Photo by Ian Feldmann.
The Retrievers did the unthinkable: with one last shot to determine the fate of every player on the court, graduate-guard Jarius Lyles dribbled between his legs before pulling up and draining the game winning three. “Coach called a play, I waved it off and took it myself, Trae Bell-Haynes gave me some space, so I just raised up and hit the shot right over him,” said Lyles. “The shot” was not an easy one, just like the path that UMBC had to endure to reach this point.
UMBC opened up the season with two losses in the Atlantis Mainland tournament. Then a 93-62 win against Central Penn gave the Retrievers a bit of an idea on the caliber team they have in place. Following this big win, UMBC suffered another loss at the hands of Colgate. This loss triggered something within the Retrievers as they ran off three straight victories behind the powerhouse of Jarius Lyles and the senior class. During this winning streak the Retrievers averaged at least 80 points and held their opponents to a subpar 73 points. The win streak included a one-point win against Nicholls State, which created a bond with the team that stood through the end of the season.
This streak came to an end as they lost to Army-West Point, 81-70. After that, the Retrievers went right back to their winning ways, running off two straight and dominating their opponents by 20 points apiece. The following game was the Battle of Baltimore, as UMBC took on Towson in a losing effort. This loss saw one of the worse offensive games played by the Retrievers as they could only muster up 20 made field goals for the entire game. This began a pattern of quality play from the Retrievers that could only be acquainted with losses at the hands of inferior teams that did not hold up to the talent on this Retrievers squad.
Coppin State felt that wrath as UMBC handled them with an 81-74 victory. The following win came at the hands Northern Ky with a one-point victory sealed by Lyles’ 31 points. The Retrievers would face their toughest test yet facing the University of Maryland, receiving a beat down with a 66-45 loss, the first half of the game seemed promising as UMBC hung around, only being down six at the half. The second half was a totally different story as they were outscored 48-21 in the second half. A loss like this could put a team in complete disarray and could potentially derail a season. The Retrievers on the other hand are a different story, Centenary realized this as UMBC knocked down 17 threes in their home domination of this non-conference team.
The month of January turned out to be a work of art for the Retrievers as they posted a 7-2 record, all of them being conference games. The final two months of the season were all conference games so UMBC had to pull out all the stops and boost their level of play to get through the season and into the playoffs. The Retrievers did just that with another winning record in the month of February at 5-2. Finishing the season at 21-10 the playoffs looked very promising as they ended the season positively with two wins.
Once the playoffs started, UMBC took home-court advantage to another level coming out of the gates with fire, dominating the games at both ends of the court. Following the Hartford game, all the momentum seemed to be on the Retrievers side as they traveled to Vermont with the America East title on the line. This opportunity presented itself with the chance to avenge their past 23 straight losses to Vermont, and get their hands on a title that has eluded them for 10 years.
The fight for the title wasn’t an easy one as both teams went back and forth trading shot for shot until the end of the half when a last second three gave UMBC a two point lead. In the second half Vermont would go up by as many as nine points, but that did not deter the Retrievers as they battled back in a game that went down to the wire.
Lyles had the last say of this thrilling game as he nailed the 3-point shot that put an end to the Catamounts Tourney hopes, and punched the Retrievers ticket to the NCAA Tournament. “This is a special moment to do it with these guys, we know how far we’ve come so it’s a very special moment” said an exhausted Lyles who finished the game with a game-high 27 points.
Senior sociology major KJ Maura, who had eight points in the game, was excited to be able to go to the dance that very few get to partake in. “This is a dream come true. I grew up watching Adam Morrison of Gonzaga and Steph Curry play for Davidson in the tournament, and now to get to play for it is awesome”, he said. Even Head Coach Ryan Odom understood what this means for the team saying, “You have to earn the right to win and these kids did that. They were eager to compete and win, and that’s what you saw today.”
With six straights wins the Retrievers carry not only the weight of the school on their shoulders, but the support and confidence of everyone in Retriever Nation as the kings of the America East embark on the journey of a lifetime to March Madness.