UMBC might not have the best women's basketball team in the Big South Conference, but the Retrievers must be the guttiest team in the league.
Last week, UMBC went 3-0, with two of its victories coming on the road and all three wins coming by three points. And that's only the beginning.
It's been a tale of two seasons for UMBC and first-year coach Kathy Solano. The year started disastrously for the Retrievers.
Last summer, junior forward Jackie Elmore and sophomore guard Renita Johnson left the team for personal reasons. In the season opener at North Carolina, guards Robbi Hutton and Jennifer Gloyd, the team's top three-point threats, went down with season-ending knee injuries in the game's first five minutes. Then there was senior guard Missy Quille, who had to sit out the first five games for academic reasons. What's more, freshman guard Tricia Yanke broke her nose early in the season, returned, then had to go home to Madison, Wis., to get treatment for a congenital heart defect. She returned on Saturday after missing 12 games.
No wonder the Retrievers got off to a 1-6 start. They were down to six players at one point. They were so desperate that Nadine Henchcliffe, the goalie on the women's soccer team, walked on to give UMBC some depth.
Since Quille rejoined the team, the Retrievers have reversed their course dramatically. After last week's performance, they are a team to be feared. UMBC (9-9, 8-3) has won five straight and is only a half-game behind conference leader UNC-Greensboro.
The Retrievers, who went through a 12-game stretch with between six and eight players, have nine players today. But they remain a fragile team highly dependent on their starters, particularly guards Quille (17.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 4.6 apg) and Nikki Tinsley (12.2 ppg, 4.2 apg) and forward Eunice French (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg). Quille and Tinsley each played 40 minutes in all three games last week. During their five-game winning streak, the Retrievers' starters have accounted for an amazing 299 of the team's 302 points, while averaging 36 minutes a game.
Where will UMBC go from here? The Retrievers' next four games are at home, where they are 5-0 this year, 21-2 since moving to Division I three years ago. The main ingredient to success has been defense. At home, UMBC is holding opponents to 49.4 points on 33.4 percent shooting.
How long can the Retrievers keep this up? We'll find out in the next month. For now, UMBC is the area's Comeback Team of the Year, while Solano has become the leading candidate for conference Coach of the Year.
Tough to win recognition
Good players on losing teams tend to be overlooked, something Western Maryland senior forward Rolando Welch knows.
As of Monday, Welch was leading the Centennial Conference in scoring (19.7), rebounding (11.1), blocked shots (2.3), and ranked among the league leaders in assists (3.2) and steals (1.9). Amazingly, he had yet to be chosen conference Player of the Week. This, despite scoring in double figures for 19 straight games and registering double-doubles 11 times.
Then again, with Western Maryland (7-14, 3-8) in the cellar of the Centennial's West division, Welch's excellence has been obscured by the league's more successful teams.
Last year, Welch faced a similar situation. The Green Terrors were hardly successful, at 5-19. But the Middle Atlantic Conference, where Western Maryland played then, recognized his great season (19.4 ppg, 13.3 rpg) by awarding him First Team All-MAC honors. Hopefully, the Centennial Conference will make the same gesture.
The men's and women's basketball teams at Salisbury State have had thoroughly ordinary seasons, although the Sea Gulls have produced two extraordinary players.
Senior guard Dameon Ross (21.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 4.6 apg) had perhaps the best game of his season Saturday. He scored 24 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, added seven assists, and did not commit a turnover to lead the Sea Gulls (8-10) to an 86-81 victory over Lincoln.
The women's team (7-11) is heading into the last stretch of the season with one of the better players in Division III. Senior center Kim Roth leads the Sea Gulls in scoring (15.8) and is second in the nation in rebounding (15.3). She grabbed 20 rebounds in last week's 82-58 loss at Rowan. It was Roth's 17th double-double in 18 games.
Vinson, Steeple to get look
Football season may be over, but a new season begins this weekend for Towson State running back Tony Vinson and Morgan State defensive tackle Matt Steeple.
Today, Vinson and Steeple, two of the area's top players last fall, will head to the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, where they have been invited to participate in this weekend's NFL scouting combines.
Karl Nieberlein, Towson State's senior offensive tackle who is also coming off a tremendous season, was not invited to Indianapolis, although Nieberlein worked out for the New England Patriots on Monday.