As a member of UMBC's first Division I recruiting class in 1986, Bobby Mills dreamed of the day his school would build the kind of facility usually reserved for the basketball elite. The moment just took a little longer than he figured.
"We wanted this place 32 years ago, but we always thought it was coming," Mills said.
On Saturday, it finally came with the opening of the $85 million UMBC Event Center, a gleaming new 5,000-seat arena that replaces the 45-year-old Retriever Activities Center. And on this day, not even an 81-53 loss to conference-leader Vermont could dampen the enthusiasm of the school-record 4,753 in attendance.
“It means we've really arrived," UMBC athletic director Tim Hall said. "A building is a tangible sign that we take [the program] seriously. I think for the people that come through these doors today … they will walk away seeing a significantly improved basketball program and a building that is as nice as any at the mid-major level.”
“It's a new level in our evolving as a major research university," said Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, the university's president. "It represents our efforts to build community on the campus and off the campus to be a destination for people from the Baltimore-Washington corridor. And more important, it's taking athletics to the next level.”
UMBC had lived with the aging RAC Arena — which opened in 1973 as the UMBC Fieldhouse — while area Division I rivals such as Towson (SECU Arena, opened in 2013), Coppin State (Physical Education Complex, 2009), Navy (Alumni Hall, 1991), Mount St. Mary’s (Knott Arena, 1987) and Loyola Maryland (Reitz Arena, 1984) each built new venues.
Now UMBC can boast an arena that features a 450-square-foot video board, plush locker rooms, a state-of-the art training facility, practice courts and areas dedicated to sports medicine and academics.
“It's kind of surreal walking in, seeing it and being able to practice in it, knowing that this is our new home," Retrievers coach Ryan Odom said. "If you want to try and be a player in mid-major college basketball, without a doubt you have to have facilities drive a lot of things. When you combine a top-of-the line facility with top-of-the-line academics, we've got a pretty good sell that we can match up with a lot of folks.”
On this day, however, UMBC (16-9, 7-3 America East) simply couldn't match up with the hot-shooting Catamounts (19-5, 9-0), who shot 65.9 percent from the field and made eight of 17 3-pointers.
UMBC guard Jairus Lyles, the league's leading scorer, scored the first basket on a 12-foot jumper 1:02 into the game, and finished with a game-high 27 points to move into a tie for fifth place on the school's all-time scoring list.
Still, six minutes into the second half, the Retrievers fell behind by double digits, going on to lose at for the first time in 12 home games this season.
“Obviously this was a big event [for the players] — a lot to kind of digest," Odom said. "We got started off OK … but then Vermont punched right back.”
UMBC shot just 32.1 percent in the second half, making just three of 13 3-pointers. It was an inauspicious start, for the Retrievers, who have made the NCAA tournament once in their 32 years at the Division I level — though players believe the new facility will lead to bigger success down the road.
“It should," Lyles said. "It's a beautiful place. It's a big atmosphere, and you see it as soon as you come on campus. As a player, you like playing in big arenas, so it should definitely help the recruiting process.”
Seated in the front row of the student section in the closed end of the U-shaped seating bowl, junior Zac McCord said the buzz on campus is getting students re-energized about the basketball team.
“Everyone is just excited about this building," McCord said. "It seems like it means a lot to everybody to really get out there and compete with major universities — not only the game but the venue. To be on that level is really getting the excitement going.”
For Mills, the moment was more than three decades in the making.
“This just puts [the program] on a bigger stage to be able to take it to the next level," Mills said. "It's everything we dreamed of.”