Let’s imagine for a second that it is Dec. 31. UMBC’s women’s basketball team just secured a victory against Coppin State University before strolling into conference play. The victory places them at a disappointing 5-8, their prospective chances of playoff contentions are limited. But at least those games do not matter in the grand scheme of things, when it comes to actual postseason qualification.
Plus, some of the teams faced during this stretch belong to power house conferences such as the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference. If anything, facing these big wigs will serve as a learning experience. Actual conference play would surely be different. Hopefully.
So now let’s imagine that it is Jan. 11 as the Lady Retrievers lose to the University of Hartford Hawks, their third consecutive loss after opening play within the America East Conference (AEC). This type of start is unheard of. In 2013, UMBC finished their season with only four victories in nearly 30 games and they still started conference play with a victory.
Prospective playoff hopes are now even more limited, if existent at all. Of course, they still can qualify for the quarterfinals even though they previously made the postseason with an unusually mediocre 3-13 record. However, the ability to contend in the postseason is an entirely different story. Thankfully, there is always next year as these games are surely an indicator of an early playoff exit.
And finally let’s imagine that it is now Feb. 18 as the Retrievers defeat the University of Massachusetts Lowell. It is their sixth consecutive victory, half of which were determined by a double-digit margin. The team is led, in part, by senior Taylor McCarley as her assists average elevates to six during the winning streak.
Meanwhile, junior Laura Castaldo increases her rebounds to 6.3 per game as both guards average over 15 points per game during this stretch. Castaldo will go on to win America East co-player of the week while freshman Allison McGrath will garner Rookie of the week honors.
But now let us return to the present where, despite a loss to the University of New Hampshire Wildcats, the Retrievers sit at an impressive 10-6 in conference despite their rocky start. An early loss against Hartford and Sunday’s loss to New Hampshire are the only home losses suffered in conference play. UMBC is locked in at the third seed. The Retrievers have also won eight of their last ten games while averaging 62 points per game, just better than the conference leading Wildcats that tally 61 per game.
Regardless of the results of Sunday’s contest, the fact remains that the Lady Retrievers have defied the odds. They have emerged as the tourney’s dark horse, prepped and fully capable of running the table. No one wants to face the Retrievers, especially in the RAC. All of those early season struggles, woes and difficulties have given way to a very real possibility of bringing a championship back to Hilltop Circle and claiming a NCAA tournament berth. Who would have imagined?
There is still much to be determined about the AEC quarterfinals. On Saturday March 4, the Lady Retrievers will play the Hartford Hawks. Now think back to the beginning of this piece, remember the last of the three consecutive losses the Retrievers suffered when conference play began? It was against the Hawks. The loss is now a strange beacon of hope as the Lady Retrievers are not who they were back on Jan. 11 when they last faced off.
Head coach Phil Stern and the Retrievers have become a force to be reckoned with and whoever awaits them when they travel to Portland, Maine will surely have their hands full. If the Lady Retrievers win their quarterfinal matchup, they will then face off in the semi-finals in less than 24 hours. Finally, if they earn a spot in the finals, they will compete on Friday March 10 with hopes of ultimately hoisting the America East trophy.
This victory will ensure an NCAA tournament bid, a spot that the University at Albany earned a year ago. Albany was a twelve seed and managed to defeat the University of Florida in the first round before falling to Syracuse University. The Lady Retrievers hope to take the conference even further in the tourney this year.
The previous and only time UMBC entered the NCAA tournament was in 2007 as they entered as a 16 seed. The outing was quite a disappointment as the Retrievers faced off against Geno Auriemma and the University of Connecticut, ultimately losing by a score of 82-33. But a decade has passed since that appearance and the Lady Retrievers are poised to make a lot of noise in the America East. Poised to compete against the big names underneath the national limelight, could you imagine?