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UMBC women’s basketball can’t overcome 26-day layoff or NJIT in 72-58 loss

The UMBC women’s basketball team looked like one that hadn’t played a game in 26 days.

In their first contest in almost a month, the Retrievers looked rusty and gassed and couldn’t keep pace with visiting New Jersey Institute of Technology in a 72-58 setback in a Wednesday matinee before an announced 122 at the Chesapeake Employers Insurance Arena in Catonsville.

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A coronavirus outbreak within the program and some of its previously scheduled opponents had sidelined UMBC since Dec. 18 when an 82-50 loss at Syracuse. Even after the extended layoff, the team was at less than full strength with a four-player bench that lost junior shooting guard Keelah Dixon with an ice pack wrapped around her left ankle in the third quarter and graduate student shooting guard Jatarrikah Settle (St. Frances) absent due to COVID-19 issues.

“It is wonderful to be back in the land of playing basketball again,” said coach Johnetta Hayes, whose Retrievers (1-10 overall, 0-1 in the America East) dropped their 10th game in a row. “We were a little nervous about what we would look like early, but I thought they came out and did a good job competing. We have not played a game since Dec. 18. Their first time actually getting up and down the court was today. So a moral victory for us in a sense as far as competing, but it’s still a loss to start conference [play].”

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With the players beginning practice just four days ago and Tuesday serving as the team’s first full-contact session, Hayes was admittedly concerned about conditioning. To illustrate her point, Hayes had to use a timeout with 3:40 left in the fourth quarter as shooting guards Loan-Anh Johnson and Danae Marquez were visibly fatigued and motioned for their teammates to slow the pace on offense.

“We’ve been really trying to get back to it and doing extra conditioning and stuff,” graduate student small forward Janee’a Summers said. “I had a wall today at some point, but I just tried to push through. I think we all did a good job of pushing through and just trying to do better and start off our conference on a better foot. I think for the most part, we were OK.”

There were a few bright spots for UMBC. Summers set a season high in rebounds with nine, edging her previous best of eight. And with 21 points, she was four points shy of her career high set in a 74-61 loss at Howard on Dec. 14.

And sophomore point guard Alexia Nelson established career bests in points (16) and steals (four).

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Hayes said there is much to learn from the loss.

“We don’t want to take it as an excuse, but it definitely slowed us down,” she said of the extended pause. “It also helped us more than anything because they came back more alert and hungry to win and hungry to compete. I thought they displayed that today against a really good NJIT team.”

Meanwhile, the Highlanders (9-6, 4-0) looked like a team that collected its fifth consecutive win and is significantly better than its projected finish of eighth in the America East preseason poll. They trailed only once at 4-3 just 1:45 into the first quarter, enjoyed their biggest lead at 56-34 with 2:47 left in the third quarter, and never allowed the advantage to dip below 10 points in the final 33:35 of the game.

Sophomore point guard Lyzi Litwinko led the team in points (15), rebounds (nine) and assists (six), and she was joined by four other players in double figures in freshman power forward Trinity Williams (12 points and four blocks), senior center Kimi Evans (11 points, four rebounds and two blocks), junior shooting guard Kenna Squier (10 points, six rebounds and three assists) and fifth-year senior shooting guard Ellyn Stoll (10 points).

“I love that everybody on the floor can be a threat,” coach Mike Lane said. “I think that’s something that is part of our message to the girls, that we have playmakers here. So you’ve got to be able to make plays on every catch.”

The Retrievers aren’t sure they will have a full roster for Saturday’s road game against Vermont (7-6, 1-1). But Summers said she and her teammates are not letting the 10-game losing streak weigh on them.

“I think we’re naturally a bunch of positive people,” she said. “So we do try to find the best in every situation possible. Like today, it’s small victories. Our goal is 15 turnovers or less, and we had 12. We had 63 attempts, and our goal was 60-65. We hit small milestones. We just have to do better at our legs and getting everybody back.”

UMBC@VERMONT

Saturday, 1 p.m.

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