(Albany, New York) – With 1:13 remaining, UMBC head coach Aki Thomas knelt on the edge of the court, pumped both his fists and let out a mighty roar that rose above the din of the crowd and ricocheted off the far walls of SEFCU Arena.
For the better part of a decade, emotional outbursts – tantrums, tirades and all manner of explosions – emanating from the Retrievers head coach have been common place on the UMBC sidelines.
But nothing like this.
Two days earlier, Thomas had been signed to a one-year contract and named the Retriever’s head coach, after spending the previous season – his first at the helm in Catonsville – wearing the “interim” tag. Now, he watched from the sidelines as senior sniper Brian Neller’s sixth three pointer of the night, a back-breaker from the right corner, found nothing but the bottom of the net, sealing the sixth-seeded Retrievers 69-62 upset of third-seed Hartford in the America East Tournament Quarterfinals.
What followed was a moment of pure euphoria and unadulterated joy. The Retrievers bench – downtrodden and defeated for the previous three seasons – followed their coach’s lead, leaping in excitement, embracing one another and bellowing towards the rafters.
“It’s never really been too much about me, it’s always been about the players and I always knew I was going to be okay. It’s always been for them – they’re the one that have been doing three tough seasons,” said Thomas after the game.
UMBC senior guards Ryan Cook and Brian Neller flat-out refused to watch their careers end on Saturday afternoon, willing the Retrievers to their first America East Tournament victory in four years. Playing in what could have been the final game of their careers, the duo put their team on their backs and combined for 44 points on 15-of-26 shooting.
Cook, who began his college career as a Division II walk-on before walking-on to his home-town team as a junior, was everywhere, pouring in a game-high 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting while playing frenetic defense. The 6’2” senior scored from everywhere on the court – step back jumpers, dizzying drives to the bucket, post-up hoops in the paint, while making one hustle play after the next. Cook single-handedly rattled off a 12-0 second half run, turning an eight-point deficit into a four-point lead. (more…)