UMBC goal: change recent history

C. Conn. has ousted Retrievers from NEC the past two years

College Basketball

March 02, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

For the third year in a row, UMBC will face its nemesis when the Northeast Conference men's basketball tournament starts tomorrow night.

Two years ago, Central Connecticut State knocked off top-seeded UMBC in the semifinals. Last year, the Blue Devils - as the favorite - did the same thing to low-seeded UMBC in the first round.

This time, No. 3 seed UMBC (17-10) could very well defeat No. 6 Central Connecticut (14-13). Though led by Lake Clifton product Corsley Edwards, the Blue Devils will be without starter Dean Walker and key reserves Lee Guinn and Ricardo Scott. All three are injured.

This is the last NEC tournament for UMBC forward Brad Martin and two other seniors, Kennedy Okafor and Terence Ward. Okafor and Ward will leave as the top rebounder and top scorer, respectively, for UMBC since the school began competing in Division I in 1986.

More importantly, Okafor, Ward and Martin have taken UMBC's program from a middling entity in the Big South to among the top in the NEC.

St. Francis' Ron Ganulin, coach of the tournament's top seed, recalls UMBC's 11-game win streak - led by the three seniors two years ago. That was UMBC's first season in the league.

"It was a shock to the rest of the league," said Ganulin, whose team was the only one to sweep UMBC this year. "They were undefeated [in league play] until the last few weeks of the year. I don't think anyone suspected that they would be able to come in and dominate like they did."

UMBC coach Tom Sullivan expects the three to determine his team's success this weekend, and over the past three games, Ward has averaged 26 points to accompany Okafor's 10 rebounds per game.

"It's coming around at the right time," Retrievers forward Peter Mulligan said. "If we've got Terence hitting six and seven threes every game, it's going to be tough to beat us."

In addition to the three seniors, youth also distinguishes UMBC. Mulligan, New York City's high school Player of the Year in 2000, has justified most of the billing as a freshman, averaging a team-high 16.1 points. Pivotman Will McClurkin led the team in scoring and rebounding in three NEC games.

Those are just two of four freshmen - Ron Yates and Isaac Brooks are the others - who have changed the tempo of the game for UMBC, which used to be a little more deliberate.

"You just have to keep up," Martin said. "If you want to play, you have to keep up and run along with them."

The freshmen have had to learn a few things themselves, mostly about defense. But Mulligan also learned when to pull up and take a jumper instead of going in for the dunk. McClurkin learned to kick the ball out every so often when he got the ball inside.

They've also had to learn to get along with veterans who had done a few things before they got here.

"It's been up and down, the relationship between the seniors and the underclassmen," Mulligan said. "It's been split at times, but they've learned to accept us and help us this year."

That may be why Sullivan still waits for his team to satisfy him. The coach said he looks for "how ... that group competes in the context of what it can do."

Last year's 11-18 team - hit by four defections from the 1998-99 title squad - met Sullivan's standards often. The coach set the bar higher to match the talent level, and this team hasn't cleared it often despite the better record. For example, the Retrievers were competitive with Virginia; the next game, they lost to Bucknell.

"We probably could have put teams away, but we lost focus and ... people stole games from us," Sullivan said.

So Sullivan will be disappointed if his team loses in this weekend's tournament, perhaps more so than when his team won the regular-season crown two years ago.

That time, bigger and faster teams upended UMBC. This year, the Retrievers, who won the Battle of Baltimore, are bigger, faster and more experienced.

Still, Sullivan said he won't dwell too long if his team falters: "I'm looking forward to winning it again next year."

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