Adversity dogs Retrievers on and off the court Losing, injuries, Skalsky's death test team's coping skills

January 19, 1996|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,SUN STAFF

As UMBC basketball coach Tom Sullivan tried to explain the improbable shot that gave his team its first victory in early December, he called upon a sports adage about how it's better sometimes to be lucky than good.

With the exception of that night, the Retrievers had been neither until Monday, when they ended a 10-game losing streak with a win against Lehigh. They have two victories in their first 15 games. And they've had enough misfortune to test anyone's faith.

"It got to a point where I started saying the only luck we're having is bad luck. It's been a tough, tough year," Sullivan said.

And a painful one. The first-year coach has seen UMBC beaten in countless ways, ranging from blowouts to the bizarre. He has witnessed injuries to three of his best players. And just when he thought it couldn't get any worse, it became tragic with the death of sophomore guard Matt Skalsky on New Year's morning.

"Matt's death struck everyone to the core," said Sullivan, who came to UMBC after seven years as an assistant coach at Seton Hall. "There was nothing that the kids encountered in basketball that prepared them to deal with the death of a teammate."

Skalsky's death has overshadowed everything else the Retrievers have gone through. A rundown of their on-court troubles begins Dec. 2, in the season's third game at Loyola. A three-point shot at the buzzer by junior Marc Lay gave UMBC its first win, but the excitement was tempered by a knee injury to point guard Eric Hayes that would keep him out for a month.

Two nights later, Rider's Charles Smith was fouled with no time left and the Retrievers leading by one. He missed the first free throw, but UMBC sophomore Kenya Merritt was assessed a technical foul for taunting him. Smith made the next two foul shots, and UMBC had found another way to lose.

There also were the two free throws by Paul Grant with seven seconds left that gave Morgan State a 57-56 win -- its first of the season. And a four-point loss to Central Connecticut that was assured when UMBC senior guard Tony Thompson missed two shots in the last five seconds. And the 21-point loss to St. Peter's in a game that was delayed 10 minutes when Lay suffered a gash on his chin that later required stitches.

Thompson, the team's leading scorer, had 13 points in 12 minutes against Liberty on Jan. 10 before spraining his ankle. UMBC led by one when he departed, then lost by 16. Thompson missed the next game, ending a string of 39 consecutive starts, and the Retrievers set a school record for fewest points in a 54-38 rout by Charleston Southern.

Hayes had made his return Jan. 6 against Winthrop, but it was bittersweet. That morning, he accompanied two of his teammates and Sullivan to East Lansing, Mich., for Skalsky's funeral, then flew back in time for the game, which began with a moment of silence and plenty of tears.

Wearing a patch on their shorts with Skalsky's number, the Retrievers built a 14-point second-half lead before losing.

"We have a lot of young players on our team," Thompson said, "and I think it's all gotten them down."

Even so, there were no celebrations after Monday's victory. The way UMBC's players shuffled expressionless through the line to shake hands with the Engineers, it was difficult to tell who had won. It was as if they were waiting for something else to go wrong.

"You'll take the wins after so much losing," said freshman guard Alhamisi Simms. "But we've still got a long way to go before we meet the expectations of everybody, especially ourselves.

"One-and-12 would be hard on anybody. Nobody likes to lose. But Coach Sullivan believes in us and we believe in ourselves. We just haven't been winning."

That hasn't been the true challenge placed before this team, though. The Retrievers still are trying to cope with Skalsky's death, and it's a subject that none of them finds easy to discuss.

He died after a New Year's Eve party in Montgomery County, and the cause remains a mystery. Autopsy and toxicology tests have provided no clues, and investigators are awaiting the results of microscopic examinations of heart and brain tissue.

Sophomore Tony Mensah, who was with Skalsky the morning he died, took a brief leave of absence from the team. Lay wears a wrist band with Skalsky's No. 21. Each player mourns in his own way.

"It was difficult for everyone to digest this," Sullivan said. "I don't know if you can digest it, or if it's just a process you have to go through. What I did was give the players room to have that process. Now, some of the young men are picking up their lives and going on, understanding that they lost a dear friend and they'll always remember him, and things of that nature."

Sullivan said his hope for the rest of the season is that the team can "hold together physically so we can challenge people." And not curse its fate.

"I don't look at it like, gee, this is all bad luck that's happening to us. I just say that these things are occurring and we have to overcome them. Given the prerogative, I'd prefer they didn't happen, but you never seem to have that in life."

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