UMBC, Mount St. Mary's still hopeful

Heading into tournament, 2 preseason favorites out to atone for bad seasons


March 03, 2000|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

When the season began, Mount St. Mary's and UMBC were expected to be the two best teams in the Northeast Conference.

They're bound to play like it one of these days.

That hope feeds optimism heading into the NEC tournament, which begins today in Trenton, N.J. The Retrievers (11-17) play Central Connecticut State (22-5) at 3: 15 p.m. in a rematch of last year's conference semifinal. The Mount (8-19) plays Fairleigh Dickinson (17-10) at 8: 15 p.m.

"It's kind of strange that the two teams picked to finish at the top finished seventh and eighth," Mount St. Mary's coach Jim Phelan said. "UMBC and ourselves -- both of us are good enough to win three straight games, absolutely."

Unfortunately for both, being good enough has rarely translated into playing well enough for one win, let alone three straight.

Neither team enters with anything resembling momentum. UMBC, which seemed to dig itself out of a funk with a pair of road wins two weekends ago, ended the regular season by losing two winnable games at home.

The Mount's regular-season finale against FDU produced an effort so dismal that Phelan is encouraged about the rematch -- if his team plays decent, he thinks, it will win.

"We played so poorly that all we have to do is turn a few things around to win," said Phelan, whose team allowed the Knights to take a 21-2 lead en route to a 75-66 victory. "If we continue to play poorly, we won't win. But we're capable of winning the game."

UMBC coach Tom Sullivan likes the matchup with Central Connecticut State, a team that mimicked the Retrievers' 1999 NEC title run by starting fast before fading at the end. In the teams' only meeting earlier in New Britain -- with CCSU on a 15-game winning streak -- the game was decided by five points, with UMBC holding the lead in the final minutes.

"Knowing that we we went to their gym while they were on their streak, that gave us confidence as a team," said UMBC guard Terence Wilson, who acknowledges his team's own demons. "I don't think we've played together, or played smart. The effort was there, but I don't think we played the way we were capable of playing."


The boredom should be over for Mount St. Mary's.

This season, the Mountaineers have drifted through the NEC portion of their schedule, playing well enough to earn a second seed, but veering far enough off course to cause embarrassments like a 28-point loss to UMBC in mid-February. UMBC, with an 11th-place finish, did not qualify for the tournament.

But now, beginning with tonight's 8: 15 game against Fairleigh Dickinson, the Mountaineers don't want a repeat of last year.

"They definitely remember what it felt like to go home early last year," Mount St. Mary's coach Vanessa Blair said. "They do remember and they don't want that to happen again."

What happened was a loss to Monmouth in the semifinals after the team had cruised through the NEC schedule in Blair's first season as coach.

The tournament breakdown, plus unexpected losses this season to UMBC and Central Connecticut State, could reawaken Mount St. Mary's.

"Every team at this point is dangerous," Blair said. "The conference has been pretty up and down where teams have gotten knocked off every night."

Blair described her players as "focused and motivated" in this week's practices, as they prepared to play a team they defeated less than a week ago, 81-69, in Emmitsburg.

As usual, Kia Williams, Megan Gardiner and Deanna Butters will hold the fort in the frontcourt, the team's strong point, while guard Katie Walton is poised to break out during the tournament.

In the past two weeks, the team had what Blair calls "a mental lapse against Sacred Heart," but other than that, "they've come together as a team and have started to peak come tournament time."

What Blair would like is for her team to bludgeon the Knights early, "then hold on to the lead, which we didn't do a good job of on Saturday. we didn't keep the intensity the way we should have."

Northeast men

When: Today-Monday

Where: Sovereign Bank Arena, Trenton, N.J.

TV: ESPN2 carrying final at 9 p.m. Monday

Radio: WTTR (1470 AM)

Defending champion: Mount St. Mary's

Favorite: Central Connecticut State. If not for a February slump, the Blue Devils (22-5) could have agitated for an at-large bid, clinching the NEC regular-season title at the beginning of last month.

Dark horse: Monmouth. Things have gotten much better in West Long Branch since the 1998-99 season, when the Hawks lost their first 19 games. This season, they played DePaul tough on the road and, with the exception of Mount St. Mary's, few teams in the NEC enjoy playing their matchup zone defense.

MVP candidate: Rick Mickens, Central Connecticut State. Lots of good individual players in this league, but both Mount St. Mary's coach Jim Phelan and UMBC coach Tom Sullivan identify Mickens, the best player on the best team.

Northeast women

When: Today-Monday

Where: First round at Monmouth College, West Long Branch, N.J. Semifinals and finals at Sovereign Bank Arena, Trenton, N.J.

TV: None

Radio: WTTR (1470 AM)

Defending champion: St. Francis (Pa.)

Favorite: St. Francis (Pa.). The Red Flash split with the Mount, but it has proven less vulnerable to the bad night this season. Plus, it has the league's best player, Jess Zinoble.

Dark horse: Long Island. It's rather simplistic, but the third-place Blackbirds seem to be playing the best of anyone heading into the tournament.

MVP candidate: Jess Zinoble, St. Francis (Pa.) She's earned NEC player of the week honors seven times this season, including a two-week win streak to end the season. -- Christian Ewell

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