Before the 2010-11 season, there were not many high expectations surrounding the UMBC women's basketball team. The Retrievers, who had never finished higher than fourth in seven seasons in the America East and had just graduated their second all-time leading scorer in Carlee Cassidy, were picked fifth in the league's preseason poll.
When the season began, fifth place looked like it might have been a generous prediction. The Retrievers lost five of their first six games, averaging just 48.4 points per game and barely shooting 30 percent from the floor.
But a funny thing happened on the way to fifth place when the team traveled to Iona for a Thanksgiving tournament. The Retrievers scored 72 points against a highly regarded Toledo team, and though they lost that game to fall to 1-5 on the season, it appeared they had turned a corner.
Sure enough, UMBC routed Brown, 75-55, a day later, and the Retrievers never looked back. The 1-5 start was just a blip on their radar as they went on to win four of their final six non-conference games, with the only losses coming to ACC foes Maryland and Virginia.
But the best was yet to come. A team that had never won more than seven America East contests had seven league wins by the end of January. There was a 16-point comeback at Albany, a 67-60 double-overtime thriller against America East powerhouse Hartford and a 55-38 drubbing of rival Binghamton. Then on Feb. 17, UMBC won a showdown with Boston University, 62-52, to take over first place in the league standings with just two games remaining.
After finishing the season sweep of Hartford, winning at the Hawks' Chase Arena for the first time ever, the Retrievers defeated Albany at home to clinch their first-ever America East regular-season title. The team which had been picked to finish fifth in the preseason won 19 of its final 26 regular-season games to post a 13-3 conference mark and head into the league tournament as the top seed.
UMBC knocked off No. 8 Stony Brook in the quarterfinals but then ran into a hot Hartford squad, which was playing on its home court and seeking revenge for the regular-season sweep, and the Retrievers' quest for their second-ever NCAA berth came to a bitter end in the semifinals.
The season was not over yet, however, as UMBC received the league's automatic bid to the Women's National Invitation Tournament and earned a trip to the University of Florida. The Retrievers led at halftime, but the bigger and faster Gators proved too much in the second period and eventually ended UMBC's season.
Despite losing back-to-back games for the first time since mid-December, the Retrievers finished with a 20-12 mark, matching the school record for victories in a season.
"Last year was an interesting year because we did start off so slowly," said 10th-year head coach Phil Stern, who was named the America East Coach of the Year. "We were experimenting with some things and trying to play a little differently. Then once we went back to our style of play – controlling the tempo, spreading the court, reading the defense and using our backdoor cuts and handoffs to get open shots – I think everyone felt more comfortable and we were able to salvage our non-conference schedule by playing well at the end of it, which gave us momentum heading into America East play. Then once we went into that we caught fire at the right time and we were able to go 13-3 in the league."
This season, the Retrievers will take no one by surprise. The America East preseason favorites are ranked 21st in the Mid-Major Top 25 and return more than 80 percent of their offense from last season, including their top three scorers in senior captains Erin Brown,Michelle Kurowski and Topé Obajolu, who all earned all-conference distinctions a year ago. And though there are only three true "seniors" on the team, three of the Retrievers' four juniors are in their fourth year in college, as well, as Kristin Coles, Brittany Crowell andRaven Harris transferred to UMBC from other Division I programs and were forced to sit out a year under NCAA rules.
"There are high expectations around here, not only from the polls but from us," Stern said. "Although we are excited about being picked first, and we embrace that, we talked about it once and that will be the only time we talk about it as a team. Our seniors will keep us humble and working hard every day, which will get us to where we want to be in the end."
While a large portion of last year's squad is back, the Retrievers will have a new point guard, thanks to the graduation of four-year starter Michele Brokans, who finished her career as UMBC's all-time leader in games played and is second in games started. Brokans was not a big scorer, averaging around two points per game for her career, but she ranks among UMBC's all-time leaders in assists and steals.
Stern looks to Harris, a 5-7 junior who sat out last season after transferring from American University, to step into that spot. Harris ranked among Patriot League leaders in assists and steals as a sophomore in 2009-10, and the coach expects her to be able to replicate that in the Retrievers' offense.
"Raven has been in our system now for a year in practice, and she's mature – she's essentially a senior in college," Stern said. "I think she'll step right into that role of distributing, although Michele Brokans is big shoes to fill. Brokans didn't put up a lot of stats, but she controlled the game for us. I think Raven gives us a little different type of a point guard – she can score, she can post up, but she will also have to grow into that leadership role."
Backing up Harris will be 5-5 freshman Lauren Chase, who was rated as one of the top point guards nationally in her class by ESPN and is a product of Prince George's County's Riverdale Baptist, one of the best programs in the country.
"Lauren is a different style of player than we've had here – she's a really fast point guard that can push the ball quickly in transition for us and is also a really tough on-ball defender."
Stern says 5-8 sophomore Raven Gerald has shown great improvements from her rookie season, when she struggled to find her rhythm in the Retrievers' offense and consequently saw minimal playing time. The Retriever mentor believes this could be the year she capitalizes on the talent that made her the 2009 Home News Tribune Player of the Year in New Jersey.
"Raven has shown a lot more confidence and has a lot better understanding of our system," the coach said. "I look for her to have a breakout year."
Another transfer, Crowell will step in as the shooting guard. Crowell, 5-10, sat out last season after transferring from James Madison, where she showed great ability from beyond the arc, sinking 28 three-pointers as a freshman.
"Brittany is an incredible long-range shooter – she can shoot from well past the 3-point line, and she also does a really good job of getting to the basket," Stern said.
Both Crowell and Harris also bring postseason experience from their previous schools, with three WNIT appearances and an NCAA Tournament berth between them.
The versatile 5-9 Kurowski will man one of the wing spots, where she has been lethal throughout her career. A first-team all-conference selection last season, she ranked second in the league in scoring at 14.6 points per game and was sixth in the nation in free throw percentage. Kurowski enters her senior season as the America East's active scoring leader with 1,263 career points, which ranks seventh all-time at UMBC, and she ranks among UMBC's career leaders in nearly every other category, as well. In addition, Kurowski is just four rebounds shy of becoming just the 11th Retriever ever with 1,000 points and 500 boards.
"Kurowski is a very versatile guard," Stern said of his fellow Long Islander. "She is able to post up or knock down a 3; she can score in many different ways. She will go down as one of the best players in the history of the program, but I think her toughness and leadership are what stand out to me."
Coles will reprise her role as sixth man this year, a part she played extremely well in her first season on the court with the Retrievers in 2010-11 after transferring from American. The 5-7 Coles could always be counted on to provide a spark off the bench, and she was among the best defensive players in the conference while also leading UMBC in field goal percentage.
"I thought Kristin Coles was the best sixth man in the league," Stern said. "She does so many intangible things for us."
Another extremely versatile player, the 5-10 Brown will handle the other wing spot. Brown had a breakout year in 2010-11, rebounding from offseason surgery on an injury that hindered her sophomore campaign to earn first-team all-conference honors, ranking fifth in the league in scoring with 14.3 points per game. Like Kurowski, Brown can beat opponents on the boards or at the 3-point line, leading the Retrievers in both rebounding (6.0 rpg) and triples (66) a year ago.
Brown and Kurowski provided an extraordinary scoring tandem for UMBC. The duo combined for ten 20-point performances, and there was just one game where neither reached double digits.
"Erin Brown has developed into one of the better players in the league," Stern said. "She can do a little bit of everything – she can knock down a long three or post you up, and she has a great turn-around jump shot. She's a quiet leader, but she does a great job of leading by example."
Backing up Brown will be 5-11 freshman Ashley Lambert, the 2011 Commonwealth District Player of the Year from Riverbend High School in Northern Virginia. Lambert averaged more than 18 points per game as a senior and was a McDonald's All-America nominee.
"Ashley Lambert brings a little something different," Stern said. "A lefty, she's a big, strong freshman who can get to the basket and has a lot of one-on-one skills."
Sophomore Bria White, who transferred to UMBC from Longwood this summer, will sit out this season under NCAA transfer rules, but will push her teammates in practice. A big guard at 5-10, White averaged 7.2 points per game and drained 32 three-pointers as a freshman for the Lancers.
Obajolu enters her third season as the Retrievers' starting center after being named to the America East all-conference third team and all-defensive team a year ago, when she posted a school-record 56 blocks, leading the league. The 6-2 Obajolu also emerged as a scoring threat, averaging a career-best 10.6 points per game, a three-point improvement from her sophomore campaign.
"Topé has probably improved more over a four-year period than any player we've ever had," Stern said. "She has a couple different post moves as well as a long range jumper, and she's an excellent passer from the high post. She has become a very versatile player for us. We run a lot of things through our center, and she does a great job of distributing the ball and scoring."
Junior Kim Browning, 6-2, has played sparingly in her first two seasons in the black and gold but has made great strides in the preseason, and Stern looks for her to play in an extended defense and be able to knock down some long jumpers while also distributing from the center spot. In addition, 6-2 sophomore Dana Lewis is coming off shoulder surgery but should be ready when the season begins.
Stern primarily used only six players last season, but he anticipates his bench being deeper in 2011-12 with the additions of the two transfers who have already been in the system for a year, as well as two very talented freshmen.
"Obviously we have a veteran group that knows what we're doing already," the coach said. "It's a versatile group. We could post up our guards, our post players could be on the perimeter. I think we have a lot to look forward to."
The Retrievers face an extremely difficult non-conference schedule, which features seven games against teams in the 2011 postseason and is highlighted by a home game against Maryland, which is ranked 10th in the nation in the first coaches' poll. UMBC will also renew rivalries with seven in-state opponents and will travel to Virginia Tech for a December tournament, which will feature two former Retriever assistants – Billi Godsey (Virginia Tech) and Katie Rokus (Cincinnati).
"We are excited about the schedule – we think it's going to be really challenging," Stern said. "We tried to put a lot of mid-major teams on there that either won their league or came in second and made the postseason."
The America East returns a lot of impressive talent, as all five first-team all-conference players and 13 of the 15 all-conference selections overall from last season are back. While the league appears top-heavy on paper, Stern says the influx of five new coaches over the last two years has added excitement to some of the programs that finished near the bottom of the standings in 2011.
Stern has also added two new coaches to his staff, as Kristin Drabyn and Brenna Rolliejoin incumbent Cheri Eleazer. Drabyn, a 2008 UMBC alum, was a key member of the Retrievers' 2007 America East title team and is still UMBC's record-holder in career free throw percentage.
"I'm really excited to welcome Kristin Drabyn back as our top assistant," Stern said. "When I recruited her, I knew she would be a coach. She comes from a family in Indiana where she grew up in basketball. Her dad is a high school coach, and I was thrilled to be able to bring her back as the top assistant at such a young age. Cheri Eleazer returns to work with our guards and our strength and conditioning, and she's doing a great job with that. We were in the best shape we've ever been in last year as a team and that's thanks to her. We're also happy to have Brenna Rollie, who brings a lot of experience from Bucknell and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she has been doing a great job with our post players.
The Retrievers tip off their season on Friday, Nov. 11, when they host cross-town rival Morgan State at 5 p.m. at the RAC Arena.