This is the one of many (at least monthly) columns to be written by UMBC Director of Athletics Dr. Charles Brown. Dr. Brown is believed to be the longest-tenured AD in the state, with 20 years at the helm of the Retrievers. He has been an athletic director since 1981 and has served two terms as president of the Maryland Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and one term on the NCAA Division I Championships/Competition Cabinet.
March Madness had arrived and all 336 Men’s & Women’s NCAA Division I Basketball Programs across the nation prepared for their conference championships and a chance to go to the “Big Dance”. It was one year after the silver anniversary of the women’s tournament and for many conferences it provided the only opportunity to play with the “big girls”!
The America East Conference championships were to be held at Binghamton University’s beautiful 6,000 seat events center. Binghamton University has the best attendance for basketball games in the America East Conference and a big crowd was expected for the tournament. Our team left the UMBC campus on Wednesday morning and took the four-hour bus ride up north. The players, coaches, trainers, and administrators all packed for a five-day stay, with the confidence that we’d go all the way to the championship Sunday. Of course, we also had our lucky bus driver, Harold!
Although we were seeded seventh in the field of nine schools, everyone, especially the players, knew we had what it took to go the distance. We just had to play to our potential. Being seventh seed meant we played the #2 seed in the first round--Stony Brook University, a team that had drubbed us twice during the season, and rubbed it in. They were the perfect opponent for us—the team knew that we were better than we showed against the Seawolves and they would take us lightly.
You might think it is exciting to travel with a college sports team. The actual competition is great, but the travel and preparation becomes quite routine for the student-athletes. Meetings, scouting reports, practices, shoot- arounds, team meals, and travel to and from the area are repeated throughout the season. It’s up to the coaches and team leaders to get the team ready and UP for the game—we were pumped!
Assistant coach Lindsey Roche prepared music videos showing our Stony Brook “low lights,” and “what comes around goes around” was the theme. It played constantly on our bus rides and reminded everyone of what they were there for!
The Conference awards banquet was held on the floor of the arena and as usual, Binghamton University did a great job hosting the event. The America East Conference officials ran a smooth banquet, and one of our players, Sharri Rohde, received All Conference recognition. I watched our players’ demeanor as they watched award recipients and knew that our squad wanted to show everyone what we were capable of doing.
Pre-game practices run by Coach Stern and staff were crisp. We were ready. Our beloved spirit groups—The Down & Dirty Dog Band, the Retriever Dance squad, and cheerleaders had arrived and we were set to do battle. And battle we did. We raced to a big lead and held off a furious Stony Brook finish to win, and finally pulled off our first big upset victory in America East Conference tournament play.
Next came #3 Vermont and once again we built a lead and hung on to win. The final game was on Sunday and proved we had all made the correct decision to pack for five days. Hartford, our Conference’s perennial champion had shown some vulnerability when we last played them at the RAC. They had barely beaten us in a tight contest. Correct our errors, play as a team with our patented Princeton offense and we just might pull off the biggest upset in America East Conference annals.
Great defense, three pointers, and back door lay ups combined with a small, but very vocal fan base, and, of course, our band and spirit teams all contributed to the victory—Hartford had one last shot to beat us, but the long three pointer was off the mark. Frankly, my heart skipped a beat while the ball was in the air. Pandemonium broke loose—lots of crying, hugs, dancing and cheering--The post game press conferences were almost dreamlike—we were all stunned—Hartford, by the way—acted like champions in defeat.
The TV game was on New England Sports Network and Madison Square Garden Network. But, local Maryland TV was still not an option we could secure for the Retrievers. The print media which had chosen to ignore us, and local college basketball in general, finally caught on for the story—The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Examiner, and the New England papers all began churning out stories—and we had plenty to give—Cinderella victory, from rags to riches, and our players trip to New Orleans to help Katrina victims all were written about.
ESPN ran the selection show on Monday night—who would we be paired with? Most of us were hoping we’d stay in the East and play a “big name” school. A selection party took place in the Retriever Grill in the Commons. Several hundred supporters, the band, and the media packed the place—the spirit was the most I had seen in 18 years at UMBC and when it was announced that we would play UCONN in Hartford, the roof nearly came off the building—cameras from five TV stations were there. Reporters were interviewing players, our president, Dr. Hrabowski, and our articulate young coach Phil Stern, who told everyone that “We know how to get to Hartford—we’ve been there before.”
After another amazing pep rally send off at the RAC, the team led everyone to our “trusted” bus. Retrievers are known to be good in water—but the bus died on Exit 11 of the Jersey Turnpike---and a five-hour trip turned into a nightmarish 15-hour trip. Our driver was amazing and the hotel staff met us at 2:30 a.m., fed us, and had banners all over the lobbies and hallways making us feel BIG TIME. As a matter of fact, everything that happened in Hartford made our team feel great. Hotel and restaurant staff wore Retriever jerseys, our videos played in the lobby, and our band, dancers, cheerleaders, parents, friends, and fans cheered as the team left the hotel and headed for the game. Milton Kent, Sun reporter, noted that we had more supporters than College Park’s squad, also playing in Hartford.
In the pre-game shoot around our players met Nancy Lieberman and Rebecca Lobo, two women’s basketball legends—Amanda Robinson was interviewed by Ms. Lobo and Kristin Drabyn and Sharri Rohde spoke with Nancy Lieberman. Kristin tells me she’s still emailing with Nancy!
The huge Hartford Civic Center attracted the largest first round crowds in the NCAA tournament. The team hung tough for most of the first half and actually “back-doored” the Huskies several times. We eventually lost to a much better team, but Coach Geno Auriemma was very complimentary to our team and coaching staff.
The entire experience was a huge success in many ways. First and foremost, the student-athletes proved to their America East Conference opponents that they were a force to be reckoned with. Our players, especially the seniors, have a lifetime of great memories from “our run”. Our student-athletes were great under the “microscope” and their behavior was exemplary at all times. The campus came alive with the winning and showed our doubters that UMBC does have spirit! It put UMBC on the map with our name being mentioned in articles in the New York Post, USA Today, The Hartford Courant, and the Washington Post—not to mention a nationally televised game against a legendary program.
We are very proud of our entire athletics program and the women’s basketball team helped to prove to others what we are capable of accomplishing.