Banner Up, Beacons Down

Ben Whelan

The emotional high of receiving their rings and raising last year’s championship banner was not enough to drive UMass-Boston past conference rival Eastern Connecticut State University as the Beacons fell to the Warriors Tuesday night at the Clark Center, 60-57.

Coach Charlie Titus began the game by starting a big lineup, putting three forwards on the floor in 6’5″ Mark Doran as well as Rodney Bennet and Eli Manna, both of whom are 6’8″, in order to take advantage of the lack of size on the ECSU team. This strategy proved to be only moderately effective and ECSU was able to make up for it’s lack of size with the spot-on perimeter shooting of freshman Edwin Ortiz (4-7 3pt, 20 points in the first half) and a methodical half court offense. Coach Titus admitted after the game that he was somewhat surprised at ECSU’s ability to defend against the mountainous Beacon’s front line, and by the 13:44 mark had gone to a more standard lineup by inserting second leading scorer Amigo Paniagua, who did not start the game (18ppg). However, even with the addition of Paniagua the Beacons were held hostage for much of the first half by ECSU’s ball-control down-tempo offense, which limited the Beacons possessions on offense and prevented scoring machine Tony Barros (15pts) from settling in. When the Beacon’s did have the ball, they relied mainly on isolation and one-on-one play and seemed to force shots at times. The home team was able to stay in the game by scoring mostly in transition and at times taking advantage of the size advantages in the post and banging inside, but while the Beacons have size up front they do not yet have the polish and experience to fully exploit their advantage in the post.

When asked why Paniagua was so late in entering the game, Coach Titus said that the team is still looking to find its identity and that the coaching staff is still trying out different combinations of players to see what works. To underscore his commitment to this process, Coach Titus pointed to a recent game in which Barros, last years LEC player of the year, did not start and did not in fact play until a good ways into the game.

The Beacons came out of the locker room to start the first half down 34-25 and began the second half in disheartening fashion with Barros missing a free throw and then committing a frustration foul. Things quickly turned around however as the Beacons began running a slower, more deliberate half-court offense and matched ECSU possession for possession. The major change for the Beacons in the second half was a fierce level of defensive intensity led by Barros, who seemed to be everywhere at once deflecting balls and filling passing lanes. The other major difference was the absence of ECSU sharpshooter Ortiz, who was shut down in the second half by a defensive switch from a zone set up to man-to-man that took away the open perimeter looks that Ortiz had taken advantage of in the first half. Two penetrating lay-ups by point guard A.J. Titus and a thunderous block by Eli Manna, followed by the big man running the length of the floor to convert a putback, put the Beacons back within striking distance and helped to close the gap significantly with 5:36 on the clock. With all of the estimated three-hundred in attendance on their feet willing the Beacons to victory, Barros was fouled shooting a three pointer, which he made, and then converted the four-point-play to tie the score with 4:50 remaining. Over the course of the next two minutes the Beacons played a frenzied pace on both ends of the floor, once again led by Barros who energized by his game-tying bucket registered a rebound, assist, and big steal at the 2:18 mark. Two free throws by Paniagua on the following possession gave the Beacons their biggest lead of the game, but a free throw and one final three-point dagger from Ortiz re-tied the game with 1:24 left and UMB never led again. A key block by Mark Doran gave the Beacons the ball back with 15 seconds left and trailing by two, but coming out of the ensuing time out point guard A.J. Titus made his first mistake of the game and committed a traveling violation in the face of intense pressure from ECSU to seal the loss.

After the game both Barros and Coach Titus were quite clear on the main factor that led to the loss. “In a game this close, you can’t miss [13] free throws and expect to win.” Added Barros “It was a tough game. We lost by two and missed [13] free throws. It’s always hard to lose a conference game, but we just got to go out there and get the next one.” After a gritty performance like this one, and Barros emerging from what he calls “a little bit of a slump” in his shooting, there is very little doubt that they will.