By Jessica Bernheim
UMBC Assistant Director of Athletic Communications
Michelle Kurowski arrived at UMBC in the summer of 2008 as Long Island's third all-time leading scorer, and despite some doubts about her size from other coaches who recruited her, she slid right into the Retrievers' starting lineup and flourished there, ranking eighth among the nation's top rookies in scoring.
Since her inaugural campaign, Kurowski has ranked among the top 10 scorers in the America East Conference each season, and she leads the league with 15.2 points per game this season.
Erin Brown was not quite as heralded as Kurowski upon her arrival at UMBC that same summer, but she thrived all the same, joining her classmate on the America East All-Rookie team. But hampered by a foot injury, Brown's production declined dramatically the next season.
Now healthy following offseason surgery, Brown is producing at an even higher level than her freshman year, averaging 13.7 points per game.
Unlike Brown and Kurowski, Topé Obajolu came off the bench most of her rookie season. But with hard work over the following summer, she earned a permanent spot in the Retrievers' starting lineup as a sophomore and has not relinquished the role since, making 56 consecutive starts.
Obajolu really began to make a name for herself last January as conference play began. After averaging less than five points per game during the first two months of the season, she scored nearly 10 per contest the rest of the way, and she has picked up right where she left off this year, netting 10.4 points per game in 2010-11.
Kurowski, Brown and Obajolu make up UMBC's junior class, and though they have taken quite different paths to success, they are the top three scorers on the team this season, accounting for nearly 70 percent of the Retrievers' offensive output.
"Our junior class is playing great basketball right now," head coach Phil Stern said. "We knew when we recruited them that they would make a major impact on our program, and I think this is the first year that they're all playing really well at one time."
Brown credits the significant minutes the trio received as rookies, as well as their relationship off the court. "The three of us got a lot of playing time our freshman year, so we can use that as an advantage," she said. "I also think it helps that we're really close off the court, too. We all get a long, we know how to motivate each other, and on the other side, how to get on each other's nerves, so how to avoid that."
With the graduation of Carlee Cassidy, UMBC's second all-time leading scorer, Kurowski has assumed the role of main scoring threat. Despite starting off slow, Kurowski's numbers have been even more prolific this season than in years past, and she recently became the third-fastest Retriever ever to score 1,000 points in her career.
"It was rough for me the first few games; I wasn't shooting well, I wasn't playing well, I was not happy with myself," she said. "Mentally, I knew I could get through it, it was just a matter of when. It really came down to just having fun and showing emotion and having the energy, and I finally realized how fun basketball was again."
While Kurowski struggled through the first five games of the season, Brown picked up the slack. Finally pain-free for the first time since the middle of her freshman year, Brown leads the Retrievers in rebounding and has been the team's most consistent scorer all season.
"Last year was tough," she said. "It was really frustrating because it took (the doctors) awhile to figure out what was going on. All my practices were modified; I couldn't do everything. I tried to play through it, but I probably didn't notice that it affected my game as much as it did. It feels much better now (after surgery in the spring), so I'm just trying to get back to where I was my freshman year and forget about last year."
Obajolu's emergence last winter gave the Retrievers their first dominant inside threat since Amanda Robinson in 2006-07. The 6-3 center leads the America East in blocked shots this season and ranks fourth all-time at UMBC in career rejections after breaking the school's 14-year-old single-season mark last week.
Obajolu said receiving less playing time than her classmates as a freshman made her determined to step it up a notch so that she would be on their level the next year. But she said what really drove her come conference play was the high level of competition in the post, like Hartford's Diana Delva and Erica Beverly, the 2010 America East Player and Defensive Player of the Year, respectively.
"I think it was basically knowing that in conference, there were post players that were better than me," she said. "I think that kind of motivated me to become as good as them and to prove that I can be one of the top post players in the league. Just going into conference knowing that was what I'm up against, it kind of motivated me to turn it up, turn it on quick."
"Topé last year I think was the most improved player in our conference," Stern said. "She continued to get better last spring, and now she's playing with a very high level of confidence. She can score in the post, she can score facing the basket and she can knock down a 3-pointer, so she's become a really well-rounded player."
After winning just one of the first five games of the 2010-11 campaign, Stern went back to the Princeton-style offense for which he has come to be known, and the team responded immediately. Following a close loss to Toledo on the first day of the Iona Thanksgiving Classic, the Retrievers routed Brown by 20 points, which ignited a hot stretch that saw has seen them win 15 of their last 20 games.
While admitting it was a tough adjustment to switch from the more up-tempo style of play they were accustomed, the juniors know the slower-paced Princeton offense is working for them.
"It was tough going from one way to the complete opposite, but I think we all have a really good handle on it right now and it's working for us," Brown said.
"I actually appreciate the fact that we changed because the Princeton offense helps me see the game better," Obajolu continued. "Now I'm making better decisions and better reads. It helped me look at basketball in a smarter way."
"I think it actually plays to our advantage because we are pretty smart on the basketball court," Kurowski added. "We have a pretty high basketball IQ."
While Brown knows the change in offenses has played a big role in the team's success over the last two months, she said the turnaround can also be attributed to the Retrievers' attitude.
"Coach always talks about how he doesn't think we believe in ourselves and that we can win it, and I think up to that point (at Iona), a lot of people didn't know how good we could be and how well we could play with each other," she said. "I think everyone is starting to realize how good we can be now and that we can put our name out there in the conference and actually win it."