Tournament loss typical of difficult UMBC season

March 06, 1994|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Staff Writer

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The 1993-94 basketball season will be remembered at UMBC as the year that chaos ruled, when injuries, academic problems and bum luck conspired to turn a promising season into a year of long losing streaks and failed expectations.

Through it all, the Retrievers did what coaches beg of their teams. They played hard while stumbling to a 6-21 finish, the school's worst in eight years and poorest in six seasons under coach Earl Hawkins. Their season ended with an 81-78 loss to Radford on Friday night in the quarterfinals of the Big South Conference tournament.

UMBC's performance provided the ideal summary of a maddening season. The school, wishing to save money, decided to put the team on a bus instead of an airplane to Charleston. When the bus broke down for eight hours in Fredericksburg, Va., a 10-hour trip turned into 18 hours.

So here came the weary Retrievers -- off a short night's sleep and without senior point guard Spencer Ferguson (sprained ankle) -- to face third-seeded Radford. Here came the Retrievers, who had dropped nine of their previous 10 games and 12 of 13 road contests, to scare the daylights out of Radford. UMBC led early, came back to lead at halftime and led by a basket with under seven minutes left, before fading late. It was a bittersweet way to end a season.

"More bitter than sweet," said Hawkins in a post-game whisper at courtside, arms folded, eyes downward, head shaking. "We could have had this one."

Hawkins might have been talking about the whole season. The Retrievers finally seemed to have the necessary combination of size, speed and talent to reverse four consecutive losing seasons. They were picked in a preseason poll to finish third in the conference. Before the season, Hawkins was awarded a two-year contract extension.

"I thought this team could be very good, the best team we've ever had," Hawkins said.

Fate started interfering early. A week before preseason practice began, junior Pascal Fleury, a 7-foot-2 transfer from Georgetown, broke his wrist and slashed his elbow in a fall during a pickup game. He missed most of November's practices.

A week into practice, sophomore forward Damon Tweedy announced he was leaving the team temporarily to catch up on his pre-med studies. Then, Vladimir Milosevic, a 6-9 forward from Croatia, was ruled academically ineligible because he mistakenly had been allowed more than the required time to take the Scholastic Assessment Test.

The disruptions were under way, and this was only the beginning. Ferguson suffered his first sprained ankle of the season and missed nearly a month of practice while continuing to play. Senior center Sonique Nixon, looked upon as a leader, became an academic casualty as the Big South schedule began. And in mid-January, senior guard Skip Saunders injured his knee when he fell on the ice near his apartment.

"I've never seen anything like this. We played some nights with four people in the starting lineup who didn't have real college experience," said Saunders, who missed five games but returned to finish with 1,228 career points, eighth-best on the UMBC list. Saunders went out on a high note, scoring a team-high 20 against Radford.

"We've had injury problems the last four or five years here, but this is the worst," Hawkins said. "It's been very tough for the coaches and the players to concentrate."

The season became a continuous shuffle for Hawkins, who mixed and matched players endlessly to combat the roster shortages. The Retrievers started 13 different combinations this year. They lost nine consecutive games early in the season, dropped eight straight late and had precious few bright spots in between.

Hawkins has a career record of 64-105 and is still looking for his first winning season since his rookie year. UMBC athletic director Charlie Brown said he intends to stick by Hawkins next season.

"We're not pleased with where we are, and I don't think Earl is," Brown said. "We looked long and hard at it before we made our decision [to extend Hawkins' contract], and we made a two-year commitment."

Said Hawkins: "We're not making excuses. We're not complaining. We've got to win. We have a lot of talent back next year, and if we can add a few pieces to the puzzle next year, we'll be fine."

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