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.