Approaching the black center circle on the court at the Retriever Activities Center Arena, UMBC women's basketball center Tope Obajolu had no fears or reservations as she looked over to the opposing sidelines and saw one of the nation's tallest teams.
All her life leading up to her collegiate career at UMBC, the 6-foot-3 Randallstown native had been the biggest player on the court. Had that early-season game against Maryland been four years ago, Obajolu would've scampered back to the bench, afraid of going against someone taller than her.
In his 10 seasons as the UMBC women's basketball coach, Phil Stern has never seen a player improve more from her freshman to senior year than Obajolu — both in skill and mindset. The senior isn't just a defensive threat — she broke the school's record for blocks in a season last year — but a mature offensive player with a handful of developed post moves.
She's one of the big reasons by the Retrievers were picked at the beginning of the year to win the America East title a year removed from one of the most successful seasons in program history.
"She had all the talent and the tools," Stern said. "Once she figured out our system, she flourished."
It didn't start out pretty. On Obajolu's first day on campus more than three years ago, Stern had set up a series of meetings for the incoming freshmen that covered everything from compliance to team rules to academics.
Obajulo walked in late. Then, in the middle of one of those meetings, a cell phone sounded off. It was Obajulo's.
"We never let her live that down," fellow senior co-captain Michelle Kurowski said. "She was late for something else and she had to do towel pushes on the floor and she hated it. Then things started to turn around."
Not only did she struggle off the court, but Obajolu's timid nature didn't bode well on the court either. She played sparingly her freshman season.
"Just coming in from high school, it was a different atmosphere," Obajolu said. "I wasn't used to it."
But after her first season, Obajolu worked tirelessly with the coaching staff in the offseason to get stronger and more physical.
"They were actually putting in my mind that I could be a presence in the post," Obajolu said.
It's been a major transformation on the court.
The past two years, the Archbishop Carroll product started 62 of the team's 63 games, and the lone contest she didn't start came on senior night when the Retrievers honored a graduating post player. She blocked 40 shots as a sophomore and then a program-record 57 as a junior, earning her American East All-Conference third team and All-Defensive team honors.
With a roster littered with scoring options, Obajolu takes pride in her defense.
"She really uses her length to her advantage," fellow senior co-captain Erin Brown said. "She clogs up the middle for us and contests shots really well. She is our shot-blocker."
But the center also developed her offensive game, in which she is utilized in the Retrievers' offense to make passes from the high post. She also has a knack for hitting turnaround jumpers from either shoulder and scored a career-high 28 points against New Hampshire last season.
"We've never had one here, a go-to post player," Stern said. "And now we do."
Along with Brown and Kurowski, Obajolu rounds out one of the best senior classes Stern has had in his decade coaching at UMBC. Despite a 5-5 record, the Retrievers showed just how good they could be by keeping up with the No. 5 Terps.
Stern labeled the team as the most talented he's ever had, and Obajolu is an integral part.
This season, UMBC isn't settled on being tabbed by the media as the American East favorite. Obajolu and the Retrievers want more.
"We want that," Kurowski said. "We want to go further than that. We want to go to the NCAA [tournament]. I think we can be so good."
Said Brown: "I'm hoping for a trophy at the end of the year."
Obajolu has UMBC women in prime position for big season
Randallstown native is one of the top players in the America East
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