By Kathy Orton
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 16, 2007
They had an idea to do something different for spring break last year. Four members of the UMBC women's basketball team and a friend from the track team decided to go to New Orleans and help Habitat for Humanity rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
While their classmates were lying on beaches, they were rising early for back-breaking work, wielding sledgehammers to tear down walls and lugging water-soaked and moldy furniture out of houses. At night, they would watch the NCAA tournament, imagining what it would feel like to play in those games.
It was a trip unlike any other, and this year's spring break promises to be the same. After unexpectedly winning the America East Conference tournament -- upsetting the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds along the way -- the Retrievers (16-16) are making their first appearance in the NCAA tournament.
They play top-seeded Connecticut (29-3) on Sunday night in Hartford.
"It seems like now something good happens every spring break," said Amanda Robinson, a junior forward out of Patuxent High School who was the conference tournament MVP.
A year ago, Robinson convinced her parents to lend her and her friends -- teammates Morgan Hatten (Churchill), Kristin Drabyn and Stacy Hunt (South River) and shot-putter Quiteelia Boyd (Westlake) -- the family van to make the 18-hour drive to New Orleans.
"We all jumped in there, we had MapQuest, and we just went," Hatten said. "It was just an awesome time. It was one of my most favorite spring breaks, but this one is going to be pretty cool too."
UMBC Coach Phil Stern is as proud of his players for what they accomplish off the court as what they do on it. In high school, four players were in the National Honor Society. The team's grade-point average last season was 3.25.
"They're such thoughtful young ladies," Stern said. "We do so much work in the community here, but for them to give up their spring break, just get in a car and drive to New Orleans, it's so selfless. Hopefully, it will be what they are remembered for along with this [America East] championship."
After winning their first America East tournament title, the Retrievers knew they were going to the NCAA tournament. That didn't diminish their excitement at seeing their school name appear as one of the 64 teams on the Monday night selection show.
"It's never what you think," Robinson said. "It's so much more. You think you can picture how all this will be. It's nothing compared to what it actually is. It's so much better."
Hatten was so thrilled to see UMBC pop up on the screen that she forgot to look to see which team they were playing. When she found out it was Connecticut -- winner of five national titles -- her enthusiasm soared.
"When you think of women's basketball, you think of U-Conn. and Tennessee," Hatten said. "We're playing a powerhouse, and it will be tons of fun. . . . That's so cool. It's more fun than going to a random place and playing in an empty gym. We'll be on ESPN2. It's awesome."
Since UMBC made the move to the stronger America East from the lightly regarded Northeast Conference four years ago, the transition has been a difficult one. Until last year, the Retrievers hadn't had a winning season since 1993. They struggled at times this season, then started playing some of their best basketball late. Their three losses in their last nine games were by a total of 14 points.
UMBC really hit its stride, though, in the conference tournament. The seventh-seeded Retrievers were determined to keep their season going for the seniors who had endured a 4-24 season three years ago. They beat Stony Brook, Vermont and Hartford to earn the school its first championship banner in women's basketball.
"We've had our ups and downs," Stern said. "But this certainly makes everything worthwhile."