In many ways, the Loyola and UMBC men’s basketball teams have mirrored each other throughout the 2019-20 season.
Loyola is 14-14 overall; UMBC, 13-14. The Greyhounds began Patriot League play 1-8, while the Retrievers started America East play 2-6. Loyola was without top recruits Santi Aldama and Cam Spencer for long stretches — Aldama for its first 22 games and Spencer for a nine-game stretch during conference play. UMBC has been without transfer guard Darnell Rogers for all but seven games and senior wing Arkel Lamar for all but four.
Both teams are now playing their best basketball of the season at the right time. The Greyhounds have won five of six, and the Retrievers have won four straight. How did both teams recover? For Loyola, it was getting Aldama and Spencer in the lineup to form the team that was picked to finish No. 4 in the preseason Patriot League poll. For UMBC, it was settling into a rotation after injuries knocked out two key players early in the season.
Loyola defeated Army, 81-77, Feb. 18 after beating conference-leading Colgate, 84-80, Feb. 16. Five Greyhounds scored in double figures against the Black Knights: senior guard Andrew Kostecka (17), junior guard Isaiah Hart (16), Aldama (13), senior forward KaVaughn Scott (12) and Spencer (11).
It was Spencer and Hart who authored the big plays late for Loyola: a 3-pointer from the wing by Spencer to put the Greyhounds up, 76-75, with 39 seconds left, and a drive by Hart that resulted in two free throws and a 78-77 advantage with 14 seconds left, a lead Loyola didn’t relinquish.
“Guys are playing with good confidence,” Loyola head coach Tavaras Hardy said. “We were in sort of a rhythm with the guys that were playing as we were trying to fight through some of those tough losses, and now we’ve added some pieces and we’re kind of tweaking some things. Guys are redefining their roles and finding their opportunities. Our offense is designed for everybody to get opportunities. It’s up to them to find them and make them.”
The 6-foot-11 Aldama has brought a dynamic the Greyhounds simply didn’t have without him thanks to his ability to protect the rim, rebound and stretch the defense with his outside shot. The well-regarded prospect out of Spain is averaging 12.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists in six games since returning from preseason knee surgery.
The 6-foot-4 Spencer, who starred at Boys’ Latin, is a vital depth piece for Hardy. Spencer is averaging 9.3 points and 3.2 assists in his 19 games (seven starts) — and is shooting 40.6 percent from 3-point range. Loyola went 1-8 when Spencer was out with a hip injury.
Though the Greyhounds are still missing senior guard Chuck Champion and freshman guard Garren Davis due to injury, the team is now close to being what Patriot League observers imagined last fall.
“With all the guys back,” Hart said, “it feels like we’re whole again.”
That’s good news for Kostecka, the Germantown, Md., native and do-it-all guard for the Greyhounds. A first-team All-Patriot League performer last year, Kostecka may very well be on his way to the same honor; he’s averaging 20.7 points on 51.2 percent shooting along with 5.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists.
But a deeper rotation means Loyola doesn’t have to lean on Kostecka quite as much as it did in the past to create plays on his own.
“Guys are banging shots,” Kostecka said. “I can do what I do better, and I don’t have to try to take over as much, which causes me to turn the ball over more and stuff like that. I can just trust my teammates and hopefully see a win every single time.”
Though Loyola has played like one of the better teams in the Patriot League of late, the Greyhounds are still just eighth in the 10-team Patriot League at 6-9, making it likely that they’ll have to hit the road for the first round of the conference tournament in early March.
Meanwhile, UMBC’s four-game winning streak has placed the Retrievers fifth in the nine-team America East at 6-6, giving UMBC a realistic shot to host a first-round conference tournament game. The top eight teams in the conference make the tournament, with the top four teams hosting a first-round matchup. Hartford sits in fourth at 7-6, but UMBC holds the tiebreaker by virtue of a season sweep against Hartford.
The Retrievers beat UAlbany, 69-50, Feb. 20 for their fourth straight win (and first win at UAlbany since 2009). UMBC has settled into a productive eight-man rotation of late. Senior K.J. Jackson and sophomores R.J. Eytle-Rock and L.J. Owens typically form the starting backcourt, with juniors Brandon Horvath and Daniel Akin occupying forward and center spots, respectively. Senior guard Ricky Council II, sophomore guard Keondre Kennedy and junior center Dimitrije Spasojevic come off the bench.
UMBC settled into that rotation in early January, but it took time for the squad to gel.
“I think it just allows us to become more connected as time goes on because we had a lot of injuries to start the year,” Eytle-Rock said earlier this month of the continuity. “But now, we know who’s kind of starting and who’s coming in when. Our bench is just as good. In practice, both teams go back and forth. I’m confident in all our guys.”
Jackson and Eytle-Rock share the bulk of the ball-handling responsibilities, with the athletic Jackson serving as a slasher who can get to the line and Eytle-Rock offering more in the way of outside shooting (40.4 percent from 3-point range). During the Retrievers’ four-game winning streak, Jackson has led the team in scoring three times and Eytle-Rock has scored in double figures in all four.
Horvath, who is averaging 10.1 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds, has been solid all year. The 6-foot-10 forward is shooting 38.6 percent from 3-point range, too, offering his usual blend of length and skill. The Retrievers are also getting some scoring punch off the bench with Spasojevic, a traditional back-to-the-basket big man who scored 16 points Feb. 20.
“They’re beginning to get a little more connected with one another,” UMBC head coach Ryan Odom said. “There’s a reason why we [hadn’t] played particularly well, at least early in the conference season. No excuses, but they hadn’t had a lot of time together. I think now we kind of know who we’re playing, and they’re a little more comfortable out there.”
America East-leading Vermont looms Feb. 22, a big test on a quick turnaround. Next month, the Catamounts (21-6, 11-1) will be aiming to represent the America East in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years.
Towson lost to William & Mary, 61-51, in a key Colonial Athletic Association battle Feb. 20. The Tigers fell to fifth in the conference at 9-6, while the Tribe finished the night alone in second at 11-5. Hofstra leads the conference at 12-3.
Towson shot 17-for-62 (27.4 percent) from the field for the night, its second-worst shooting night ever at SECU Arena. The Tigers’ top big men — seniors Nakye Sanders and Dennis Tunstall — got in foul trouble early, and starting guards Brian Fobbs, Allen Betrand and Jason Gibson combined to shoot 9-for-36.
Towson head coach Pat Skerry was left to lament his team’s offensive execution, saying “the ball stuck, especially in the latter part of the first half.”
“It’s obviously hard to win a ballgame against a good team when you shoot the ball that poorly from the field,” Skerry said. “We obviously didn’t get the message across during the week that [William & Mary was] going to be loaded in the lane and that we’re going to need to hit rolls, kick to the corners, throw it to the post, go cut, play off that.”
Towson hosts Elon Feb. 22 in its last home game of the year. The CAA tournament begins in Washington, D.C., March 7. Skerry is hopeful redshirt junior forward Juwan Gray (7.3 points, 4.3 rebounds per game off the bench) will be available in D.C. after breaking his hand in a loss at Delaware Feb. 6.
Photo Credits: Larry French/Loyola Athletic Communications and Gail Burton/UMBC Athletic Communications