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Men’s basketball finding groove at the right time

The Binghamton men’s basketball team gutted out a 72-70 win at UMBC on Saturday night, fending off a valiant 18-point comeback with just enough poise and execution to survive down the stretch.

Just three weeks ago, the pressure — both of the late-game situation and that applied by UMBC’s defense — might have overwhelmed Binghamton (7-20, 4-10 America East).

The Bearcats played six games between Jan. 20 and Feb. 4. They either trailed by one possession or held a lead with less than one minute remaining in four of those games. They won none of them.

But with the win at UMBC (9-19, 5-10 AE), Binghamton has taken three of four contests since falling to Stony Brook, 58-53, on Feb. 4. BU head coach Tommy Dempsey said the recent string of success helped his team’s confidence down the stretch of Saturday’s game.

“When you don’t have any wins to draw from,” Dempsey said, “we would have had that feeling, ‘Oh, god, we’re going to lose another one.’”

But now the Bearcats have won seven regular-season games for the first time since 2010-11. Dempsey has valued solid performances over wins this year as he and the coaching staff have worked on developing a young team, but recent success has validated the group’s growth.

“We’re 7-20, so that’s not necessarily where we want to be, but we’re in a totally different mindset,” Dempsey said. “We believe in our process. We believe in each other. We believe in what we’re doing, and the little stretch that we’re on where we’ve won three of four games — that helps. That helps to get everybody believing in each other.”

Winning breeds winning, essentially. And in college basketball, a hot streak at this time of year can provide at least a glimmer of hope for an NCAA tournament berth — even for a sub-.500 team like Binghamton.

Dempsey laughed at the idea of booking a mid-March flight for Dayton, the site of the NCAA tournament’s opening round, but he said the winning streak has galvanized his team as it approaches the America East tournament.

“Now I feel like every night we take the court we feel like we have a chance to win, and I think that’s a much different feeling in the program than there was a year ago,” Dempsey said. “Not like we have that many wins or it’s a bright sunny day, but there’s a difference in practice and there’s a difference on game day when the expectation’s winning.”

That said, no team wants to face Vermont in the conference tournament. The Catamounts (19-9, 13-1 AE), who will visit the Events Center on March 2 for the regular-season finale, have beaten conference opponents by an average of 22 points this season.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone dominate a league like that,” Dempsey said.

The Catamounts are poised to secure the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament, meaning they’ll face the No. 8 seed. That’s currently Maine, which trails the Bearcats by one game. There’s still a chance Binghamton would face Vermont in the quarterfinals.

The Bearcats currently reside in seventh place. They would hold the No. 6 seed if the season ended today because of fifth-place UMass Lowell’s postseason ineligibility. A win over Hartford on Thursday could go a long way toward Binghamton retaining that seed and avoiding Vermont and Stony Brook (20-8, 12-2 AE) in the quarterfinals.

“When we go out on Thursday … we will expect to win,” Dempsey said. “We might not win, but we will expect to win, and that’s a big step as you’re changing everything.”