UMBC needed this one. They needed it bad. And when it was over, boy did it feel good.
“Obviously to get a road win is really, really significant,” said UMBC head coach Aki Thomas, after his team’s 76-59 win at Maine, which snapped a seven-game losing streak while also giving the Retrievers their first conference win.
It’s been a long, hard season for Thomas and his massively undermanned crew. Entering the season, on paper, UMBC looked primed to take a big step in the right direction with a solid freshman class, transfer center Cody Joyce being declared eligible immediately right away by the NCAA, and a star in the making in sophomore Rodney Elliot.
That lasted all of 20 minutes, when Elliot went down with what would later be diagnosed as a torn labrum in the season-opener at Akron and was lost for the season. UMBC would subsequently lose what felt like a brigade of able bodies to injuries and suspensions, and Thomas would find himself with just seven bodies in uniform, six on scholarship – a situation so dire that he added another walk-on halfway through the year.
Somehow, even as the losses mounted (UMBC began the night 2-16 on the year), Thomas and his team found ways to keep fighting, coming heartbreakingly close to wins against UMass Lowell (73-61 loss in OT), New Hampshire (63-60), Stony Brook (64-54 in a game the Retrievers led until the five-minute mark) and Hartford (65-63).
On Thursday night, Thomas’ beleaguered troops finally put it all together, led by a monster 28-point, eight rebound, two steal, two assist performance from Joyce, who shot 11-of-16 from the floor – including a two-handed slam plus the foul – and 6-of-7 from the line.
“Cody Joyce had a big night,” said Thomas. “Did I envision a 28-point game? No, but I thought he could have a big game and really help us win, but I didn’t think 28, I thought 16-18,” Thomas smiled.
The Retrievers shot 52.9 percent from the floor on the night (27-of-51) including an insane 80 percent from the floor in the second half (16-of-20), but Thomas pointed to their defensive efforts, holding Maine to 35.7 percent from the floor and 30.4 percent from behind the arc, as the key.
“Last year Zarko [Valjarevic] really got off to a good start and we didn’t want that to happen this year. With his ability to hit three’s with limited space,” said Thomas. “We really tried to key in on him every time he had the ball, tried to make him put it on the floor, crowd him, and not let him get into a rhythm.”
The game was also a small manner of vindication for Thomas and his team. Last season, the Retrievers fell behind big in the second half, only to come roaring all the way back, only to lose in the final minutes.
“Last time when we were up here, we talked about a very hard-fought game where we were down a bunch, came back, and came up short,” said Thomas. “We don’t want that to happen this year. We wanted to do everything in our power to stay around, hang around in the game. We ended up coming out in the second half pretty well and we were able to put them away pretty good.”
Thomas also singled out graduate transfer Wayne Sparrow as being an especially big part of UMBC’s program despite an off night from the floor (2-of-11). Sparrow dished out nine assists, pulled down five rebounds, swiped four steals and added two blocks.
“He’s been huge on the floor,” said Thomas. “Off the court, he’s been a mentor to all these guys, even the older – even a guy like Cody [Joyce] but especially the younger guys…. He’s been mentoring these guys, and really kind of showing them the ropes and talking them about how hard you need to play and how you play in certain situations.”
According to Thomas, whose team moved to 1-5 in league play, as nice as the win felt, the team wouldn’t have much time to savor it.
“It’s back to Baltimore,” he said, alluding to a Sunday showdown with a first place Albany squad that sits at 6-0 in America East play.