As the clock ticked down on the UMBC men's basketball team's 65-56 victory against Vermont Feb. 21, one thing became abundantly clear: A second consecutive America East championship for the Retrievers is very much in play.
UMBC has won nine of its last 10 games and sits in second place in the America East at 10-3 with three regular-season games remaining. The Retrievers have won both meetings with first-place Vermont (11-2) this season and have beaten the Catamounts three straight times dating back to last year.
UMBC is pursuing its first America East regular-season title since the 2007-08 season. But more importantly, the Retrievers are well positioned to make a run in the America East tournament, the winner of which earns an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. UMBC has already clinched a home quarterfinal game.
"I wouldn't say we're in a good spot. There's always room for improvement," junior forward Arkel Lamar said after the Retrievers' win Feb. 21. "But obviously as it gets closer to March, we're always excited, obviously. The thought of going dancing is unbelievable. To be able to know that we have a chance at it again, it's amazing."
Though UMBC's calling card this season -- and especially the past 10 games -- has been defense, the Retrievers put it all together during the second half against Vermont Feb. 21 and enjoyed one of their most complete stretches of basketball this season. UMBC, which has struggled offensively for much of the year, outscored the Catamounts, 39-31, in the second stanza.
UMBC gutted through the final 6:21 of the first half without starters Lamar and Joe Sherburne, both of whom were on the bench with two fouls. The Retrievers came out firing in the second half, with junior guard K.J. Jackson setting the tone by pushing the pace and aggressively attacking the basket for high-percentage shots. Lamar, a key contributor on last year's Tournament team, had a steal and breakaway dunk that was a microcosm of UMBC's second-half effort.
Jackson and Lamar combined for 27 points on 15 shots in the second half. The half included 10-2 and 9-1 runs by the Retrievers.
"I could feel everybody's confidence gaining the longer we went," Jackson said. "[Head coach Ryan Odom] was calling some good plays, some timely plays, and we were executing them pretty well. I don't know if it was our best offensive point of the season, but I do think it was good, and I think our defense fed that as well just as much. Stop, score, stop, score -- that's what we practice every day, and I think we did that really well at that point in time."
UMBC is 96th in the country in defensive efficiency as of Feb. 22, according to kenpom.com, a college basketball analytics site. That's the top mark among the nine teams in the America East. The Retrievers held Vermont, the America East's top offense, to 36.2 percent shooting from the field Feb. 21. UMBC has allowed just 58.2 points per game during its past 10 contests.
UMBC began to lock in defensively after a 74-63 loss at UMass Lowell Jan. 12, according to Odom. The Retrievers were 9-9 overall and 1-2 in the league.
"After that game, we were coming back in the film room and it was kind of the same old thing. We'd see some great, tenacious defense and then we'd see what coaches would characterize as just not playing, not giving your best and laziness," Odom said. "We showed that to our guys. We said, 'We can't continue to come back in here and say the same things. We're either going to figure it out and we'll begin to turn it, or we're not and we're just going to be a mediocre team.'"
"The coaches really didn't let us make excuses," Jackson added. "I think we responded to that well -- not making excuses, not giving in, not allowing us to be any less than what we could be."
Now, UMBC can hope its performance against Vermont represents yet another turning point with the Retrievers seeking to morph into a complete team at just the right time. Junior guard Ricky Council II scored nine points off the bench, his fourth straight game of nine or more points. Freshman guard R.J. Eytle-Rock scored 10 points, his fourth double-digit scoring effort in the past six contests.
That kind of balanced scoring will be helpful in the America East tournament next month, but the Retrievers have three games to play before that: at Albany Feb. 23, at Stony Brook Feb. 27 and New Hampshire March 2.
"It comes down March at the end of the year," Odom said. "For us in this particular game, certainly it was a great win, but we've got to kind of move on to the next play now because we play … at a very good Albany team. We played a tight game with them here at home and we were extremely fortunate to come out with a victory. We've got to turn the page."
Photo Credit: Gail Burton/UMBC Athletic Communications