The "when" question that became an "if" got a positive answer for the UMBC men's basketball team, which won the Northeast Conference regular-season championship yesterday with an 81-66 win over St. Francis, N.Y.
Kennedy Okafor and Brad Martin combined for 34 points and 21 rebounds as the Retrievers rebuffed the Terriers' attempt to overtake them and earn the top seed in the NEC postseason tournament, which begins Friday at Wagner College.
The moment had been anticipated for the last month after UMBC jumped out to a 15-0 start in league play. But by losing three out of their next four games, and with St. Francis looming all season, the Retrievers looked to be fading.
But, in front of the largest crowd at UMBC Fieldhouse in 10 seasons, it was a successful outcome for a team in its first season in the Northeast Conference -- and in which it had been picked to finish fifth.
"It's nice. Now we have to go play and win," coach Tom Sullivan said after UMBC won its first conference title in 13 seasons of Division I play. "We wanted to establish that we belong. Now we have to build on this. I look at it as a long road that is still unfolding."
In addition to Okafor's 18 points and 14 rebounds and Martin's 16 points and seven rebounds, two other UMBC players scored in double figures as the Retrievers used a late run in the second half to stretch the lead to as much as 18 points. UMBC (18-8, 17-3 NEC) won by limiting the damage caused by St. Francis' pressure defense, slowing the game down and holding the Terriers (19-7, 16-4) to 36 percent shooting. In losing the previous matchup at St. Francis four days earlier, UMBC was out-rebounded, turned the ball over 18 times and allowed 13 three-point baskets. St. Francis hit only six of 28 threes yesterday.
"There was a difference in the intensity level on our part," Sullivan said.
St. Francis' big guns, Ray Minlend and Angel Santana, didn't have the effect that they did on Tuesday when they combined for 45 points. Santana finished with nine points on 2-of-13 shooting. Minlend finished with 20, but three first-half fouls limited his game.
The Terriers also might have been a bit worn out, expending a lot of energy Thursday night in an 83-70 win at Mount St. Mary's that was necessary to set up this battle for the league title.
"We had to win that game," St. Francis coach Ron Ganulin said. "We were really excited [for UMBC], but I don't know if we had anything left."
The 3,084 who showed up saw a slightly different UMBC lineup. First, Kerry Martin, a key defensive reserve all season, was hospitalized at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, recovering from a joint infection in his right elbow.
The second difference was the return of Okafor to the starting lineup. It was his first start since a Nov. 21 loss to Morgan State, after which he was suspended and Brad Martin took his place in the opening lineup. With UMBC winning, Okafor kept his reserve role, but found his way back with Nick Grella and UMBC struggling.
"I thought we needed a little shake-up," Sullivan said. "Nick was not up to his normal self and we wanted some pop off the bench."
Okafor played a pivotal role in stopping a mini-spurt during which St. Francis scored six points in less than a minute to close UMBC's lead to 41-39 with 12: 38 remaining. His steal and jumper with 10: 16 left, followed by a layup 17 seconds later, finished a 9-0 run that gave the Retrievers a 50-39 lead with 9: 59 left.
St. Francis would come no closer than nine points.
ST. FRANCIS, N.Y -- Santana 2-13 4-4 9, Dominguez 6-11 1-2 16, Reyes 2-3 1-3 5, Nunn 4-6 2-2 10, Minlend 7-15 5-10 20, Walker 0-0 0-0 0, Tein 1-3 0-0 0, Abel 0-3 1-2 1, Rogers 0-1 0-0 0, Rail 0-0 0-0 0, LaLane 1-9 0-0 2, Dimbeng 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-64 14-23 66.
UMBC -- Green 0-1 5-9 5, Martin 7-7 2-3 16, Okafor 7-14 4-6 18, Ward 4-10 3-4 14, Harrison 2-5 0-0 5, Giddens 1-4 0-0 2, Hyland 4-9 5-8 14, Womble 0-1 0-0 0, Grella 3-5 1-2 7. Totals 28-56 20-32 81.
Halftime--UMBC 29-27. 3-point goals--SF 6-28 (Santana 1-11, Reyes 3-6, Nunn 0-1, Minlend 1-4, Tein 1-1, Abel 0-1, LaLane 0-4); UMBC 5-12 (Ward 3-6, Harrison 1-3, Giddens 0-1, Hyland 1-2). Fouled out--Nunn. Rebounds--SF 33 (Santana 6, Dominguez 6, Abel 6); UMBC 45 (Okafor 14). Assists--SF 12 (Nunn 5); UMBC 18 (Hyland 6). Total fouls--SF 26; UMBC 22. Technicals--Rogers, Martin. A--3,084.
Pub Date: 2/21/99