UMBC men wary of Wagner

Hot No. 8 seed concerns Retrievers

Mount women hope success continues

February 26, 1999|By CHRISTIAN EWELL | CHRISTIAN EWELL,SUN STAFF

The UMBC men's basketball team is thrust into a heavy-risk, heavy-reward scenario tonight at 8 when it faces Wagner in the first round of the Northeast Conference tournament in Staten Island, N.Y.

The Retrievers -- the men's regular-season champs -- are one of four local teams playing in the men's and women's tournaments, which finish Monday. The Mount St. Mary's men play tomorrow afternoon at 2 against Robert Morris. The women's regular-season champion, Mount St. Mary's, begins play tomorrow evening at 5 against Central Connecticut State, followed by the UMBC women at 7 against Monmouth.

For the UMBC men, winning its first game would bring the reward of a day's rest before playing a 5 p.m. semifinal Sunday. With a team that uses 10 players on a regular basis, Retrievers coach Tom Sullivan would have an advantage as fatigue plays a role heading into the final two days of the tournament.

But don't expect any helter-skelter play from UMBC, which did well enough with its normal style to finish 17-3 in the league (18-8 overall), setting an NEC record for conference wins.

"We'll stick with what we do best," Sullivan said. "We'll try to push the ball ahead for easy baskets, but I don't think we'll make any drastic changes."

The risk is presented by a Wagner team (7-13, 9-17) that is playing well and is at its new home, the Spiro Sports Center, which just opened last week.

Though UMBC cruised by the Seahawks twice during the regular season, by 20 and 14 points, Wagner has won four of its last five heading into the tournament, all in convincing fashion. Plus, it has center Frantz Pierre-Louis, who has been named the league's best player in each of the last two weeks, and averaged 19.7 points and 9.7 rebounds this season.

The job of neutralizing Pierre-Louis probably will fall on inside players Nick Grella and Kerry Martin, who have been away from the team for most of the last week for bereavement and injury reasons, respectively.

"I think the dark horse is Wagner," Mount men's coach Jim Phelan said. "They are playing well, blowing people out if they can continue, they have the best inside player in the league. It depends on how the outside game is going. They could make a very good showing."

Sullivan said UMBC played "as well as we've played all year," to beat St. Francis, N.Y., in a game that determined the NEC regular-season title. But the Retrievers are well aware of the need to be on their best behavior, especially after a late-season swoon in which they lost three of four games at one point after starting 15-0 in the conference.

"When a 1 [seed] plays an 8, there's a confidence factor that allows the 8 to take advantage of being an underdog," Sullivan said.

Phelan's team has probably put itself into prime company. After 45 years at Mount St. Mary's and 797 victories, there's little left that can puzzle the coach -- but this team (10-10, 12-14) has added itself to the list.

Though generally thought to have as much talent as any team in the league with guard Gregory Harris (17 ppg), forward Tony Hayden (11.6 ppg) and center Melvin Whitaker, the Mountaineers have failed to deliver the goods more often than not.

"It's a strange year," Phelan said. "We have enough to beat anyone in the league, but we're just bad enough that anyone can beat us. A group that has puzzled me all year long."

The flip side is the Mount St. Mary's women (20-6), who have been Jackie Chan-like in fending off challenges on the way to their first NEC regular-season title since 1995-96.

It hasn't been easy. The Mount opened the season with a new coach and two new assistants. It lost one player for the season to injury and another left the team. And it got off to a 1-4 start.

But Vanessa Blair's Mountaineers responded. Since losing to William and Mary on Nov. 29, Mount St. Mary's has lost twice. The make-do personality of this team is found in the 9-1 record it produced after second-leading scorer Kia Williams went down with a foot injury in December. It is also found in the 11 rebounds that 5-8 guard Jo-Val Nance grabbed in the season finale.

Despite the hurdles, all but one player returned from a team that had a 15-13 record last season. One of them, Megan Gardiner, was named the conference's Player of the Year after averaging 20.5 points and 7.7 rebounds.

The Mount's reward for winning the league: It must win three games in as many days if it plans on advancing to the NCAAs.

"[The schedule] could play a part, but when it comes down to it, they understand that we'll have to play three games in a row," said Blair, who became the head coach when Bill Sheahan retired in September. "They want to do whatever it takes and this is the true test for them."

A possible opponent for Mount St. Mary's in the second round would be UMBC (13-13), which improved by six games over last year's seven-win season. The Retrievers ended their regular season with NEC Newcomer of the Year Jami Lange's 10 three-pointers and 36 points against Long Island.

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