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UMBC women’s basketball banking on transfers to pay dividends: ‘I think we have all the pieces’

UMBC women's basketball coach Johnetta Hayes, right, embraces junior guard Keelah Dixon, a Colgate transfer, during a game against Loyola Maryland on Nov. 17, 2021. Dixon, who ranks second on the team in scoring at 10.7 points per game, is one of five new transfers leading the Retrievers this season.
UMBC women's basketball coach Johnetta Hayes, right, embraces junior guard Keelah Dixon, a Colgate transfer, during a game against Loyola Maryland on Nov. 17, 2021. Dixon, who ranks second on the team in scoring at 10.7 points per game, is one of five new transfers leading the Retrievers this season. (Gail Burton/UMBC Athletics)

Just two months removed from turning 22, Jatarrikah Settle can feel almost ancient around her younger teammates on the UMBC women’s basketball team.

But as a graduate student transfer from Mount St. Mary’s spending her first year with the Retrievers, she also feels like a freshman for the third time.

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“Coming in, it’s like this blank slate, and you have to come in and adapt and buy into what the new coaches are telling you,” said Settle, an Odenton resident and St. Frances graduate. “It’s been fun though. I can say that learning new stuff and being in a different system, it’s been challenging but rewarding at the same time.”

Settle is one of five new transfers writing a new chapter in their athletic careers at UMBC. She is joined by junior guard Keelah Dixon (formerly of Colgate), junior guard Loan-Anh Johnson (Nicholls State), graduate student guard Danae Marquez (San Jose State) and junior forward Haile McDonald (Appalachian State).

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Four of the transfers have already made an impact for the Retrievers, who dropped to 1-2 overall after losing to Loyola Maryland, 63-57, on Wednesday night. Dixon ranks second on the team in scoring at 10.7 points per game and assists per game at 3.0. Johnson ranks third at 8.7 points, Settle fourth at 8.3 and Marquez fifth at 7.0. McDonald is nursing an unspecified injury.

Coach Johnetta Hayes said the group has provided a spark to the team.

“I think they came in and gave us some immediate maturity on the court,” said Hayes, who is in her third year at UMBC. “Even though it’s fairly new to them, just the understanding of how hard they have to work and the speed of the game and the overall morale of the team and team camaraderie has been really great.”

UMBC women's basketball coach Johnetta Hayes instructs her team during a timeout in a game against Loyola Maryland on Nov. 17, 2021. From left, Keelah Dixon (23), Jatarrikah Settle (4), Onome-Juliet Esadah (14) and Haile McDonald (50) look on.
UMBC women's basketball coach Johnetta Hayes instructs her team during a timeout in a game against Loyola Maryland on Nov. 17, 2021. From left, Keelah Dixon (23), Jatarrikah Settle (4), Onome-Juliet Esadah (14) and Haile McDonald (50) look on. (Gail Burton/UMBC Athletics)

Maybe because they are new to the Catonsville campus, the transfers are close. Johnson and McDonald are roommates, Marquez and Settle live on the same floor in separate suites, and they hang out frequently.

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Marquez said she and the newest members have also leaned on returning players like graduate student forward Janee’a Summers and sophomore point guard Alexia Nelson.

“I think with all of us being graduate transfers and all of us being in the same way of life, we are close-knit in that way,” she said. “But I also think the returners welcoming the transfer with open arms and accepting us and wanting us to mesh has been helpful. That is why our team has so much chemistry.”

Each of the transfers brings a certain asset to the team. The consensus is that Dixon is well regarded for her ability to get instantly hot on offense, Johnson is nicknamed “Lo-Diesel” for her determination, Marquez is renowned for her 3-point prowess, Settle brings an intensity on defense and McDonald will be an inside presence.

For myriad reasons, the transfers desired a change of setting. Settle said she sought a team philosophy more closely aligned with hers, Marquez wanted to branch away from her home in Fresno, California, and Johnson was looking for a coaching staff she could bond with.

The group brought their different experiences and backgrounds, but have had to adjust to the Retrievers’ style of play. Settle pointed out that the program places an emphasis on defense, while Marquez noted that the offense is not as dependent on 3-point shooting as West Coast programs have been.

Johnson said the transfers and returners are still trying to find that middle ground to blend their strengths and weaknesses.

“I do think it’s going to take us a little bit of time, but that’s how it goes,” she said. “Even if we were to have a lot of veterans, it’s always a little complicated at the beginning of the season. But that’s just one of the challenges that comes with basketball. Having so many new people, getting adjusted to each person is one of the most complicated parts of his process.”

UMBC junior guard Loan-Anh Johnson, a transfer from Nicholls State, dribbles the ball during a game against Loyola Maryland on Nov. 17, 2021. Johnson ranks third on the team in scoring at 8.7 points per game.
UMBC junior guard Loan-Anh Johnson, a transfer from Nicholls State, dribbles the ball during a game against Loyola Maryland on Nov. 17, 2021. Johnson ranks third on the team in scoring at 8.7 points per game. (Gail Burton/UMBC Athletics)

In 2019-20, UMBC went 10-18 overall and 6-10 in the America East. The six victories in the conference doubled the win total from 2018-19, and that squad earned the No. 6 seed in the league tournament, the program’s best since being the No. 3 seed in 2017.

Hayes, whose 2020-21 team elected not to finish the season after playing eight games during the coronavirus pandemic, said while the off-court camaraderie is evident, the on-court chemistry is a work in progress.

“We haven’t completely gotten there yet,” she acknowledged. “This [nonconference] season is really important — whether we win or lose — to continue to build with them. Speaking the language, learning the language, understanding defensive concepts, getting into the flow and being comfortable with their abilities within the offense, we’re trying some things.”

In addition to Marquez, Settle and Summers, forwards Onome-Juliet Esadah and Jasmine Braswell are graduate students and transfers (Esadah from UNC-AshvilIe, Braswell from Northeastern) who played at UMBC last season. Because of the team’s age, there is a sense of urgency to produce now.

“Even Coach harps on that,” Settle said. “She’ll say, ‘I’ve got seven transfers in this circle. So we need results now. We brought you here to do things.’ That does put some pressure on us, but I think with the pressure comes the reward of knowing what we can bring as grad transfers — that experience, that leadership. So it’s bittersweet, but if you can buy into the pressure and just accept it, I think it will work out in our favor.”

Marquez preached patience but said the players are eager to tap into their potential.

“I think we have all the pieces. We’re just trying to fit them into the right puzzle,” she said. “The journey is not easy, but it is rewarding. We all see the light at the end of the tunnel and how successful this year could be, and I think we’re all excited about that. So it’s very much a positive atmosphere.”

As disappointed as the slow start has been, Hayes said her priority is shaping the team for a successful run in the America East and then a prolonged presence in the league tournament.

“This [nonconference] season is truly a learning curve for us,” she said. “Whatever the roller coaster ride is for us, we need to stay together on it the whole time so that we’re united and connected. Once we get through it and hit the conference, we want to be able to compete for a championship.”

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