Keondre Kennedy has played basketball at the youth level, North Clayton High School in Atlanta and Labette Community College in Parsons, Kansas, and at each stop, he had never felt the joy of winning a championship.
Until Friday evening when Kennedy and the UMBC men’s team defeated visiting Vermont, 66-55, at the UMBC Event Center in Catonsville for a share of the America East regular-season title for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
“I don’t even know how to react,” Kennedy, a junior guard, said with a laugh. “It’s weird. I’m real happy that we won and stuff like that, but I’m also at the point where we’re not finished yet. We still have two more teams to play, and our whole goal is to get to the NCAA tournament. So it’s good in the moment, but we’re really focused on getting to the NCAA tournament.”
R.J. Eytle-Rock is no stranger to titles, but the England native and junior guard agreed with Kennedy about the significance of this one.
“I’ve won in high school back home in London, but this is a bit more emotional,” he said. “This is my first American championship. … Look at all of the sacrifices we’ve put into this. This year is very different from anything else. We’ve sacrificed a lot this year. So to see it pay off is amazing.”
The road to the 2020-21 conference tournament crown will run through the Retrievers as they captured the No. 1 seed and home court advantage throughout the conference tournament. Although they finished with the same 10-4 record in the league as the Catamounts did, UMBC won the first tiebreaker by virtue of sweeping Albany, the first common opponent. (Vermont split with the Great Danes.)
Eytle-Rock led a group of four Retrievers who finished in double digits in scoring. Eytle-Rock, who had 23 points, seven rebounds and three assists, in Thursday night’s 80-71 loss to the Catamounts, collected 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists on Friday.
Kennedy and senior power forward Daniel Akin both came off the bench to score 14 points, and senior point guard Darnell Rogers chipped in 10 points. Kennedy and Akin powered a bench that outscored Vermont’s, 30-7.
As diverse as the offense was, UMBC flexed its muscles on the defensive end. On Thursday night, the Catamounts relied heavily on their Big 3 of junior power forward Ryan Davis (21 points and six rebounds), redshirt senior shooting guard Ben Shungu (20 points and eight rebounds) and senior point guard Stef Smith (20 points and four rebounds).
On Friday, Shungu finished with eight points on 2-of-10 shooting and four rebounds, and Smith had nine points on 3-of-10 shooting. Davis compiled 15 points and six rebounds, but was limited to 22 minutes because of four personal fouls.
Retrievers coach Ryan Odom said the coaching staff emphasized greater responsibility on defense.
“We did a good job of getting inside and forcing some tough shots at the rim,” he said. “Our 2-point defense had to be better than it was the other day. That was a clear focus for us, and that’s where this team has been good all year. We haven’t let many teams score at the rim on us. We definitely give up threes from time to time, but the twos are something we can’t really live with.”
Catamounts coach John Becker said UMBC did a better job of adapting its ball-screen coverage to limit quality opportunities on the perimeter and drives to the basket.
“We got some good looks,” he said. “Ben and Stef shot it really well last night, and they were 5-for-20 tonight. Ryan Davis was in foul trouble for big portions of the game. But I think that was more their force, so to speak.”
Odom revealed that Eytle-Rock was unhappy about missing three free throws Thursday night and returned to the court after the loss to work on that. He made all eight of his free throws on Friday.
“That’s what a leader does,” Odom said. “He was disappointed he missed three free throws yesterday, and he didn’t want to repeat that.”
Said Eytle-Rock: “I was just attacking and getting to the free-throw line. Any one of us can go off like that. They really struggled to guard us.”
Kennedy has started only twice this season, but said he enjoys coming off the bench.
“Honestly, I really do because I feel like I bring good energy coming off the bench,” he said. “I feel like they were almost kind of disrespecting me like I couldn’t score. … Every time I got a shot, I was like, ‘Yeah.’ I’m a very emotional player, and I like talking.”
Odom was appreciative of Kennedy’s contributions, which included 12 points in the first half that propelled UMBC to a 34-20 advantage.
“He’s getting better and better,” Odom said. “He’s always a fabulous worker. He loves the game, he’s always in the gym, he’s gotten stronger. He’s an athletic guy, so he can get to the basket. He has skills with the ball. He can make passes, and he certainly helped us in that first half from a points perspective with 12 in the first half.”
The Retrievers could see Vermont in the tournament final on March 13. If so, Becker, the Catamounts coach, said his team will have to match their intensity.
“They just looked a little bit hungrier than us tonight,” he said. “They made the plays they needed to make. It was a tightly contested series all weekend, and they got the better of us tonight.”
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