Phil Stern enters his 15th year as UMBC’s head women’s basketball coach.
2015-16 was another historical year for Stern at UMBC as the Retrievers returned to the postseason for the first time since 2011 with a trip to the WBI Tournament. In a 61-49 victory over Fairfield in the first round, the team entered the history books with the program’s first postseason win. Stern also saw two of his players garner America East end-of-the-year awards with Taylor McCarley, the team’s first First Team All-Conference selection since 2011-12, and All-Conference Second Team honoree Pandora Wilson.
Stern had a prestigious 2014-15 campaign with the Retrievers, earning his 250th career victory, and his 150th win at the helm of UMBC to become the program’s all-time wins leader. UMBC, who owned the youngest roster in the America East in 2013-14, improved upon last season’s performance, returning to the America East Championship semifinals for the first time since 2012 and the fourth time in the Retrievers’ 12 seasons in the league. Stern was rewarded by Director of Athletics Tim Hall with a two-year contract extension that will keep him with the Retrievers through the 2018-19 season.
Stern led the Retrievers to their second-highest seeding ever in the America East Championships during the 2012-13 season, entering the tournament as the third seed, and in 2011-12 helped the Dawgs become only the second No. 5-seed to ever make it to the AEC championship game.
Stern was named the 2011 America East Coach of the Year after guiding the Retrievers, who were picked to finish fifth in the America East preseason poll, to their first-ever America East regular-season title and a berth in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. UMBC went 20-12, matching the school record with 20 wins – the most in the program’s 25-year Division I era – and its 13-3 mark in league play was its best in eight seasons in the conference.
After starting the season 1-5, Stern’s squad finished strong, going 19-7 over the last 26 games and winning the final six America East contests en route to the regular-season crown. The Retrievers consistently received votes in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 poll over the last six weeks of the season.
UMBC earned the top seed in the America East Championship and defeated No. 8 Stony Brook before falling to eventual champion Hartford in the semifinals. The Retrievers earned the conference’s automatic berth to the WNIT, where they gave the University of Florida a run for its money, leading the Gators at halftime, before falling, 59-47.
The WNIT was not the first time that Stern has led the Retrievers to the postseason. In 2007, UMBC became the first team in America East Conference history to defeat the top three teams in the league standings en route to winning the league championship. The Retrievers knocked off No. 2 Stony Brook in the quarterfinals before defeating No. 3 Vermont in the semifinals and finally stunning top-seeded and defending champion Hartford in the championship to bring home the program’s first-ever conference title.
UMBC advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time and 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.
Stern earned both his 100th win at UMBC and his 200th career victory in 15 seasons as head coach during the 2010-11 season. He is just the second head coach in UMBC women’s basketball history to reach the century mark, while he joins Hartford’s Jennifer Rizzotti as the only active America East coaches with 200 career wins.
Stern oversaw one of the top defensive teams in the nation in 2010-11. UMBC ranked 16th in the NCAA in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to a .352 clip, and ranked 33rd in scoring defense, allowing just 56.0 points per game – the second-best mark in school history.
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.
The Retrievers also finished that 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.
But UMBC made the jump to the America East Conference in 2003-04 and sustained several years of growing pains while adapting to the much-stronger league which ranked 10 spots ahead of the NEC 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 – combined to win 12 games from 2003-05.
Despite the struggles, Stern had planted the seeds for the growth of the program into the new league, as his freshman class from 2003-04 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 single-game school records for field goal percentage (.674), 3-pointers (14) and 3-point percentage (.636).
During the 2004-05 campaign, Stern 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.
And a year later, Stern finally began to reap the benefits of his team’s development, as UMBC tallied 15 wins in 2005-06 and secured its first winning season in 12 years. The Retrievers finished fifth in the conference standings, shocking league foes who had predicted UMBC to finish last in the preseason poll. 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. 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 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 eight teams have held opponents under 60.0 points per game.
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 in nearly a decade to lead the America East in scoring in back-to-back seasons.
Prior to joining UMBC, Stern served as head coach at USC Aiken in Aiken, S.C., from 1998-2002. His team finished 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 berth. 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 one 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 Stern’s coaching success is his team’s dedication in the classroom and the community. The Retrievers posted the third-highest grade-point average (3.578) in the nation among NCAA Division I women’s basketball teams during the 2009-10 academic year. That season, all 11 team members were recognized on the America East Honor Roll for earning a GPA of 3.0 or better during the spring semester, with seven student-athletes garnering Commissioner’s Honor Roll status for earning at least a 3.5. The Retrievers repeated in the WBCA Academic Top 25 in 2011, ranking 20th in all of Division I. In addition, senior Michelle Kurowski earned a number of academic honors, including America East Women’s Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year and Capitol One Academic All-District First Team, while Erin Voss, a four-year team member, was the salutatorian of UMBC’s Class of 2007 and went on to graduate from University of Wisconsin medical school.
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 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, has welcomed an average of 1,200 elementary and middle school students to UMBC to tour the campus and watch the Retrievers play in their annual Midday Madness game in each of the last eight seasons.
A native of Oceanside, N.Y., Stern graduated from Concordia College in 1994 with a bachelor of arts degree in business education. He currently resides in Baltimore. Stern is married to Ashley Cieplicki who is currently the Head Women's Basketball Coach at Rutgers Newark.