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No More Doubters For UMBC

February 25, 2008 Columns No Comments



UMBC Is For Real

by Sam Perkins

ALBANY, N.Y. – All season long the sentiment has leaked out from around the America East – from Prognosticators, fans, athletic departments. At times it has come in whispers, at times a dull roar, at times in droves. The notion: the UMBC Retrievers, whom have stood atop the conference all season, have not proven themselves.

All season long, Head Coach Randy Monroe has heard that his team was untested, unproven, and overrated. All season long, he has heard that the Retrievers had too short a bench and too little experience. With every quality win the pundits only found more fault with Coach Monroe’s squad.

After the Retrievers gutted out an 81-77 win in the league’s game of the year, an all-out war on the road in Albany, there is nothing left to argue. The America East has a front-runner, the America East has a favorite, and the America East has a team to beat, and that team is the UMBC Retrievers. The Retrievers may only play seven players (six with Brian Hodges injured), but they are the most talented and most complete team in the conference, as well as the gutsiest.

Wednesday night’s game was billed as a possible preview for a title match, and it did not disappoint, as the Great Danes and the Retrievers went all out for 45 minutes, with neither team backing down or giving an inch. After UMBC came within a hair of running Albany out of the gym in the first half, the Danes came roaring back in the second, overcoming a twelve-point deficit with thirteen minutes to go, three times taking the lead back from UMBC. Darryl Proctor limped through the game after being floored by Al Turley, Jay Greene had a nasty bump above his eye after catching an elbow, and Ray Barbosa twice had to be carried off of the floor while wincing in pain, all while Albany seemed to hit every single back breaker and momentum-shifter possible.

When Brian Lillis hit a thirty-foot prayer with less than a second left in regulation, sending the game into overtime and the already raucous crowd into a frenzy, the writing should have been on the wall: UMBC was running out of bodies and had lost the momentum. Any other team in the league folds like a deck of cards after Lillis’ heroics. But no other team in the conference has the combination of talent, toughness, and sheer will to win that UMBC possesses, and behind the heroics of Proctor, Barbosa, Greene, and Cavell Johnson, UMBC left Albany with maybe the biggest win in school history.

Both teams came into the night riding high, with UMBC in first place and on a six-game winning streak, while Albany had climbed back into the mix at the top of the conference, having won four of five including a huge win at Vermont. UMBC’s winning streak has been especially impressive considering they had won their last four games without leading scorer Brian Hodges (16.5 ppg), out due to a right ankle sprain.

Al Turley opened the game doing his best impression of a bowling ball, knocking over Retrievers like alley-pins (what those familiar with the league refer to simply as “pulling a Cori Spencer”). Turley’s lay-up and foul shot gave Albany an early 5-2 lead, but after that it was all UMBC, as Darryl Proctor went to work.

Proctor has entrenched himself as the heart and soul of the Retrievers all season long, and despite standing much shorter than his listed 6’4″, he has established himself as the best power forward in the league not named Marqus Blakely. Proctor used the league’s best fade-away jumper to put the Retrievers out in front, hitting at will from all over the floor, going 6-8 from the field while scoring 12 first-half points. It seemed that the only defense Albany could employ on Proctor was to hope he missed. After Proctor jump-started the offense, the rest of the Retrievers got involved, and the diversity of UMBC’s scoring options was on full display as Barbosa and Matt Spadafora drilled long threes, Justin Fry scored on a nifty move in the post, and Johnson added a pair of big-time dunks.

UMBC has always been able to score, even without Hodges, so what stood out the most was the Retriever’s defense in the opening frame, as they smothered Albany and the Danes found open looks hard to come by. Nowhere was the Retrievers’ defense more evident than in their efforts against Lillis, Albany’s leading scorer. UMBC shadowed Lillis with Spadafora, an athletic and long wing who held Lillis to two first-half points on 1-3 shooting.

The second half began where the first half ended, with Barbosa taking center stage for the Retrievers. He unleashed a three point barrage, pushing the Retrievers’ lead to twelve (the largest of the night) on a three with 14 minutes left.

“Ray Barbosa hit some shots from I think back in his hometown of Allentown tonight,” commented Monroe.

But the Danes were not done, and began to slowly climb back into the game behind outside shooting and the gritty do-it-all play of Lillis. With the crowd volume at a deafening level, a short jumper by Lillis completed the Danes’ comeback, putting Albany on top 44-43 with 9:44 left.

Most teams in UMBC’s position would have packed it in: the momentum had swung entirely behind the Great Danes, and on their home floor with their home crowd behind them, on most nights Albany walks all over their opponent. But the Retrievers dug down deep and slugged it out with Albany, trading baskets back and forth down the stretch.

“I just think these kids don’t want to lose, and I think that their talented, but more that they find ways to win, to get it done,” said Monroe.

Barbosa appeared to have put the game out of reach when he sank two free-throws with three seconds left in the game, giving UMBC a 68-65 lead. But the Danes still had one more miracle up their sleeves. As Brent Wilson prepared to in bound the ball, Lillis streaked down the middle of the court. Somehow Wilson’s Hail-Mary sailed just over the reach of Cavell Johnson and into Lillis’s hands, and Lillis was able to get off a twisting shot from behind the arc just before time expired. Lillis shot found nothing but net, sending the game into overtime.

Lillis’s shot was the kind of back-breaker that you simply can’t recover from, and after UMBC lost the lead after fighting and clawing to hang on, and was faced with the prospect of having to go for five more minutes, it would have been easy for the Retrievers to have been beaten before overtime tipped off.

“When Lillis hit that three point shot, I’m looking at that shot and I’m saying ‘Is this going to go in,’ and boom it goes in and the place goes crazy,” said Monroe, who added, “And I’m saying ‘uh oh,’ And I’m seeing my guys looking (beaten), it kind of takes the wind out of your sails when someone knocks a shot down like that.”

“I think we felt like we’d won the game already with that shot,” reflected Lillis.

UMBC was faced with an even more daunting task, as Spadafora fouled out at the end of regulation, leaving the Retrievers with only five players who figure significantly into their rotation. But the Retrievers again responded, as Proctor ripped down a rebound in traffic and went coast-to-coast nailing a huge jumper to put the Retrievers on top. His cross-court drive was incredibly impressive considering he was nursing a knee injury suffered in the aforementioned run-in with Turley and was visibly hobbled running the floor.

“Darryl’s a warrior, he’s just so relentless,” said Monroe. “If he’s not scoring a basket for us he’s coming up with a key rebound, he’s playing hard, he’s part of every floor that we play on, you turn around and he’s on the floor coming up with a loose ball, making big plays.”

Barbosa followed suit, snatching a defensive rebound and driving the length of the floor for a lay-up, and UMBC had Albany on the ropes. But near-disaster struck, as Barbosa went down in pain following his lay-up, and was forced to leave the floor.

If UMBC’s lack of depth was ever going to bite them it was now, as without Hodges, Spadafora, and now Barbosa, Monroe was forced to send in freshman Frank McKnight, whom has played sparingly throughout the season.

Jon Iati then nailed a three for Albany to cut the lead to one, and the momentum was once again building behind the Danes. But as has been the case all year, the Retrievers dug in and gutted it out. “I just think these kids don’t want to lose, and I think that they’re talented, but more than that, they find ways to win, to get it done” said Monroe.

And the Retrievers responded, as Greene didn’t hesitate to take a three from well beyond NBA range on the next trip down the court, burying it and eliciting what can only be described as a “colorful” reaction from his head coach. “Jay Greene comes down and makes a big three from I think Will Brown’s bench,” joked Monroe later.

Coming up big has become a recurring theme all season long for Greene, the league’s smallest player, and he was never bigger than in the ensuing series of events, as Lillis, who has almost a foot in height and roughly seventy pounds in weight on Greene, posted up the Retriever point guard and began to back him down. Greene, whom appeared to have no chance to defend Lillis, somehow managed to strip the ball lose in the paint, all while taking a nasty elbow to the face.

On the opposite end of the floor Greene saw an opening and drove to the basket, only to have the Danes collapse on him. Greene’s desperation floater rimmed out, but somehow Greene came up with his own rebound in traffic, and hit McKnight with an outlet pass. McKnight, in the most pressure filled situation of his young career, hit one of two free-throws, putting UMBC up five, 76-71, but once again Albany connected on another hay-maker, as Iati nailed a deep three while getting tackled by McKnight.

Iati’s ensuing free throw, completing a four-point play cut the game to one, and had the Danes looking to land a knockout blow. But Proctor again came up huge, effectively putting the game away. With the shot clock running down, Barbosa (who had re-entered the game visibly hobbled) fired up a three in traffic that missed the cylinder. However, Proctor fought threw a double team, grabbed the rebound with two seconds left on the shot clock, and banked in an off-balance lay-up with the clock expiring, all while being fouled.

Proctor’s put back with twenty-two seconds left was the play of the game, and finally put it out of reach, as the Retrievers hit three of four free-throws down the stretch and walked away with the win.

“The biggest possession of the game was the offensive rebound by Proctor at the end there,” said Albany head coach Will Brown. “I told our guys that if we got one stop, the game was over because I had no doubt we’d score on the last possession down one. Proctor just made a great play.”

“That was a big play,” echoed Monroe, “the one (rebound and put back) Darryl got couldn’t have been more timely, that was a tremendous play for us.”

For UMBC to have left with a victory, after overcoming big shot after big shot, and after seeing their roster as depleted as it is going to get, leaves little doubt that the Retrievers have what it takes to win in any scenario as their talent one through five can not be matched in the conference. With Hodges expected to return to action any day now, UMBC is that much more dangerous. But as talented as the Retrievers are, it’s their heart that truly separates them from the rest of the conference.

“I just want to say how proud I am of our guys and how we gutted it out,” said Monroe. “I can’t tell you how proud of my guys I am to have seen them regroup and really get after it in that last five minutes (overtime) and find a way to win.”

The other story of the night was the perseverance of Cavell Johnson, whom felt the wrath of the Albany faithful early and often, as the majority of the 3,380 fans in attendance waived “Stop DWI” signs and rained profanity on UMBC’s forward. The signs, in reference to a DWI conviction two years ago that led to Johnson losing his scholarship to James Madison, seemed to be a bit much, but Johnson never gave the fans the satisfaction of acknowledging them, and after his game, they might as well have stood for “Dunking With Impunity,” as Johnson threw down a trifecta of high-flying slams.

With 21 seconds left in regulation, and the Retrievers once again clinging to a one point lead, Johnson once again kept the team’s head above water, hitting two free throws amidst a sea of “DWI” signs as profanity rained down on him. In overtime Johnson was single-handedly responsible for two huge defensive stops, altering Wilson’s jumper to open the extra frame before coming from nowhere to reject what appeared to be a wide open lay-up by Brian Connelly less than a minute later. Johnson’s play in the face of adversity earned him a great deal of respect from his coach.

“I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t even see it (the signs),” said Monroe. “I’m glad I didn’t see it. You just don’t do it. I know Will Brown and his staff doesn’t have anything to do with it. Young kids can be brutal and they don’t understand the magnitude. I give Cavell Johnson a tremendous amount of credit and how proud I was of him for just really playing hard and focusing and playing through that.”

     

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