The UMBC men's basketball team was protecting a two-point lead with less than a minute remaining in the second overtime of the America East semifinal matchup against Hartford March 12, and by that point, four Retrievers had played more than 40 minutes.
One of them was junior point guard K.J. Jackson, who played 45 minutes on the night. With the score 87-85 in favor of UMBC, Jackson blocked a jumper by Hawks guard D.J. Mitchell that would've knotted the score. Jackson retrieved the ball, was fouled and sank two free throws to ice the game away. Jackson also swatted away Hartford guard J.R. Lynch's last-gasp shot at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime.
"When you get into situations like that … it was easy to be tired, think that you're tired," Jackson said of his game-clinching block. "But when you just look around at all the work that everyone's put in throughout the year from being here in the summer and going through practices to losing games, winning games, gaining momentum, losing it and everybody else that was in the crowd just yelling and screaming and giving it their all, it's not the time to think about what you are."
Jackson is no small reason why UMBC has a chance to play for its second consecutive America East title at Vermont March 16. The Retrievers lost program legends Jairus Lyles and K.J. Maura after last season, leaving two gaping holes in the backcourt. Jackson and freshmen Jose Placer and R.J. Eytle-Rock have filled those minutes.
Jackson, a native of Houston, spent the previous two seasons at Temple College (Texas), where he became the leading scorer in program history. This year, his 12.8 points per game rank second on the Retrievers behind graduate guard Joe Sherburne. The 6-foot-2 Jackson is an explosive athlete who can get into the paint and collapse the defense with ease.
But where Jackson stands out most is on the defensive end, where his athleticism and desire allows him to hound lead guards for the opposition; he's averaging an America East-leading 2.2 steals per game. His defensive aptitude was necessary to close out Hartford, which stormed back from a 26-point deficit to briefly take the lead late in regulation and force overtime in what turned into a wild game.
"I knew we had a chance to be in these positions, win games, get a chance to play for a championship and go back to the [NCAA] Tournament," Jackson said, "so yeah, that was definitely the basketball aspect of why I came here -- to be in these moments and be in these situations."
But heading into the America East playoffs, it looked like the Retrievers might be trending in the wrong direction. After winning nine out of 10 and beating Vermont Feb. 21, UMBC lost its next two games and fell behind New Hampshire, which won five games all year, by 18 points in the final game of the regular season March 2.
The Retrievers were down, 48-30, with a little more than 11 minutes to go in regulation but outscored the Wildcats, 26-5, the rest of the way. Jackson scored just four points during that second half, but he played all 20 minutes and gave his team an emotional lift.
"K.J. gave a fiery speech at one point, and right after that we picked it up and started coming back," Sherburne said. "Just about guarding your man and not letting him go by and play harder, basically."
But for Jackson, a second-team All-America East selection and member of the conference's All-Defensive team, the next task is the biggest one. Vermont boasts two guards -- Ernie Duncan and Stef Smith -- who average double-digit points. The Retrievers held the Catamounts to 61 and 56 points during their previous two meetings, and UMBC will need a similar defensive performance led by Jackson to prevail once more.
"He's an amazing athlete and he's a great leader," Retrievers head coach Ryan Odom said of Jackson, "and certainly we're fortunate to have him here."
Sherburne's Career Continues
The career of Sherburne, one of the top players in UMBC history, was in danger of coming to an end against Hartford, but he'll have a chance to make it two straight years with trips to the NCAA Tournament. Sherburne, who's averaging a team-high 14.1 points and shooting 38.9 percent from three, was a first-team All-America East selection and recently moved into second place in program history in 3-point field goals.
Sherburne said March 2 that he had "a foot and a half out the door" after the Retrievers finished 7-25 in 2015-16 but wanted to stay after Odom was hired. UMBC has gone 67-36 since. Losing after blowing a 26-point lead was not the way Sherburne wanted it all to end.
"I wanted to be happy after the game was over and then I just came into the locker room and put my head in my hands because this would have been the absolute worst way to go out, and I knew that," Sherburne said. "The whole time the game was going on, I was thinking, 'This cannot be the way my career ends.' It all just hit me right after the game."
The Retrievers beat the Catamounts Jan. 23 and Feb. 21, but Vermont didn't have its best player -- Anthony Lamb, the America East Player of the Year -- in the first matchup. Lamb, a 6-foot-6, 227-pound forward, is averaging 21.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. The Catamounts are 26-6 overall and ranked 83rd nationally on kenpom.com, a college hoops analytics site.
The America East championship game at Vermont will be televised on ESPN2 and tip at 11 a.m. March 16.
"The previous two games, even though we won those games, it doesn't matter," Odom said. "Lamb didn't play in one of them. He did play in the next one. They're playing good basketball right now. We're honored to be on the same court with them. They've been great representatives of our conference for years. We're excited that we're able to compete for a championship."
Photo Credit: Gail Burton