While I’ve always been proud to be an alumni of UMBC, that pride has come with a caveat: explaining the acronym to people staring blankly, not quite sure how a school with “University of Maryland” in its name is not affiliated with its big brother in College Park. (Of course, it once was — when I graduated in 1982, I received a diploma from Maryland, since the Catonsville campus was still considered a satellite site.)
But today, sitting in Champps American in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., (shameless plug, but a great place), I burst with pride when my Retrievers beat Hartford for their first America East conference tournament title and an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament — also a first for the good folks at what I used to know as Loop Road.
I can only imagine the halftime speech by coach Randy Monroe. He probably reminded his Retrievers about that 20-point second-half lead they squandered earlier this season, though they prevailed at the end. He probably reminded them that starting strong meant nothing — it’s how you finish that sticks in folks’ minds. And he no doubt pointed out that after a long season full of adversity, 20 minutes of hard-nosed basketball was all that stood between his team and immortality.
If the pictures on ESPN2 were a fair indication, the RAC Arena was rocking. I’ve covered UMBC basketball for almost eight years, and I’ve seen some dreadful games in an empty arena. This year, the vibe was different. An infusion of transfer talent and point guard Jay Greene, who plays like a 7-footer in the heart and guts departments, made a difference. Even when injuries forced Monroe to go with a six-man rotation a few weeks ago, the Retrievers didn’t wilt.
Seeing the unbridled joy of Monroe cutting down the net, seeing the thrill on Greene’s face as he played to the crowd in the final minutes, was enough to bring tears to my eyes. My waiter, who noticed me dabbing my peepers, congratulated me — after asking lots of questions about UMBC throughout the game.
It’s going to be like that for the next week or so – people asking about the strange acromyn that defines the Retrievers. Good for UMBC, since the answer will give a damn fine university an opportunity to explain who it is and what happens there. Sleepy little Catonsville just got a little less sleepy.
Enjoy the accomplishment, Retrievers. I think you’ll be rewarded with a 13 or 14 seed, and a matchup against a legacy program in the first round. I don’t know if you’ll luck out and get to the Washington, D.C., subregional, but that would be a great boon for your families and your fans.
This alum — who has to be unbiased most times he sets foot on campus — is bursting with pride tonight. Maybe it’s better that I watched the game in a bar, where fist pumping and “Yeah Baby!” is allowed.
And while we’re on the subject of basketball in Baltimore and the surrounding area, remember this: UMBC and Mt. St. Mary’s are gong dancing on the men’s side. They will be joined by either Copping State or Morgan State from the MEAC. Coppin’s women qualified for the women’s tournament this afternoon.
Forget about the Terps and the NIT. It’s good to be a Baltimore basketball fan today.