As far as the postseason is concerned, this game didn’t matter.
The Binghamton men’s basketball team was going to play No. 3 Stony Brook in the quarterfinals Wednesday night toting the No. 6 seed, and a win or a loss tonight had nothing to do with it. But for the Bearcats (6-25, 5-11 America East), the 76-69 victory over UMBC was important nonetheless.
First of all, the game was senior Jabrille Williams’ last at the Events Center. The 6-foot-6 forward out of Stamford, Connecticut put up six points and pulled down three rebounds in a season-high 14 minutes on Saturday afternoon. The only active senior on the roster, Williams played a unique role on this team, earning the respect of his coaches and teammates through his work ethic and selflessness.
“This day in so many ways was about [Williams],” BU head coach Tommy Dempsey said. “I wanted him to have a day. I wanted him to have a good experience, and I wanted to reward him for how loyal he’s been to me and to Binghamton and how good of a mentor he’s been to our younger players.”
Second, a win right before heading into playoffs is obviously a good thing. A bit of a stride in their step will do the Bearcats some good in their practices prior to bussing it to Long Island, where 2014 AE Player of the Year Jameel Warney and his team await. And taking two of its last three games to end the season — with one of those wins a 57-55 triumph over No. 2 Vermont — seems to mark BU’s progress through this season.
Third, this win displayed the Bearcats’ motto this season: Play hard, whether it’s going well or it’s a struggle. Fortunately for BU, tonight ended up being the former scenario.
Behind their energy and their press, the Bearcats were dominant on defense, especially in the first half. They trapped the Retrievers and made them lose control of the ball, forcing turnovers and stealing possessions. UMBC turned over the ball 10 times in the first 10 minutes and only got off 15 shots in the first period, which amounts to just half of Binghamton’s 30 field-goal attempts in the same time.
Much of that defensive efficacy was fueled by the team’s three most physical defenders — freshman center Bobby Ahearn, sophomore forward Magnus Richards and freshman guard Justin McFadden. Richards alone recorded three steals in those opening 10, and both he and Ahearn pulled down two offensive boards to start things off.
Binghamton’s early 21-8 lead halfway through the period was due to that offensive glass crashing and that energy. The team didn’t shoot well in the first half — only 35 percent from the floor and just 18 percent from 3-point range, from which they went 2 for 11. But with their press in full force, the Bearcats scored nine second-chance points and nine points off turnovers.
“[In the first half,] everything that we got was out of the press,” Dempsey said. “We were struggling from half-court offense, we were struggling against the zone. But we leaned on our press and forced turnovers, and got some easy baskets, and got to the foul line and got to the offensive glass. It was energy more so than it was execution in the first half.”
At the start of the second half, it was clear that wouldn’t work again. Ahearn and Richards had already picked up three fouls, so McFadden had to pick up slack. The 6-foot-5 forward blocked a shot to open the half, but was saddled with his third and fourth fouls over the next minute, sending him to the bench and granting UMBC two three-point plays, which they completed.
Now with their lead cut to just three, 33-30, with 18:22 remaining, the Bearcats could no longer rely so heavily on their defense for production.
“That was a stretch where we were trying to create separation, but then we had the foul trouble,” Dempsey said. “I thought that hurt us. It definitely hurt us on [redshirt junior forward Cody] Joyce, because then we weren’t able to guard Joyce one-on-one without Bobby and Magnus on the floor. We had to start doubling him, and that opened up some jump shots, and they made them.”
Joyce drew both attention and fouls, and the rest of the UMBC squad was left with room to maneuver. Joyce converted 10 of 14 shots from the charity stripe, while sophomore walk-on Ben Grace terrorized BU from the arc, where it was déjà vu all over again. In a mirror image of BU’s 68-56 win from Jan. 28, the 5-foot-10 guard poured in five 3-pointers for 17 points. Going 3 for 3 from deep over a two-minute span, Grace cut the Bearcat lead down to just four, 69-65, with 2:09 on the clock.
Who else but sophomore guard Marlon Beck II would come in and hit a clutch 3 to widen the gap? With 1:24 to go, Beck hit his fourth 3 of the night and gave BU some separation, 72-65. From there, BU survived on trips to the line, posting a final score of 76-69.
BU shot 55 percent from the field in the second half, finished shooting 40 percent from deep overall. Beck and sophomore guard Yosef Yacob combined for six treys in the second period.
Beck finished with 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field, including 4-of-8 from 3-point range. Freshman forward Willie Rodriguez posted a game-high 21 points and almost had a double-double, pulling down nine points. Freshman forward Romello Walker added seven points and nine boards, while McFadden chipped in nine points.
For UMBC, four players scored in double digits. Freshman guard Jourdan Grant led with 19, Joyce put up 18 and aside from Grace’s 17, senior forward Devarick Houston added 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the field and 2-of-3 from deep.
Next up for BU is a trip to Long Island, where the six seeded Bearcats are set to take on No. 3 Stony Brook at 7 p.m. Wednesday.