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Far From a Case Of Dogging It

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By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, March 22, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C.

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With Georgetown leading by 18 points in the second half and a first-round victory in the NCAA tournament a virtual certainty on Friday, the fans of UMBC threw their Retrievers a bone.

Sorry, I couldn't help myself. How many teams have a Chesapeake Bay Retriever as a mascot? You've got to love it when the pooch holds out his huge, floppy ears and begs the crowd to knock him backward with a big cheer.

Actually, the yellow-and-black-clad fans of UMBC gave their spunky team a standing ovation for standing up to the second-seeded Hoyas, who had a half-a-foot-a-man advantage, and gave them fits during much of a dignified 66-47 defeat in a Midwest Region first-round game.

"Regardless of the result, I am a proud Retrievers believer," said UMBC President Freeman ("Mega Nerd") Hrabowski III, 57, who is best known for helping minority students succeed in science, technology, engineering and math. "To reach the NCAA tournament for the first time ever is wonderful for school spirit on our campus. Our students are so serious we need something to balance the academic climate. This is exactly how it should be."

Just how serious is UMBC? "How many college presidents have to tell their students to 'Go have some fun on the weekends. Stop studying so hard. Take part of Friday and Saturday off,' " said Hrabowski, who's run the school for 16 years.

For UMBC, days like this don't come around very often. Okay, never. Not in 41 years of existence, including 22 seasons in Division I. The only 7-footers on the 500-acre UMBC campus, located about five minutes from Baltimore-Washington Airport, are huge Kings and Rooks, which the pointy-headed-and-proud- of-it school displays on its quad-sized outdoor chess board during its celebration of Chess Week.

Oh, sure, chess week. Sometimes, the UMBC basketball team only dresses seven scholarship players -- "We have limited athletic resources," said Hrabowski -- but the school's chess team, one of the two best in the country, gets scholarships. Beat Harvard? Like a drum. On the same days that the basketball Final Four will hold the nation's attention in San Antonio, UMBC will host the collegiate Final Four of chess. I've got UMBC's No. 2 board, Katerina Rohanyan, the Kiev Killer, in my bracket.

Usually, UMBC wins competitions such as the Ethics Bowl (debate) or the Technical Bowl (National Society of Black Engineers) or receives praise for a diverse student body. But, once in a while, a handful of special athletes can pull a university that doesn't even have a football team into national sports prominence. That's what happened at UMBC, where a superb little point guard, 5-foot-8 Jay Greene, ignited a long-shooting, high-powered offense by dishing to a trio of 6-2 to 6-4 dead-eye gunners, Brian Hodges, Darryl Proctor and Ray Barbosa. No, they don't have a real center. And, of course, they can't beat Georgetown with 7-2 Roy Hibbert and assorted McDonald's High School All-Americans.

But, on days like this, when a No. 15 seed such as UMBC puts up a good fight, we're reminded why the first round of the NCAA tournament is both a hoot and a public service. Actual academic institutions receive a few days of the sunlight that are usually hogged in March by sports factories that think racquetball is a tough major. So, we learn that UMBC is big -- 12,041 students and a 500-acre campus -- and draws a quarter of its students from Montgomery County. After $400 million of construction in 10 years, UMBC now has three-quarters of its freshmen living on campus. And UMBC is smart, heavy in science and math, with a quarter of students scoring over 1,350 on the SATs.

"Our idea of theater is Samuel Beckett," Hrabowski said. Just to lighten things up after replaying a Karpov-Kasparov match?


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