On Saturday, the Tigers worked about as hard as a team can work. They outrebounded the Patriots, 45-34 — 23 of those rebounds on the offensive end. They cut a 17-point halftime margin to 63-58 with 1 minute 55 seconds to play and had Eric Gumbs, their only returning player from last season, on the free throw line with a chance to cut the lead to three.
“I looked at the scoreboard and thought, maybe there’s a chance,” said Robert Nwankwo, Towson’s only senior starter. “It’s coach’s birthday and we wanted to give him a birthday win.”
His voice trailed off because there was no birthday win for Towson Coach Pat Skerry, who would gladly take a victory right now on anyone’s birthday. Gumbs missed the front end of the one-and-one and 20 seconds later, Sherrod Wright hit a three-pointer to extend Mason’s lead to 66-58. The rest was academic, the Patriots escaping with a 72-60 win to drop Towson’s record to 0-20, meaning their record-setting Division I losing streak dating to last season is now at 39.
“I kind of knew it was going to be a tough year when we barely beat one of the Division II teams we played preseason and lost to the other one — which now has a 2-14 record,” Skerry said, forcing a smile. “We’ve gotten a lot better since Christmas but now that we’re in league play we’re playing better teams. We’ve got no margin for error. We’ve got to do everything right for 40 minutes. Today, we came close but you know the old saying about horseshoes and hand grenades.”
This was a game that almost exploded in Mason’s face. Coach Paul Hewitt sensed it was going to be a long day on his team’s first possession, when Andre Cornelius zigged when he should have zagged and led to a badly forced shot.
“First play,” Hewitt said, able to laugh after the equivalent of a two hour trip to the dentist. “We ran a basic offensive set against the zone and we messed it up. We’d been playing so well before today and then everything seemed hard. Mike [Morrison] who has been so good lately about being focused and not getting distracted was distracted all day.
“Still a lot of it was the way they played. They’re still working hard. That’s impressive.”
Skerry, who turned 42 on Saturday, is a bundle of enthusiasm and intensity who has spent most of his career at smaller schools and came to Towson knowing this season was going to be difficult. He also came knowing that he had a six-year contract and that a much-needed new arena would be opening prior to the 2013-2014 season.
The Tigers have two transfers from Big East schools sitting out right now and may get two more this spring. They have also signed a guard from Northern Virginia who Hewitt has seen play and says will improve Towson’s ballhandling skills from day one.
“It’s all there for us,” Skerry said. “Within a three-hour drive of Baltimore north or south we’ve got some of the best high school players in the country so getting players should not be a problem. We’ll be better, a lot better, I’m a big guy, I’ve got a good contract. I can deal with this. I feel for the players though because they really have stuck with it.”
Nwankwo may be the best example of that. He came to Towson as a walk-on and then sat out last season because of academic issues. Now he’s back on track academically and has become the team’s leader in large part because the mantle has fallen on him. Nwankwo knows he isn’t going to be part of the turnaround but he has still managed to say positive throughout the long winter.
“I know I have to keep playing hard and working hard because the younger guys are looking at me every day,” he said after scoring 14 points and pulling down 13 rebounds Saturday. “If my attitude is bad then their attitude might be bad. Coach talks about two things all the time: guarding and grinding. As long as we keep doing that, something good is going to happen to us. The season’s not over. We’ve still got games to play.
Towson has had a couple of chances to end The Streak. It lost 62-58 to UMBC, shooting 8 of 25 from the free throw line. A few nights later, the Tigers were 9 of 24 from the line against Coppin State before losing, 71-57. Saturday they were 11 of 21. They rank in the bottom five in the country in both field goal percentage and free throw percentage. That will get you beat most nights — or, in this case, every night.
There will be at least 12 more chances to end the streak. There are teams that would want only to see the season end after 20 straight losses. Towson does not appear to be one of those teams.
“They can’t see it but I can,” Hewitt said. “They’re getting better and there’s going to come a time when it will click in before this season’s over. My second year at Georgia Tech we started out 0-7 in the ACC. Every week I would get on the [ACC] conference call and say, ‘We’re practicing well, we’re working hard,’ to the point where the reporters were sick of hearing it.
“We lost two games the rest of the way — at Duke and at Maryland, which won the national championship. We won on a buzzer-beater at Virginia, and after the game [former U-Va. Coach] Terry Holland came on our bus to say what we’d done was one of the most remarkable things he’d seen in basketball. That was a proud moment. I really believe Towson will have a moment like that.”
In “Groundhog Day,” the moment of escape for Phil Connors (Murray) comes when he wakes up in the morning and doesn’t hear “I Got You Babe” on the radio. The next chance to end what Skerry calls the “so-called streak,” comes for Towson at Delaware on Monday.
Maybe that will be the day Towson finally wakes up and finds that it is tomorrow. It happened for Phil Connors. It can happen for the Tigers.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.