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Retrievers basketball faces tough road to America East crown

With the 2016-17 regular season complete, eight America East teams vie for bragging rights and a spot in the NCAA tournament in the America East playoffs. The UMBC men’s basketball team earned their highest seeding in eight years. However, a rocky February caused them to lose a coveted home court tournament game. Now, the Retrievers face an uphill battle in the tournament.

The Retirevers are seeded fifth in the playoffs, their highest since 2009. The reward is not as fortuitous, as they face the same team they lost to in double overtime in the season finale, the University of New Hampshire Wildcats. Should they get through that tough test, the Retrievers then await the winner of the Univerity of Maine/University of Vermont matchup.

The other half of the bracket features the second-seeded Stony Brook University against the seventh-seeded Binghamton University. The winner faces either Albany or Hartford in the semifinals. The quarterfinals begin March 1 at 7 p.m. All games will be televised on ESPN3.

The Retrievers have the path of greatest resistance for winning the tournament. The Wildcats have one of the fiercest defenses in the country. As of Sunday, they rank 53rd out of 351 Division I schools in points allowed per 100 possessions. New Hampshire also neutralizes the Retrievers best asset on offense, three point shooting. The Wildcats rank 43rd in the nation in opponents three point field goal percentage.

In the loss to New Hampshire on Sunday, the Retrievers shot a ghastly 20 percent from long distance. They shot just as poorly overall (40 percent) and failed to take advantage of their own stellar defense. A home victory on Jan. 28th, also in double overtime should give Retriever fans reason for optimism. In that game, the Retrievers bench outscored New Hampshire’s by a 49-5 margin (yes, you read that correctly). Junior guard Jairus Lyles also played a big role, scoring 28 points and nabbing eight rebounds.

Assuming they get through the Wildcats, a date with the Catamounts most likely awaits. Vermont completed a perfect conference season and possess possibly the deepest roster in the conference. Nine Vermont players average at least 4.3 points per game, while no one scores more than 11.9. Vermont’s per 100 possessions numbers on offense and defense (40th and 38th respectively) further reflect that balance. The Cats also operate at a molasses-slow pace (323rd in the country), reminiscent of the University of Virginia.

Although Vermont swept the season series, the Retrievers kept both games close. UMBC got as close as two points with 1:29 left in regulation before Vermont pulled away in the first meeting. On Feb. 12,  the Cats escaped Baltimore with a three point victory. In both losses, the Retrievers struggled to control the glass and handle the Cats’ depth.

In the last three games, UMBC has outscored their opponents off the bench and outrebounded them. That is a step in the right direction with two arduous challenges possibly on the horizon. The America East playoffs seconds as a series of tests to see how far the Retrievers need to go to place themselves in the upper echelon of the conference. The first test comes March 1 in New Hampshire at 7:30 p.m.