It wasn't as much the UMBC Retrievers coming down to play to the level of a weaker opponent last night at RAC Arena.
It was more like visiting Quinnipiac was up to the challenge, at least for a while.
The Retrievers, looking to build on a six-game winning streak and move a little closer to second place in the Northeast Conference, had their hands full for most of the night against last-place Quinnipiac.
A 12-3 run that started with 7:38 left is what the Retrievers needed to get the necessary separation, getting past the Braves to make it seven straight with a 94-87 win.
Senior guard Terence Ward scored a game-high 27 points - becoming the fifth player in UMBC history to surpass 1,500 points in a career - as the Retrievers (13-7) improved to 10-4 in conference play and pulled within one game of second-place Monmouth, which was idle at 11-3 and 14-7 overall. St. Francis (N.Y.) - 13-8 overall - leads the conference with a 12-2 mark.
The visiting Braves (4-15) have now lost five straight and eight of nine, but they haven't been going down easy.
Last night was no exception. They stayed basket for basket with the Retrievers, with both teams shooting around 55 percent from the field, until the Retrievers went on the game's first extended run with just under eight minutes left.
"I thought it was going to be a tough game. We're on a little bit of a win streak and they came in here with not much to lose," UMBC coach Tom Sullivan said. "And despite their record, they've been playing a lot of close games, and some of their kids know our kids, so I thought it would be that type of game."
Fouled shooting a three in the corner, Ward hit three straight foul shots to give UMBC a 74-69 advantage that turned into the game's first double-digit lead moments later, with senior forward Kennedy Okafor (22 points) helping inside with a slam and three free throws during the pivotal stretch.
"I think it was an offensive game. We knew in order for us to get a run, we'd need to get some stops," Ward said. "Once we get stops, that allows us to get in the open court and hit some easy baskets. I think in the first half and the beginning of the second half, we weren't doing a good job of getting those stops. So once we did, that allowed us to get some separation."
Trailing 90-79, Quinnipiac scored six straight points to pull within 90-85, before the Retrievers closed it out on the free-throw line - sophomore guard Justin Wilson hit three of four to help preserve the win.
"Coach was talking during the game [that] the stronger team, the team that has the most heart, will come up with that game. Who wants to win it? So, we had to do that tonight," Okafor said.
In the first 20 minutes, there were eight lead changes and six ties - the last coming at 42 apiece when Quinnipiac freshman guard Kason Mims beat the buzzer from half court seconds after freshman Peter Mulligan's slam gave UMBC a 42-39 lead.
"I think when you go into a game like this - not that the kids aren't focused - but they're focused on different things," Sullivan said. "How they're going to score? How they're going to beat them? And then they start to realize, `Wow, we're playing against a team.' A team might not have a good record, [but] I think Quinnipiac has a lot of good weapons. And they're going to sting someone. You just don't want to be that team."
Mulligan finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds for the Retrievers, with Will McClurkin and Wilson both adding 11 points.
QUINNIPIAC-McNeish 1-1 0-0 2, Banjo 0-1 0-0 0, Romano 9-16 3-8 21, Grasso 4-9 2-2 12, Mims 5-7 0-0 13, Fields 1-2 0-0 2, Charles 5-13 5-7 15, Kelly 2-2 0-0 4, Lee 0-0 0-0 0, East 9-11 0-0 18. Totals 36-62 10-17 87.
UMBC-Martin 0-1 2-6 2, Mulligan 8-11 2-5 19, McClurkin 4-8 3-4 11, Wilson 2-5 7-8 11, Ward 9-16 5-5 27, Brooks 0-2 0-0 0, Giddens 1-5 0-0 2, Yates 0-0 0-0 0, Okafor 8-13 6-8 22. Totals 32-61 25-36 94.
Half: 42-42. 3-point goals: Q 5-11 (Mims 3-5, Grass 2-3, Charles 0-3); UMBC 5-14 (Ward 4-9, Mulligan 1-2, Brooks 0-1, Giddens 0-1, Wilson 0-1). Rebounds: Q 34 (East 9); UMBC 30 (Mulligan 10). Assists: Q 25 (Fields 7); UMBC 23 (Mulligan, Wilson 5). Total fouls: Q 26, UMBC 18. Fouled out: Fields, Romano. A: 731.