This year’s America East men’s basketball playoffs represent the last chance for UMBC senior guard K.J. Jackson to make it to the NCAA Tournament before graduating, and the Retrievers’ 72-67 victory against New Hampshire March 7 kept Jackson’s dream alive.
Alas, a sizeable roadblock now stands in the way of Jackson and the rest of his team, but not one they haven’t gotten by before. UMBC will face Vermont in Burlington, Vt., March 10 in the conference semifinals.
The Catamounts are 25-7 overall and rank No. 70 in the nation on KenPom, a college hoops analytics site — easily the best mark in the America East. Vermont boasts two-time America East Player of the Year Anthony Lamb (16.6 points, 7.2 rebounds per game), first-team all-conference performer Stef Smith (14.1 points, 43.6 percent from 3-point range) and Sixth Man of the Year Ryan Davis (9.5 points).
The Retrievers, however, are responsible for one of the Catamounts’ two conference losses on the year. UMBC beat Vermont, 66-64, in Burlington Feb. 22, part of a five-game winning streak that vaulted the Retrievers up the league standings after a 2-6 start to conference play.
But to get another chance to beat Vermont, UMBC first needed to take care of New Hampshire. With the help of Jackson — the lone senior in head coach Ryan Odom’s rotation March 7 — the Retrievers did just that. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Jackson, who was a game-time decision with a quad injury, scored a game-high 20 points on 6-of-12 shooting (and 7-of-8 from the free-throw line).
Jackson, a transfer from Temple College (Texas), wasn’t on the team when the Retrievers won the conference and upset No. 1 overall seed Virginia in the NCAA Tournament in 2018. He termed his desire to win the America East and earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament a “personal drive.”
“You think about all the time you spent in the summer here,” Jackson said. “You think about your teammates and how much they put in work, how many hours your coaches stay up going over game plans and stuff to help [their] guys win, all the fans that come out no matter what our record is or what’s going on with the season — who’s playing and who’s not. It’s just a collective thing that drives you forward and pushes you on top of the fact that it is my senior year.”
Jackson scored a team-high 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting (and 4-of-5 from 3-point range) during the win at Vermont Feb. 22. The Retrievers will need another efficient performance out of Jackson to have a chance to beat the Catamounts again.
And if the win against New Hampshire is any indication, Odom will roll with a tight rotation to try to get the job done. Odom used just seven players March 7: guards L.J. Owens, R.J. Eytle-Rock, Keondre Kennedy and Jackson; forward Brandon Horvath, and centers Daniel Akin and Dimitrije Spasojevic. Odom played a three-guard lineup with Horvath at the four (and Akin and Spasojevic splitting time at center).
In fact, Horvath played all 40 minutes. The 6-foot-10 junior has played all 32 games this season, averaging 10.7 points per contest and shooting 36.5 percent from three.
“I just play hard. I just want to win,” said Horvath, who was a freshman on the 2018 team. “I want to make the NCAA Tournament. I want to experience that again. That’s what drives me, keeps me going.”
Guards fed the post for one-on-one opportunities (Horvath, Akin and Spasojevic combined for 25 points) and drove to the hoop for buckets or trips to the charity stripe (Jackson and Eytle-Rock were 16-of-18 from the line). UMBC scored 38 points in the paint and 21 from the line. That made up for a 2-for-12 performance from 3-point range.
Odom had some success using his big lineup, which includes the 6-foot-6 Kennedy at the three. The sophomore played 24 minutes against New Hampshire, the most he’s played since a loss to UMass Lowell Jan. 4. Kennedy responded with six points and three rebounds, but where Odom was most pleased with him was on the defensive end. Using Kennedy at the three means Odom has athleticism and length three through five.
“Keondre’s athletic, and he’s played well as of late. He’s a good defender,” Odom said. “He had a couple of lapses in there in the game [March 7]. It’s something I’ve already talked to him about and we’ll show him on film. But he really rebounds, he can handle the ball. He’s a versatile player. What I really like about him, too, is that we were switching a lot, and he does a really good job when we switch of guarding post players when they roll down in there. He’s very quick and athletic, so he just moves around.”
Now, UMBC will hope to take its game up another level from what it showed against New Hampshire. On Feb. 22 at Vermont, the Retrievers were 22-of-39 from the floor, 10-of-18 from 3-point range and 12-of-14 from the line — and they’ll surely be looking to pick up where they left off.
The UMBC-Vermont winner will face the Hartford-Stony Brook winner in the America East championship game March 14. That’s a game Jackson hopes to play in.
“I understand that it’s going to be the last one, so it’s a big push and a big motivation for me personally,” Jackson said of his senior year winding down. “But I think everyone on the team, just knowing that we’re capable, we have everything we need right here, it’s looking hopeful for us and we’re proud of that, excited about it.”
Photo Credit: Brian Gonzalez/UMBC Athletics