the baseline, scored and was fouled by senior Tony Thompson. Pittman converted the three-point play, and the Bulldogs (16-8, 8-4) looked like they would at least stay tied for first place in the conference with UNC-Greensboro and Charleston Southern.
"Marc Lay dug me out of a hole," said Thompson, who scored 22 points before fouling out.
UMBC (4-19) remains buried in the conference standings at 2-10, but Sullivan wants his team to look beyond those numbers. And maybe now it will be easier for the Retrievers to do so.
"I said it [Friday], and I think some of the kids thought I was being facetious or crazy, but I told them we've got three big games this week, and if we can win them, we're going to be going into our tournament in great shape," Sullivan said. "We're just a hair away from believing in ourselves, and if we do that and play hard all the time, anything can happen."
Even winning a game after falling behind 17-2 and shooting 34 percent from the field, as UMBC did yesterday while ending a four-game slide.
Senior guard Josh Kohn scored 24 points for Asheville, all from VTC beyond the arc. His last shot, from just inside the midcourt stripe, bounced off the glass at the buzzer.
"He took it at the right reference point, going head-on," Sullivan said. "I was a little concerned."
UMBC got a strong effort from freshman center Lenny Barber (Annapolis), who was making only his second collegiate start. He had eight points and seven rebounds in 38 minutes, and gave UMBC a presence inside that has been lacking.
"Lenny is responding very well," Sullivan said. "He's playing a great many minutes and not fatiguing, and he's doing some things that we haven't had done on the inside for a while, which is playing excellent defense and getting us second shots.
"Lenny is young and learning the game, and if Lenny really wants to be a good player, he's got the body. As he gets more and more of a taste of what this is all about, and he decides he likes the taste, he'll be a very good player."
UMBC looked like a bad team at the beginning of yesterday's game, but chipped away at the Bulldogs' lead and went ahead, 29-27, on Lay's three-pointer with 1:17 left before halftime. There were 10 lead changes after that, and for one of the few times this season, the Retrievers didn't wind up on the short end.
Once the outcome became official, UMBC's Kenya Merritt jumped into Barber's arms. Other players hugged and slapped hands.
"I definitely think this is going to be a confidence boost going into the tournament," Thompson said.
! It couldn't hurt.