As UMBC's men's basketball team finished a disheartening December, all of the signs pointed to a repeat of last season's 6-21 disaster. The Retrievers wound up 1994 with an 88-67 loss at LSU, dropping their record to 1-7. Their victory was against Division III Washington College. Senior forward Kevin Bellinger, one of the team's top scorers a year ago, had yet to play.
Things didn't look good for coach Earl Hawkins, who is in the final season of a two-year contract extension. But the new year has yielded a stunning turn of events, despite the fact that Bellinger has been declared academically ineligible for the rest of the season.
The Retrievers are 3-0 in 1995, 2-0 for the first time in their three-year Big South Conference membership, and can enjoy their first four-game winning streak in four years tonight with a victory over visiting Morgan State (0-11).
What a difference the new year has made. First, UMBC gained invaluable confidence with a 60-57 victory over Boston University, which a few days earlier had lost a tight game to Oklahoma. That marked the first time in five years that UMBC had won a game it had trailed with two minutes remaining. The Retrievers since have beaten conference foes Liberty and Radford. And they have won all three games with an unlikely formula.
The Retrievers have struggled all year offensively. During their winning streak, their scoring average has dropped to 63.3 points, easily the lowest in the Big South. But UMBC has clawed its way into first place with terrific defense.
In the past three games, UMBC has held its opponents to 37.7 percent shooting, thanks largely to the inside intimidation of 7-foot-2 senior center Pascal Fleury, who is averaging 4.3 blocks.
During a 60-48 victory over Radford on Monday, in which UMBC permitted only 17 points in the second half, Fleury altered shots without even raising his arms above his head. Meanwhile, his teammates complemented Fleury with superb man-to-man hustle on the perimeter and help on the blocks.
Trinette Tucker, who chose Fairfield University over the Tigers two years ago but decided to transfer to Towson State after her freshman season, joined the team two weeks ago and has made her presence felt by scoring 65 points in three games.
The 5-9 forward-guard earned Big South Player of the Week honors with 32 points in Saturday's 76-68 victory over Radford, which got the Tigers off to a 1-0 start in the league.
Tucker scored 25 points in the second half to help Towson State (2-8) overcome an eight-point deficit. She scored nine straight points in that half, and her 32 points are the most by a Towson State player in the Big South.
"She makes everybody else play better," Tigers coach Ellen Fitzkee said. "Her passing is excellent, and her defense has made the biggest difference of all. She can play all five positions. And she hasn't really played competitively in 18 months."
Towson State's search committee is reviewing about 100 applications for athletic director. Sue Tyler, the senior associate athletic director at Maryland, is among the candidates interested in replacing retiring Billy Hunter. A short list of three to five finalists should be made after interviews next month.
UMBC has expansion thoughts
UMBC, which hopes to follow Towson State into the North Atlantic Conference, should find out this spring how soon, if at all, the NAC plans to expand again. After balking for several years at the notion, the NAC decided last spring to expand from eight to 10 teams. Towson State and Hofstra will join the NAC this summer.
"I've been in constant contact with them [the league]. Should they decide to expand again, we'll be considered a viable candidate, but there are no guarantees," UMBC athletic director Charlie Brown said. "The North Atlantic is best suited for us. . . . We hope to know before the end of the school year when they are going to do it."
NAC commissioner Stu Haskell said the league may decide to add two more teams as early as 1996.
Jefferson proves valuable
Salisbury State's men's basketball team has won only one of three tournaments this season, but that hasn't stopped 6-3 senior forward Kyle Jefferson (Hammond) from commanding most of the attention.
Jefferson scored 64 points and grabbed 28 rebounds to claim his third tournament MVP award of the season in last weekend's Albright (Pa.) College Izod Invitational, won by the host school over the Sea Gulls in overtime, 93-89. In addition to that honor, Jefferson was named ECAC Player of the Week and earned his third straight South Region Player of the Week award.
Jefferson, averaging 27.8 points and 11.4 rebounds, got his 500th career rebound in a win over Cortland on Friday. One game earlier, he scored his 1,000th career point.