UMBC women stand one upset from bid

Retrievers hope to crown turnaround with NEC title

March 15, 2003|By Tommy Ventre | Tommy Ventre,SUN STAFF

Back in early January, Phil Stern couldn't imagine his season getting much worse.

The first-year women's basketball coach at UMBC had just seen his team drop an 85-82 decision at Robert Morris in triple overtime. It was the Retrievers' ninth loss in 10 games, dropping them to 0-3 in the Northeast Conference, and all they had to look forward to was a 3 1/2 -hour bus ride home and a long, cold winter.

In Stern's eyes, he and his team were at a critical juncture.

"We could have [gone] two ways at that point," Stern said after wrapping up practice Tuesday afternoon. "We could have packed it in and kind of phoned in the rest of the year, or we could rally and get better and improve and try to improve the chemistry."

Two months after that Robert Morris game, it seems UMBC has gone the way of the rally. The Retrievers have won 11 of 17 games since the triple-overtime loss - including wins against three of the league's top four teams - and find themselves playing at top-seeded St. Francis (Pa.) in the NEC championship game at 4 p.m. today for a trip to the NCAA tournament.

A win today would make the Retrievers the first No. 7 seed to win the NEC tournament, and it would be the first NCAA basketball bid - men's or women's - in the school's history.

The focal point of the turnaround has been the deliberate but effective halfcourt offense Stern, 34, brought with him after winning Peach Belt Conference Coach of the Year honors last season at Division II South Carolina-Aiken.

In Saturday's first-round tournament win over second-seeded Quinnipiac and again in Sunday's semifinal win over third-seeded Monmouth, the Retrievers (14-15) executed better than they had all season. They controlled the tempo, protected the basketball and denied opportunities.

Add to that a newfound intensity that Stern said he hadn't seen all season, and UMBC is suddenly a confident bunch.

"The system's just that - a system," said Stern, a quietly self-assured coach who played at Concordia in New York. "The system is going to work. Some nights we're going to make shots and some nights we're not ... But can we play harder than the other team every night? Yes.

"And I think we finally did that last weekend, and I think our ladies got to the point where they said, `We're going to win these two games and we're going to play for a chance to go to the NCAA tournament.' And that's what they did."

But before gaining confidence, there had to be comfort - comfort with a new coach, comfort with a new offense. And with four seniors expected to play big roles, that wasn't necessarily a given when Stern arrived. Fortunately for him, the transition wasn't as hard as it could have been.

Senior guards Shalayna Johnson (21.5 points per game) and Jessie Brown (4.7 assists per game) have flourished in Stern's offense, which usually uses three guards and always puts a premium on reading defenses and controlling tempo.

"I think it was a process," said Johnson, who scored 23 points in the semifinal win and leads the NEC in scoring. "There were growing pains - learning the new system, learning how to play with each other, learning how to embrace it and take it to another level. ... I'd say we're very comfortable now."

In the way of an NCAA berth today is the 22-7 Red Flash, a team with six NCAA tournament appearances in the past seven years and a 16-2 conference record this season. But it's also a team UMBC beat, 52-49, in their last meeting, at Retriever Athletic Center Feb. 18.

Win or lose today, Stern and his offense have taken the first steps toward revamping a program that hasn't had a winning season since 1993-94, and his players have taken notice.

"In the beginning, Coach would talk about how winning is an attitude, and I've never really realized it until recently," Brown said. "You're going to go out there, you're going to expect to win, and anything else is unacceptable.

"And in the past three years, it hasn't been like that. It was just going through the motions. But now we're beginning to have that attitude."

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