Towson’s story was neatly summarized on the black T-shirts players wore during warm-ups. “Started from the bottom,” the shirts said in block lettering, along with “1-31,” the team’s record two seasons ago.
Left unsaid was that this moment — the second-seeded Tigers’ opening game in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament Saturday night at Baltimore Arena — offered the promise of the next significant step in their ascent.
Towson hadn’t won a CAA tournament game in four years until it wore down foul-riddled James Madison and prevailed, 80-71, behind 18 points by two-time CAA Player of the Year Jerrelle Benimon and four 3-pointers and 21 points by sophomore guard Four McGlynn.
The Tigers shot a school-record 61 free throws, making 39 (63.9 percent). Towson led the CAA this season in free-throw attempts with 853. “We guarded [Saturday] and we got to the foul line, which are two things we do,” Tigers coach Pat Skerry said.
But Skerry said he never has coached a team that shot as many as 61 free throws. The attempts and the 39 conversions were tournament records.
The arrival of the CAA tournament, making its first appearance in Baltimore, seemed to come at a fortuitous time for the Tigers.
Winners of six straight games entering the tournament, Towson (23-9) was playing in front of a supportive crowd. Fans might have forgotten how noisy the arena, which until Saturday hadn’t hosted postseason college basketball since 1995, can be. The decibel level belied the size of the middling crowd, an announced 4,897 for the night session.
“We had a great turnout,” McGlynn said. “I guess I kind of fed off the atmosphere.”
Towson had defeated James Madison twice during the regular season. But Skerry was determined in recent days not to have his team be distracted by the big picture — the chance for their first NCAA tournament berth since 1991 — and overlook the Dukes (11-20).
“I thought the kids handled it incredibly, probably a lot better than I did,” Skerry said. “I’m really happy for our kids — 23 wins. We’re alive. We’re in the semifinals. I’m pretty pumped up.”
The Tigers were ineligible for last season’s tournament because of a subpar Academic Progress Rate score, which measures whether a satisfactory percentage of scholarship athletes graduate.
Seemingly whenever the seventh-seeded Dukes crept close to Towson on Saturday, McGlynn would hit a 3. He also was 9-for-10 from the foul line.
“He’s a deadly weapon from the free-throw line,” Skerry said.
After trailing by as many 13 points, James Madison cut the deficit to 61-55 on two free throws by forward Andrey Semenov.
But Towson forward Marcus Damas converted a drive to the basket while being fouled, and his bonus free throw restored the margin to 64-55.
The Dukes got as close as 70-64 with just over a minute left, but the Tigers, starting four seniors, sealed the game at the free-throw line.
Towson entered as the leading rebounding team in the CAA, and the Tigers seemed to wear down James Madison’s frontcourt. Two starting Dukes forwards — Semenov and freshman Tom Vodanovich — plus reserve forward Paulius Satkus and guard Andre Nation (team-high 18 points) fouled out. The whistles never seemed to stop blowing during the game.
Towson will next play third-seeded William & Mary, which on Saturday beat sixth-seeded College of Charleston, in its semifinal at 5 p.m. today. In the other semifinal, top-seeded Delaware will face fifth-seeded Northeastern at 2:30 p.m.
The Dukes trailed 34-27 at the half. James Madison collected six offensive rebounds in the first half to Towson’s zero, but foul trouble began to limit the Dukes as the game progressed.
Semenov, their only senior starter, went to the bench with four fouls early in the second half. He was assessed a flagrant foul, for an elbow that left Damas on the floor, with 17:33 left in the game.
Vodanovich fouled out with 12:37 left, and forward Taylor Bessick picked up his fourth foul five minutes into the half.
James Madison coach Matt Brady said the officials had the difficult, “if not impossible,” task of calling a game in which a team — the Tigers — repeatedly drove the ball to the basket.
“I think the officiating was fine,” Brady said.