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Drexel doomed by defensive woes in loss to UMBC

Troy Harper led the Dragons with 22 points.

Troy Harper, shown here against  Loyola (Md.), led the Dragons with 22 points against UMBC.
Troy Harper, shown here against Loyola (Md.), led the Dragons with 22 points against UMBC.Read moreSteven M. Falk / Staff Photographer / Steven M. Falk

Zach Spiker’s immediate assessment of his team’s loss Saturday was hinged on one basic defensive issue: his Drexel players didn’t keep their opponents in front of them, and its opponent, Maryland - Baltimore County, made the Dragons pay.

“They present unique matchups because they do have bigs that can shoot and guards that can get inside and score,” Spiker said.

Once UMBC got Drexel stretched out early in the second half, the Retrievers found lanes to the rim, open shots on the perimeter and took over, eventually topping Drexel, 91-76.

UMBC’s K.J. Jackson, who entered Saturday an 8.5 points-per-game scorer, scored 27 of his career-high 31 points in the second half. Jackson, a junior college transfer playing in his first Division I season, scored seven points during a critical 19-2 run that spanned five minutes and put UMBC in control, with a 76-64 lead and 7:20 on the clock.

“We made him a tough matchup because we weren’t able to keep him in front of us,” Spiker said.

It was Jackson’s teammates -- namely Ricky Council, who finished with 11 points on three made three-pointers and 6-foot-9 forward Max Curran, who opened the second half with consecutive triples -- who helped space the floor for Jackson to find scoring and passing lanes. Jackson hit a pair of threes himself but was most effective off the dribble. He needed just 17 shots (he made 13) to score his 31.

Drexel (5-5) led by eight, 43-35, at halftime after a 15-3 run led by Troy Harper’s buzzer-beating baseline slam. Harper had 17 first-half points, James Butler had nine on a perfect 4-for-4 from the field and Drexel appeared to have the game where it wanted it.

But Curran’s threes to open the second half made it clear UMBC (6-4), the Cinderella story of last year’s NCAA Tournament, wasn’t going to go away.

“Whatever momentum we had was erased pretty quickly,” Spiker said.

Empty possessions and turnovers -- Drexel had 17 on the day -- stunted any ability for the Dragons to keep pace. UMBC, once it got Drexel unglued, shot 69 percent in the second half and 60 percent for the game, including 10-of-23 shooting from beyond the arc.

Harper led Drexel with 22. Trevor John added 14 on four made threes, and Butler finished with 13.

Drexel doesn’t play again until next Sunday, when it travels to Connecticut to play Quinnipiac before taking on UConn on Dec. 18.

“I’d like to play tomorrow,” Spiker said. “I’d like to play right now.

“What’s our message (in a week without games)? We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to defend the basketball better.”