In spite of a lackluster first half of defensive play, the Binghamton men’s basketball team kindled an uphill push in the final frame against UMBC on Tuesday. However, the Retrievers held back the late-game efforts from the Bearcats to hand them a 78-68 defeat in their regular season finale.
“It was a tale of two halves,” said Binghamton head coach Levell Sanders. “I thought in the first half, we didn’t defend. We gave up way too many points … In the second half, we came out and guys were actually able to stop [UMBC]. We were able to go on a run. Once you get stops on the defensive end, we were able to go and score.”
The Bearcats (11-16, 8-10 America East [AE]) started out strong in the first half, going toe-to-toe with the Retrievers (16-13, 11-7 AE) and eventually building a promising six-point lead twice within the first 11 minutes. The Binghamton lead, however, soon began to fade as poor defending from the away side fueled a late first half advance by UMBC to close out the frame with 46 points in contrast to BU’s 37.
“Once you let a player hit a rhythm, it becomes a lot harder to stop them,” Sanders said. “We let [UMBC] get a rhythm in the first half and then that carried on into the second half … We gotta execute better down the stretch. We had a ton of close games this year and we can’t close the games out.”
Binghamton’s offense in the first half was spearheaded by junior forward Ogheneyole Akuwovo who tallied 12 points before halftime. Akuwovo was on the court for less than 10 minutes before being subbed off in the first period and rarely returned to the court in the second.
“[Akuwovo] had two fouls, and we didn’t want him to pick up his third foul in the first half,” Sanders said. “When he came back in in the second half, he immediately gave up a basket on a play that we went over a million times … We took him out of the game, and we put another person in. That group actually was the group that brought us back into the game.”
Down by nine points after the break, Binghamton spent the majority of the second half chipping away the UMBC lead. With just over seven minutes left on the clock, the Bearcats shrunk the Retrievers’ lead down to one point.
Even with BU right on its tail, UMBC never gave up its lead. As soon as Binghamton came within one point of tying the game, the Retrievers knocked down two deep threes. Sophomore guard John McGriff responded with a 3-pointer of his own, but a layup from UMBC marked the beginning of a free throw streak by the hosts. As the Bearcats scrambled to catch up, UMBC put away nine free throws in the final five minutes of play to outpace BU and emerge victorious in its last regular season game.
“We had already put ourselves behind, we already had [UMBC] feeling good from the first half,” Sanders said. “Second half, we almost had to play perfect. We got it down to one, [but] they came out and they hit a three. Then, we missed a layup. They came out and they hit another three. Next thing you know, it goes from one to seven.”
With the defeat to UMBC, Binghamton is locked into the No. 6 seed in the AE playoffs. The Bearcats will play either UNH or Hartford in the No. 3 seed depending on the outcome of Thursday night’s matchup between the Hawks and UMass Lowell.
“If I think back to the preseason where everyone had us projected — we were projected 10th — and right now we’re sitting in the sixth place,” Sanders said. “We should still feel good about ourselves and not feel any pressure about what place we’re gonna be in. What we’ve seen this year with our league is there’s not that much difference between the two seed and the seventh or eighth seed. Everybody can beat anybody on a given day. We gotta remain confident, we gotta remain focused.”
BU’s first playoff game is slated for Sunday, March 6 with the time and location yet to be announced.