Confident UMBC ready for Northeast tourney

March 01, 2002|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

UMBC ventures into the Northeast Conference men's basketball tournament tonight as an assured, but not cocky, team.

The Retrievers realize they face a daunting task, with second-seeded Wagner playing on its home floor and top-seeded Central Connecticut State rolling into the tournament with 15 straight victories.

Still, 19-8 UMBC represents Baltimore's best hope for a smaller school to gain entry into the NCAA Division I tournament.

"I think last year we felt a little more confident than we do now," said guard Kareem Washington. "If we have another game like we had in our last one [of the regular season], we'll be out in the first round."

Washington referred to the team's struggle to beat Sacred Heart, 81-78, in the finale, the ninth victory in the last 10 games and 14th in 16 for UMBC, which was moping along with a 5-5 record in late December.

"Our main problem is that we play to the level of the competition," said forward Eugene Young, who has worked into the ever-changing starting lineup of late. "Right now, it's do or die, so you have to play 120 percent against everybody."

Coach Tom Sullivan likes the bracket into which the third-seeded Retrievers fell, despite the presence of Wagner as a potential semifinal opponent on its home court.

Central Connecticut, which beat UMBC twice, is in the opposite draw and is looking at a semifinal matchup with either defending champion Monmouth or St. Francis (N.Y.), the only team to beat the Devils in the league.

"Central Connecticut has to be the favorite. They've demonstrated maturity on the defensive end and stopped every team they've come up against," said Sullivan.

At the Spiro Sports Center on Staten Island, the Retrievers first draw Robert Morris, which thumped them in December before they cruised on their home court, 84-70, on Feb. 9 behind Peter Mulligan's 28 points.

But will their mental approach be as blase as it was against Sacred Heart or as intense as it was in the next-to-last game at home when they trounced a Wagner team that handed them their only loss since Jan. 26?

"I keep going back to this team is young," said Sullivan of a squad with no seniors, five highly significant sophomores and two key freshmen. "It has trouble disiplining itself against teams it thinks it should beat."

UMBC is 2-4 in the Northeast tournament under Sullivan, qualifying for the field in each of four seasons. But the school has never stayed longer than two games in any tournament since joining Division I.

This is a team that might still be a year away, but not yet ready to concede that as fact. A victory over Robert Morris would mark the team's first 20-win season since joining Division I.

"If what you hear is so, I think both us and Wagner have legitimate shots to go to the NIT if we get to the [NEC] final," said Sullivan.

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