Over the past 13 years, UMBC head women’s basketball coach Phil Stern has developed a reputation for revitalizing struggling programs.
That reputation reached its pinnacle on March 11, 2007, when Hartford guard Courtney Gomez’s last-second 3-point attempt hit the rim and bounced away, giving the Retrievers a stunning 48-46 victory over the defending conference champions in the America East Tournament title game.
Stern led UMBC to its first-ever America East championship with an unprecedented run through the conference. Seeded seventh, the Retrievers knocked off the top three seeds – No. 2 Stony Brook in the quarterfinals, No. 3 Vermont in the semis and No. 1 Hartford in the finals – on consecutive days.
“This is an unbelievable feeling,” Stern said after the game. “We’ve gone from worst to first in a couple of years.”
The win propelled the Retrievers to their first-ever berth in the NCAA Tournament, where they drew top-seeded Connecticut, one of the most storied programs in women’s basketball history.
Stern’s squad hung with the Huskies for most of the first half and was down only nine with five minutes to play in the period before UConn pulled away.
The coach was rewarded a month later with a four-year contract extension that runs through the 2010-11 season. It was his second new contract in as many years.
“This year we took an unprecedented step for basketball at UMBC,” Stern said after signing the latest extension. “It was the biggest thing to happen to UMBC, and I hope to continue to capitalize on the exposure that the America East championship has brought to our program.”
“Phil Stern has definitely put UMBC women’s basketball on the right track,” UMBC Athletic Director Dr. Charles Brown said. “The appearance in the NCAA Tournament was a huge boost to our entire athletic program. We are looking forward to continued success.”
It was a long way to come for a team that won a combined 12 games from 2003-05 in its first two seasons in the America East as it struggled to adapt to a league ranked 10 spots ahead of the Northeast Conference in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) poll.
The extremely young Retrievers – who had lost all five starters, including two 1,000-point scorers, from the previous year’s NEC runner-up team – finished 4-24 in 2003-04 and 8-20 the next season, but Stern had planted the seeds for the growth of the program into the new league, as his freshman class from 2003 averaged one-third of the team’s scoring, and the Retrievers were led on the boards by a rookie. Despite the record, UMBC ranked 21st in the nation in 3-point field goals made per game (6.9) and set school single-game records for field goal percentage (.674), 3-pointers (14) and 3-point percentage (.636).
During the 2004-05 campaign, Stern continued to lead the rise of the Retrievers’ program, doubling the win total from the previous year and setting the stage for UMBC’s success the next season. Stern, whose teams are known for their 3-point shooting ability, developed Matea Pender into one of the best shooters in the nation from outside the arc, as she finished the season ranked third in the country in 3-point field goal percentage.
A year later, Stern finally began to reap the benefits of his team’s development, as the Retrievers began to grow into a league contender. UMBC tallied 15 wins in 2005-06, seven more than any other season in the America East Conference, and secured its first winning season since 1993-94.
During the course of conference play, the Retrievers rattled off a six-game winning streak, shocking league foes who had predicted UMBC to finish last in the preseason poll. The Retrievers’ streak was the longest since winning 10 in a row in 1993-94, and their seven America East wins propelled them to a fifth-place league finish. The success came while the America East was ranked 11th in the RPI poll.
The 2005-06 team set school records for 3-point field goal percentage and assists in a season while ranking in the top five all-time in seven other categories, including wins, scoring defense and field goal percentage. Since his arrival, Stern’s squads have been some of the top shooting teams in UMBC history, as the top seven marks for 3-pointers made in a season were set during his tenure, including a school- and America East Conference-record 223 in 2007-08. In addition, three of his seven teams have held opponents under 60.0 points per game.
In addition, the Retrievers’ 15 victories in 2005-06 were the most in a regular season since 1990-91 and tied for the second-most in UMBC’s Division I history.
That is, of course, until the next season, when the Retrievers won 16 games, including five of their last eight. UMBC’s semifinal victory over Vermont was extra-special for Stern, as it was the 150th of his career.
In 2008-09, Stern dropped the Princeton-style offense, which he had run in each of his first six seasons at UMBC, in favor of a more up-tempo system. The Retrievers, who featured one of the youngest rosters in the country with 13 underclassmen and no seniors, scored more than 2,000 points for just the second time in school history, and Carlee Cassidy became the first player to lead the America East in scoring in back-to-back seasons in nearly a decade.
Stern’s revitalization of the UMBC program began when he took over the team in August 2002, inheriting a senior-laden squad. After failing to make the eight-team Northeast Conference Tournament the previous season, the Retrievers followed Stern’s lead to their first-ever league title game. After starting the 2002-03 campaign just 3-9 while adjusting to Stern’s Princeton-style offense, UMBC finished strong, posting an 11-7 mark over the final 18 games for a 14-16 overall record.
The Retrievers also finished the season as one of the top defensive and ball-handling teams in the country, ranking third in turnovers per game (12.1) and 10th in scoring defense (55.2 ppg allowed) in the NCAA’s final statistics. Both marks were enormous leaps from just a year earlier.
Prior to joining UMBC, Stern served as head coach at USC Aiken in Aiken, S.C., from 1998-2002. His team finiahed with a 5-22 record in his inaugural season but posted the program’s first winning campaign since 1993-94 in his second (1999-2000), and by his third year (2000-01) he had developed the Lady Pacers into a 22-7 squad and the Peach Belt Conference North Division champs.
The following year, Stern’s team successfully defended its title while winning the Peach Belt Conference regular season and earning an NCAA Division II Tournament appearance. Over his final two years at USC Aiken, Stern’s teams went a combined 59-25.
Stern was named Peach Belt Conference Coach of the Year twice (2000, 2002), as well as WBCA District-III Coach of the Year in 2002.
It was also at USC Aiken where Stern really started to run the Princeton-style offense, a system of play he has mastered and that only a handful of programs attempt to run. Predicated on backdoor cuts and tempo control, the Princeton offense has been effective in frustrating opponents. To run the system, Stern must find the right personnel, and he targets players who are students of the game, meaning they are able to read the defense, make precise passes and shoot and handle the ball at any position on the court.
Stern’s collegiate head coaching career began at Dowling College in Oakdale, N.Y., where he was the architect of the revival of the women’s basketball program that had produced 22 combined wins in the previous three years before his arrival. Stern led the Lady Lions to a 16-12 record and the school’s first winning season in his inaugural campaign (1996-97), and followed it up with another winning record a year later before leaving for Aiken. His teams posted a 30-25 mark in his two years at Dowling.
Stern began his coaching career at Holy Child High School in Westbury, N.Y., where he compiled a 52-13 mark with three conference titles and three state tournament bids in his three seasons at the helm.
Maybe even more impressive than his coaching success is his team’s dedication to the classroom and the community. Over the past six years, the women’s basketball team has been one of the athletic department’s leaders in the classroom, recording close to or better than a 3.0 grade-point average each year. The team won the Retriever Cup for the 2005-06 and the 2007-08 school years and had one of the highest team GPAs in UMBC athletics as well as the highest team GPA among America East women’s basketball squads in 2005-06. In addition, Erin Voss, a four-year team member, was the salutatorian of UMBC’s Class of 2007 and now attends medical school at the University of Wisconsin.
In the community, Stern’s program is one of the most active in the entire athletic department. In addition to making school visits, hosting clinics and mentoring at local elementary and middle schools, the women’s basketball team, along with UMBC’s community outreach program, have welcomed nearly 800 elementary and middle school students to UMBC to tour the campus and watch the Retrievers play each of the last three seasons. Furthermore, four student-athletes spent Spring Break 2006 with Habitat for Humanity, helping gut houses in the New Orleans area in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The academic success of Stern’s squads began before UMBC, as his USC Aiken team excelled in the classroom, as well, ranking 14th in the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Academic Top 25 for Division-II with a 3.429 GPA during the 2000-01 season. In addition, the Lady Pacers were the only team in the South Atlantic Region ranked in the Academic Top 25.
Stern is a native of Oceanside, N.Y., and graduated from Concordia College in 1994 with a bachelor of arts degree in business education. He currently resides in Baltimore.