Thompson gives UMBC reason to believe in Big South tourney

March 03, 1995|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Staff Writer

The transition from playing junior-college basketball to competing at the Division I level promised to be difficult, and UMBC guard Tony Thompson ticked off a list of adjustment problems.

This season, the opponents he faced were bigger, stronger and quicker. The schedule, from the frequency of games to the travel that accompanied them, was tougher. And a month into his first season with the Retrievers, Thompson was trying to relocate his offensive game.

Thompson's apprehension is gone, and with it, UMBC's losing habits.

When the third-seeded Retrievers play Liberty in tonight's Big South Conference tournament quarterfinals, they'll do so with the best chance to win the tournament since joining the league three years ago. If the Retrievers (13-13) win two games and advance to Sunday's championship game, they will secure their first winning season since 1989, coach Earl Hawkins' first year at UMBC.

The Retrievers have the league's most tenacious defense, sparked by the shot-blocking and intimidation of 7-foot-2 center Pascal Fleury. But UMBC has bounced back from a 6-21 disaster mainly because of its most valuable newcomer.

"Without Tony, we're not 13-13, we're not third in the Big South, and there are five or six games we don't win," Hawkins said.

Thompson is far from flashy. A 6-foot-3 shooting guard, he has battled shooting trouble all year, although he has improved to a respectable 44 percent in that area. His game is more workmanlike, combining defensive hustle, leaping ability and a reckless rebounding style.

That combination has turned Thompson into UMBC's Mr. Everything. He leads the Retrievers in scoring (12.7 ppg) and steals (43), and is second in rebounding (6.2), just behind Fleury. He also has a team-leading 75 offensive rebounds.

"I think I brought defensive intensity and the will to win here," Thompson said. "I just didn't think we were going to end up like we did last year. I knew the odds we were up against. I expected us to do this well, maybe even better."

Thompson didn't start playing organized basketball until seventh grade. By then, he was immersed in football. He started for three years as a wide receiver/safety at Parkdale High in Prince George's County, where he received some recruiting feelers from Division I schools such as Maryland and Tennessee.

But basketball, with its constant running and jumping, appealed more to Thompson. Three years ago, he helped Parkdale win the Class 4A championship.

Thompson wound up at Allegany Community College, where he averaged 16 points and 3.5 assists last year. Thompson stood out in practice at UMBC last fall.

"With his defense, his quick hands and his ability to score, he earned a starting spot," Hawkins said. "He still had to adjust to new players, new coaches and a new system, but we were going to stick with him. Players like that make my job easier."

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