BALTIMORE — Jairus Lyles stood on the left block in front of Vermont’s bench and signaled the rest of his four teammates over after forward Daniel Akin committed a blocking foul in the interior, who did his all to suppress the crafty big-men of Payton Henson and Drew Urquhart.
The Catamounts entered Saturday’s game at UMBC with the 25th most efficient offense in the country, receiving the bulk of those points either in the paint or from 3-point-land. So, when the Retrievers cut a double-digit deficit into six with roughly 14 minutes to go and Vermont continuing to press ahead with its bread and butter, Lyles called for a brief conference on the floor, perhaps offering insight with hopes of slowing down the opposition.
But from the there, Vermont plowed forward, and no matter what UMBC tried, the Catamounts persisted with haymakers and go-to looks, eventually pulling away from the Retrievers in their inaugural event at the brand new Event Center for a 81-53 win in front of a sellout crowd.
Urquhart and Henson combined for 34 points on 14-for-19 shooting, powering a unit that produced 36 points in the paint. For the game, Vermont (19-5, 9-0 America East) shot a cool 65.9 percent from the floor (29-for-44), including 47.1 percent from deep (8-for-17). Trae Bell-Haynes, the reigning America East conference Player of the Year, added 16 points for Catamounts, who held UMBC (16-9, 7-3) to 36 percent overall (18-for-50).
“They scored against the zone and scored against the man in our interior. It was all inside. They made an assertive effort to go in there, and we just didn’t have an answer,” UMBC coach Ryan Odom said. “We have to get better there.”
Vermont entered Saturday’s contest the 13th-ranked Mid-Major team nationally by collegeinsider.com, and projected as a 13-seed in the NCAA Tournament in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology.
Lyles scored 16 of his 27 points in the first half, and penetrated gaps for first two buckets in the new arena. From that point, Vermont rattled off a 15-0 run to take a 15-4 lead at the 14:26 mark, as the Retrievers stumbled through a 4:21 scoring drought.
Sparked by Lyles’ four-point play, UMBC responded with an 11-0 run to get back into the contest that pitted the top two teams in the America East at 15-15.
“We’re very thankful to be able to call this home now. In regards to the game, I thought our guys showed some resiliency at the beginning,” Odom said. “Obviously, it’s a big event. A lot to digest. We got started off OK. [Lyles] scored a couple baskets, got us going. Then, like all good teams do, Vermont punched.”
Lyles put the Retrievers ahead 19-17 not long after with a pair of free throws, but the Catamounts popped off a 6-0 burst behind layups from Urquhart and Henson to go up 23-21.
Urquhart then hit a 3-ball in the corner, which was apart of a 7-0 run that gave Vermont a 30-23 lead with 3:32 until the break. Lyles answered with a tough pull-up jumper and Maura (13 points) canned a 3 in the corner after stealing an inbounds pass, drawing UMBC within 30-28 with under two minutes left in the first half. But that was the closest UMBC got, which faced a 39-32 deficit at the half that quickly ballooned as the second half wore on.
With 1.5 seconds left in the first half, UMBC had an opportunity to draw within five, inbounding the ball underneath its own basket. A five-second call negated the chance at stimulating just a little momentum, even if it wouldn’t have put a dent in the outcome.
“You don’t want to go into halftime upset, and unfortunately we did,” Odom said.
UMBC mustered just 13 points over the final 14:41, watching a reachable eight-point deficit snowball into a 28-point rout in the midst of Vermont’s well-oiled offensive attack.
“They were tougher than us down low,” Lyles said. “It starts with us guards. They played tougher than us in the second half … and we never really quite responded.”
UMBC remains second in the conference, now 2.5 games behind Vermont from the top spot. The Retrievers look to get back on track at struggling Binghamton on Thursday, which is 1-9 in conference play.
“I like my team. I love my team. I’ve reminded them just now, you’ve lost three games in the conference. Two to Vermont, one to Albany, who is also very good,” Odom said. “We have a good squad. We can’t let Vermont beat us twice. We have to get back to work on Monday, fix the things that are ailing us right now. We have to finish the conference the right way. We’re in good position. We have to keep fighting and doing what we go. And our guys will do that. We have great kids in that locker room.”