Coming off one of their best non-conference wins in recent memory at La Salle, it may have been acceptable if the Central Connecticut (CCSU) Blue Devils packed it in after a hard-fought effort. Down five with under two minutes remaining in overtime, it just didn’t seem to be the Blue Devils night. They were shooting 21.7% from behind the arc. They were outrebounded by a significant margin. Their star player was having an off night with 22 points on 24 shots, while shooting a pedestrian 22.2% from three. Joe Efase, who sadly had to bury his sister recently, had a chance to win it in regulation, but he missed an open layup at the horn.
It wasn’t meant to be for the Blue Devils tonight in Catonsville, right?
Not according to Kyle Vinales. The sophomore guard quieted the surprisingly raucous UMBC crowd by scoring CCSU’s final seven points in overtime, including two free-throws with five seconds remaining that put the Blue Devils ahead for good, 83-82. Quite simply, the kid has ice water in his veins.
“Kyle Vinales is a horse,” said the raspy voiced Howie Dickenman after the comeback victory. “He made big plays and big shots. I’m just proud of how the team hung in there. We could have faded and gone away, but we didn’t. We have some tough kids on this team.”
After Chase Plummer hit two free-throws to give the UMBC Retrievers a 81-76 lead in the extra frame, Vinales drilled a long three right in front of the Blue Devils’ bench (he was a step away from sitting in Dickenman’s lap) with 1:24 left to keep his team in the game. After an Aaron Morgan turnover, Vinales again answered with a top of the key jumper that hit nothing but net. Then with the shot clock off and his team down a point, Vinales drew a controversal foul about 45 feet away from the basket. Plummer came up to double Vinales and had pinned the guard near the half-court line when he was charged with a blocking foul. The UMBC crowd (and radio announcer who slammed his fist into the press row table) was irate with the call.
It was a tough way to decide a game that saw 12 ties and 13 lead changes, but in reality, Plummer should have never put himself in that position to begin with.
Overall, it was a solid game plan for CCSU. As they had done against La Salle two days earlier, the defensive focus was to make life very difficult for UMBC’s big men and they surely did that. Preseason All-America East first team selection Plummer and 6’10” St. Bonnie transfer Brett Roseboro were consistently double-teamed in the post all night. The vociferous coverage led to the duo having a combined scoring line of 14 points, 13 rebounds, and seven turnovers on 4-21 shooting.
The UMBC guards kept the Retrievers in the game, as they shot 50.0% from behind the arc in regulation. Early on, they were excellent at using the Blue Devils’ aggressive defensive nature against them, by creating open looks with a bevy of pump fakes and penetration into the lane. In particular, the poise and composure of freshman Aaron Morgan was very impressive, and his two free-throws late had forced the game into overtime to begin with. Senior guard Ryan Cook also played a fantastic game with 20 points and 10 rebounds, and was repsonsible for locking down Vinales for most of the night.
But CCSU overcame UMBC’s hot shooting and inspired guard play to force 19 Retriever turnovers. The Blue Devils received signficant contributions from transfer Matthew Hunter (22 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals) and Malcolm McMillan (10 points, 4 assists, 2 steals, 0 turnovers), who was playing near his hometown of Baltimore. Overall, five Blue Devils scored in double figures.
Five Blue Devils also played over 36 minutes in the game, with four of them playing 40+ minutes in a fast paced environment. Their thin bench is certainly a concern moving forward, especially with freshman Khlaen Cumberlander now out for the season with a knee injury. When asked about his limited rotation, Dickennman was hopeful someone will eventually step up to give his starting lineup a blow every once in a while. Tonight, however, Dickenman felt he wasn’t afforded that luxury.
“We’d like to get more (players) in the rotation if they can perform,” said Dickenman. “We didn’t get much out of either (Terrell Allen or Brandon Peel tonight).”
The win gives these exciting Blue Devils a three game winning streak going into their in-state showdown with the Hartford Hawks on Saturday. CCSU now sits at 3-2, yet they could realistically have won all five of their contests thus far. They lost those two games by a combined total of four points. Looks like these Blue Devils are for real after all.
Ryan Peters covers Northeast Conference men’s basketball for Big Apple Buckets and Pioneer Pride. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride