The UMBC women's basketball team tore through the America East tournament as a No. 7 seed in 2007, upsetting the top three seeds to earn its first NCAA tournament bid. This year's Retrievers (19-10, 13-3 America East) — the No. 1 seed after winning their first regular-season championship — are hoping for an upset-free run to their second NCAA tournament.
"We know better than anybody that anything can happen in the tournament," UMBC coach Phil Stern said. "We won it as a seven seed. We don't want that to happen to us."
The Retrievers play Stony Brook in the quarterfinals Friday evening. With a pair of wins this weekend in Hartford, Conn., they'll return home to play for an NCAA tournament bid in the conference title game on March 12. To its credit, UMBC isn't taking any potential opponent lightly.
"Friday isn't going to be an easy game," said leading scorer Michelle Kurowski. "We need to go out there and make a statement. Any team can get hot for three games. We just have to stay hot."
UMBC begins the tournament as the league's hottest team, but entered the season with little fanfare. They were picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches' poll, and no players were honored on preseason teams. Now, the league has taken notice.
America East announced Thursday that Stern was named Coach of the Year, and Kurowski was joined on the all-conference first team by fellow junior Erin Brown.
Kurowski and Brown both rank in the top five in the league in scoring. Kurowski is averaging 14.6 points this season, and Stern said she's not only the team's best player, but also its hardest worker. Brown, who was recovering from a foot injury earlier this season, has scored at least 16 points in the past six contests.
"Now that she's healthy, she's probably the most dominant player in our league," Stern said. "She had an incredible run of six games that we needed to win. She stepped up and put up big numbers."
While Kurowski and Brown lead the team's offense, there's no shortage of secondary options. When New Hampshire focused on stopping them, junior Topé Obajolu scored a career-high 28 points. Senior Meghan Colabella scored 17 points in last week's title-clinching win over Albany, and senior point guard Michele Brokans scored a career-high 11 against Hartford.
"People are stepping up at the right time," Stern said.
The Retrievers have plenty of weapons on offense, but their defense has also carried them. UMBC held its last six opponents to an average of 48.5 points.
"We're a 'scouting report' defensive team," Stern said. "We'll take away certain things, working on who on the other team we want to limit in terms of touches."
The Retrievers' scoring defense is second in the conference, and they boast the league's lowest opposing field-goal percentage. Much of that comes from the 6-foot-3 Obajolu, who set a single-season school record with 52 blocks and leads the league with just under two per game. Obajolu, who lives in Randallstown, was named third-team all conference and selected to the conference all-defensive team.
The team is guaranteed an NIT bid as regular-season champions, but won't be satisfied with anything less than an NCAA tournament berth.
"Our regular-season championship says a lot, but no one focuses on that," Brown said. "They focus on who wins the tournament, so that's what we're trying to do. We're not settling for anything. We're going to do our best this weekend and try to come back here for the championship game."