One of the favorite restaurants for some members of the UMBC women’s basketball team is the Olive Garden in Hanover. While the lunch specials are a popular draw, there’s another reason why the players choose to dine there.
“It’s fun to just sit there because it’s so quiet in there,” graduate student power forward Kiara Bell said. “One time, we were watching basketball at the table and just eating the lunch specials. That was fun.”
Equally as fun has been the Retrievers’ start to the America East portion of their schedule. After a 71-54 loss to Maine on Saturday, UMBC is 3-2 in the conference, the program’s best start in the league since the 2011-12 squad opened with a 4-1 record.
The early run of success has been gratifying for players and coach Johnetta Hayes, whose squads in 2019-20 and 2021-22 opened with identical 0-4 marks. They finished 3-23 overall last year.
“It feels good,” she said. “But we’re still so far away from where we need to be and where we’re hopefully going to be. We just want to keep building on the success that we’ve had in the first four games. But it’s definitely refreshing. We’re all smiling right now.”
UMBC’s progress this winter is a welcomed change of pace from last season when that squad had its first four America East games postponed by a coronavirus outbreak within the program and did not collect its first win against a conference opponent until February, losing its first six games.
Graduate student shooting guard Keelah Dixon admitted it was difficult to envision the possibilities in the midst of those frustrations.
“But at the end of the day, it’s a program, and you have to build that to a certain point, and you have to have players really be able to take that work and show it on the court,” she said. “... I really look at it as starting this a year ago. It’s been a process, and we’ve been growing to be able to get to this point today.”
The outlook seemed disappointingly similar this season when the team went 2-8 through the nonconference portion of its schedule. But during a practice before a road game against former America East foe Hartford on Dec. 22, something changed.
“We just started speaking differently about how we wanted to approach certain things,” Bell said. “A lot of it came down to attitudes about understanding what roles we each had to play in order to be successful. It came down to everybody accepting them and saying, ‘OK, this is how I’m going to be seen.’”
Through four league games, the Retrievers are exceeding their averages in the previous 11 contests. They have scored more (61.4 points per game versus 57.1), surrendered fewer points (61.8 versus 63.6), turned over the ball less (14.4 versus 18.6), and recorded more steals (9.0 versus 6.5).
Both Bell and Dixon traced the on-court production to the players’ off-court chemistry. Besides meals at the aforementioned Olive Garden or Blaze Pizza in Towson, the players also have spent considerable time watching “Wednesday” and “Kaleidoscope” on Netflix and playing card games such as “What The Fish” and “Spades.”
“We’re all super supportive of each other,” Dixon said. “So I think that shows on the court. We have multiple people who can have great games and who can pick up where someone else left off, and that’s always a great thing to see. We all love that, and we want that. It’s not difficult to embrace that when everyone is rooting for each other.”
Hayes said the players’ cohesion has led to conversations ranging from encouraging to critical.
“Even with the harder conversations that they’re having, it’s not taken in a negative way,” she said. “I think that’s really important for them to police each other on the court and in the locker room. They’ve learned how to help each other get past lumps. Those close losses early can be difficult, but now they’ve found a way to be in games and win games.”
Six of UMBC’s 14 players are graduate students, and small forward KK White (Wright State) and shooting guard Scoop Smith (Towson) have advanced to the NCAA Tournament. A limited window of opportunity has motivated players like Bell and Dixon to cultivate what they can from the current season.
“This is our last year, and we do want to finish with a bang,” Dixon said. “So it’s great to have that experience that we’ve had, but this is our chance to make something happen with it. We do have other grad students who have made it to the tournament before. So I think that desire to win mixed with the experience of knowing that for a lot of us, this is our last go, it’s really kind of that melting pot that we’ve got to do it, and we’re going to do whatever we can to get it done.”
As promising as this season’s start in the America East has been, Bell said the players understand the pitfalls of dwelling too much on their success with 11 more league games on the schedule.
“I think we’re very confident, but I don’t think we’re above our heads,” she said. “We’re still locked into knowing that anything can happen and that we need to be prepared for anything and everything. We are thinking that we’re going to go into every game and win, but we need to prepare for everything.”
The Retrievers have qualified for only one NCAA Tournament (2007) and last competed for the America East Tournament championship in 2012. Hayes made a bold prediction about her current team’s fate.
“Potentially, we could be playing in the NCAA Tournament,” she said. “Postseason play is what our goal is. Their potential is definitely where they take it. They could possibly be playing for an America East championship.”
UMass Lowell at UMBC
Wednesday, 11 a.m.