The Towson women’s basketball program’s rise from a 9-21 season in 2017-18 to a 20-12 record and the Colonial Athletic Association tournament crown this winter has spawned many queries, including the most common one: how?
“I’ve had a lot of people ask me that question, and I’m not exactly sure,” starting redshirt senior center Maia Lee said with a smile Monday. “I just feel like this year, we really got it done. In other years, we talked about it. At the beginning of the season, we would say, ‘We’re winning the CAA championship.’ But I feel like this year, we said we were going to win the CAA championship, and we started winning. I feel like that was the difference. We actually got it done.”
That achievement has helped the Tigers qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. They drew the No. 15 seed and meet No. 2 seed and 11-time national champion Connecticut (31-2) in the first round Friday at 6:30 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn.
Earning the right to play in the 64-team field has been especially rewarding for Lee, junior guard-forward Nukiya Mayo and junior guard Mariah Gray — a trio of players who each are in their third season at Towson.
“We won 20 games, and [the current group has] never done that before,” Mayo said. “And we won a championship. So it’s just great to be a part of something that’s never happened before.”
Reaching this stage might have seemed unlikely for Gray, Lee and Mayo. In their first season with the Tigers, the 2016-17 squad finished with a 12-18 record, its fourth consecutive sub-.500 mark under coach Niki Reid Geckeler, who resigned June 22, 2017.
Geckeler was replaced by Diane Richardson, who guided Riverdale Baptist in Upper Marlboro to four national titles in five years and been an assistant coach at college programs such as Maryland, West Virginia and George Washington. In Richardson’s debut season, Towson went 9-21.
Gray, an Ellicott City native who estimated that she took part in 15 losses during her entire high school career at Good Counsel in Olney, said the mounting defeats took a toll.
“It was hard,” she said. “A lot of us come from winning high school programs or winning AAU programs, and then we came here and we were like, ‘OK.’ We weren’t sure how to feel about it. But we had people who had been here, seniors and upperclassmen who said you leave that game behind because you have another game.
“So you live for the next day and you don’t worry about the past and whatever outcome you get, you think about what you did and how you’re going to try to improve.”
While Mayo said the idea of transferring seemed “like a lot of work,” Gray and Lee acknowledged that the thought crossed their minds.
“I feel like with any school, you always have that moment of, ‘I want to transfer,’ ” Lee said. “But at the end of the day, if you love where you are and you love the people that you’re with, you don’t want to leave.”
Richardson said one of her first priorities when she took the reins was sitting down with Gray, Lee and Mayo and getting them to buy into her philosophy.
“I knew that we had to get them better as basketball players, and in doing so, we had to instill confidence,” Richardson said. “We told them, ‘You can do this.’ Nukiya, when we got here, was playing seven minutes per game and wasn’t expecting much. And we were like, ‘No, you can do better than that, and we’re going to help you get there.’ And now she’s averaging 30-some minutes per game. So it was just those little steps of saying, ‘You’re a much better basketball player, and you can be even better, and we’re going to pull that out of you if you let us do that for you.’ And they did.”
Gray, Lee and Mayo credited Richardson with instilling hope into the program. And Gray pointed to a 71-59 loss at James Madison on Feb. 3 as this winter’s turning point.
“I think that’s when we were like, ‘OK, we can really do this,’ ” Gray said. “Even though we lost, we knew we had the potential to still win the conference championship and beat the best teams in the conference because you know what you can do. You know what it takes to win. Even though you feel short, you know what you need to do in the next game, and you just build onto the next game.”
Although Gray has played in only three games, Mayo has emerged as the team’s top rebounder at 7.6 rebounds per game and second-leading scorer at 14.5 points per game while making 30 starts. The 6-foot-4 Lee ranks second on the team in rebounding at 6.8 rebounds per game and fourth in blocks with 34 overall while starting 27 games.
Richardson said she is particularly thrilled that Gray, Lee and Mayo can partake in this NCAA tournament appearance because her appreciation for them runs deep.
“It’s really important to know that they trusted us,” Richardson said. “They could have transferred and all of that other stuff. When we came in, I had a meeting with them and talked about what our goals were, and they trusted that, and they stayed. So I appreciate that from them, and they can talk about that story to the newcomers coming in, saying, ‘We trusted them, we trust the coaching staff.’ So that is what has been helpful.”
Simply qualifying for the NCAA tournament won’t satiate the team’s hunger, according to Mayo.
“It would mean a lot because I don’t think many people — besides the people in this room and our parents — think that we’re going to win the game,” she said. “We’re definitely going down there to try to win the game.”