UMBC's season of inspiration comes down to one more tip-off at RAC Arena, one more chance to pull off the dream of a lifetime.
The America East Conference championship game arrives in Catonsville today at noon, and with it a chance for the Retrievers (23-8) to earn their way into the NCAA Division I tournament for the first time.
The last hurdle to clear is an 18-15 Hartford team that has played UMBC tougher than any other in the conference. Hartford split a pair of one-point decisions and dealt UMBC its only loss in the past 12 games.
Undaunted, UMBC has been looking for this since the end of last season. Cavell Johnson, the Retrievers' shot-blocking enforcer and the player his coach calls "The Mayor" because of his popularity on campus, doesn't think they're going to blink.
"I expect us to play with the same poise and confidence that has gotten us this far," Johnson said. "We have a good balance of guys who are older who can deal with the pressure."
UMBC has lived on the edge most of the season, winning nip-and-tuck games with uncommon poise. Yet, there was a point Sunday in Vestal, N.Y., in the tournament semifinals when it appeared the team's cool demeanor was melting. Vermont opened an eight-point lead in the second half, and, for perhaps the first time all season, the Retrievers looked rattled.
Coach Randy Monroe called a quick timeout, gathered his team around him and delivered not a stern lecture but a soothing pep talk.
"I told them to enjoy playing right now," he said. "They didn't need my famed constructive criticism. They needed assuring."
Darryl Proctor got the message.
"The timeout was big," he said. "He told us to settle, to take a breath. We huddled, and we were all on the same page."
UMBC caught up, then put Vermont away at the foul line to reach the final. It was one more example of the Retrievers' steely determination.
Now comes an athletic Hartford team that likes to push the ball but has the ability to pound it inside with 6-foot-6, 250-pound Warren McLendon, who had 29 points and 10 rebounds in an 86-85 loss Jan. 16 at UMBC.
"McLendon is a bull around the basket," Monroe said.
The Retrievers lost the rematch March 2 in Connecticut in a grinding 58-57 game.
If today goes their way, the tempo will be fast, and the offense, efficient. UMBC and Hartford ranked one-two in the league in offense.
The arrival of Proctor, Johnson and Ray Barbosa in the lineup this season was worth almost an extra 15 points for UMBC, which averaged 74.9 points in the regular season.
"We have guys who can put the ball in the basket," Monroe said. "Talented guys, and it makes a big difference. We have terrific balance."
Hartford has Joe Zeglinski, who shot .442 from the field and averaged a team-high 16.2 points. McLendon contributed 12.4 points, and Morgan Sabia added 10.3 as a precocious freshman. Michael Turner and Jaret Von Rosenberg had 72 and 54 steals, respectively.
One more tip-off will tell whether UMBC's dream comes true.
"This time of year is about performing, about execution," Monroe said. "The team that performs best will be successful."