When Ryan Odom told his UMBC men's basketball team this month that its season would not necessarily have to end in defeat, he glanced at the last senior standing. Happy to play again after a disappointing loss in the America East Conference tournament, the Retrievers were all smiles. Even, somewhat surprisingly, Will Darley.

The Dulaney graduate and starting Retrievers guard "doesn't give you much anyway because he's not like this outgoing personality, at least in front of his coaches," Odom said Tuesday. Guard Ben Grace (Gilman), the other of the team's two seniors, was sitting next to Darley for the announcement. Grace had torn his Achilles tendon less than two weeks earlier in a rare Senior Day start, his career effectively done for. Hearing that at least Darley would have another game, and maybe more, he slapped his classmate's knee excitedly.


"It was just a smile right away," Odom said of Darley. "To be able to continue his career … they were fired up."

Only four Division I teams this year can end their season with a win and a championship. Maryland and Mount St. Mary's saw early exits from the NCAA tournament. Loyola Maryland is out of the College Basketball Invitational. No local schools were invited to the National Invitation Tournament. Yet here are the Retrievers, after a 7-25 record, no postseason wins and a coaching change last year, two victories from the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament title.

UMBC (21-12) will welcome Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (23-11) to RAC Arena on Wednesday in the tournament semifinals. The winner will host the final Friday against Furman or Saint Peter's, who play later Wednesday night.

"Obviously, you want to be participating in the NCAA tournament," Darley said. "That's the goal every year. That's sort of the pinnacle of college basketball. But I think [the] NIT, CIT are quality tournaments. I think having the season that we've had and missing out on postseason basketball, lack of enthusiasm was not even in our minds. … We were just really excited to have the opportunity to keep playing."

After the Retrievers' last loss, in the America East quarterfinals to New Hampshire on March 1, they were hopeful but uncertain about whether they would play again this month. The locker room, Odom said, was somber. UMBC had begun conference play with its best start since 2007-08, the last time the Retrievers won the league championship. But they finished fifth in the eight-team America East, with losses in four of their final six regular-season games. The conference tournament defeat came next.

What might have been their final game instead yielded a series of firsts. UMBC was invited to the 26-team CIT field, its first appearance in a postseason tournament since 2008. Then it beat Fairfield in its opener, its first tournament game victory. Then it took down St. Francis (Pa.) in the second round and Liberty in the quarterfinals to land the program its first over-the-air network broadcast in nine years. Not bad for a first-year coach.

"Everyone wants to play on television," Odom said. "I'm really excited for them. They've earned it. They've worked hard."

And during spring break, too. Odom was able to rearrange the team's tournament schedule so that the Retrievers got a three-day layoff last week, when school was out, before preparing for Sunday's game against Liberty. Players scattered to homes near (Darley grew up in Timonium) and far (sophomore guard Joe Sherburne decamped to Whitefish Bay, Wisc.).

Then they came back to Catonsville, won again and put their own coaching staff's travel plans on hold. It's the week of the Final Four, after all; Phoenix is the place for coaches to see and be seen. But then, most coaches aren't coaching this late into the season. "So," Odom joked, "that's on hold right now."


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