UMBC men’s basketball heads to America East championship semifinals as No. 1 seed

Uncertainty—that was the word going through the minds of every player, coach, and fan as the 2020-2021 UMBC men’s basketball season tipped off in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The team and coaching staff were cautiously optimistic as they began preparing for a season unlike any other. Now, as the team enters the America East playoffs as No. 1 seed, that uncertainty is overwhelmed by pride and gratitude. 

“This season has been different in every way you could think of. Having no fans, the travel arrangements, the COVID testing, everything really,” says R.J. Eytle-Rock ’22, psychology. But despite the numerous hoops Retrievers had to jump through, they persevered and gave supporters something to believe in. 

Basketball player goes up for a shot while one player attempts and fails to block.
Daniel Akin ’21, undergraduate studies, takes a shot against UVM.

For the first time since 2007-2008, the Retrievers nabbed the America East Regular Season Title, sharing it with the University of Vermont. UMBC finished the regular season with a 10-4 conference record.

“This season has been about adapting to what is thrown at you through the pandemic and everything else,” says Brandon Horvath ’21, financial economics. 

While he could stop there and reflect on the success of the season, Horvath and his teammates know this is just the beginning saying, “We aren’t finished yet. We still have more work to do.”

One basketball player holding ball looks to be deciding where to go next with no one around him
Horvath weighs his options on the court.

That work kicks off this Saturday with the America East championship semifinal. The No. 1 seed Retrievers will take on No. 6 seed UMass Lowell at 2 p.m. at the UMBC Event Center. The restructured playoff schedule granted automatic byes into the America East semifinals to the top two seeds, UMBC and Vermont. 

Season highlights

The hard work that carried the Retrievers through this season didn’t go unnoticed by the conference or sporting world. 

Darnell Rogers ’22, media and communication studies, put the nation on notice that his 5-foot 2-inch stature doesn’t impact his success on the court. After playing against Georgetown in November, SportsCenter tweeted a highlight reel of Rogers “getting buckets.” 

Of the team’s accomplishments and his own, Rogers says, “‘Do the things that lead to winning.’ That’s what we’ve preached all season.” 

America East agreed and honored Rogers with a spot on the All-Defensive Team after finishing the season near the top of the league in steals. Horvath earned a spot on the All-Conference First Team, his first all-conference honor. 

“I’m always all about the team and team first,” says Horvath. “With that being said, I couldn’t have gotten first-team without my teammates and coaches.”

Basketball player in black jersey dribbles past player in white jersey
Rogers dribbles past Stony Brook.

Eytle-Rock was also named to All-Conference First Team, building on his 2019 All-Rookie Team designation. 

“Making first-team was a great feeling for me; it shows a lot of growth and progress over the years. There’s a lot of talented guys in this conference, so it was special to be recognized among them,” says Eytle-Rock. 

Rounding out this year’s accolades, Dimitrije Spasojevic ‘22, sociology, earned a place on the All-Academic Team, and Keondre Kennedy ‘23, media and communication studies, was named Sixth Man of the Year. Kennedy’s contributions coming off the bench, playing in all 19 games, but starting just two, landed him this honor for the first time in program history. 

Spasojevic looks for help against Stony Brook.

Kennedy says, “I’m honored that every coach in the conference chose me unanimously and I feel as if my work is finally getting noticed, but I have another level I can get to.” 

Coach of the Year

This season wouldn’t have been possible without the leadership of head coach Ryan Odom. Now in his fifth season, Odom was named Coach of the Year by America East. This is the third time the Retrievers broke double-digit conference game wins during his tenure. 

“We are so happy for each individual award winner this year. That is product of a lot of hard work and a great overall team,” says Odom. “The Coach of the Year award is a true team award. I’m so fortunate to have such a great staff and amazing players. But I would also say that this award belongs to our administration for making it possible for our team to compete this year.”

If this season’s success has made you nostalgic for UMBC’s historic March Madness win in 2018, you can relive the fairytale with U Must Be Cinderella by Kevin Cowherd. Hall of Fame broadcaster Jim Nantz calls the book a “stirring chronicle…of bracket-busting history.” 

Cheer along with #RetrieverNation this Saturday, March 6, at 2 p.m. on ESPN+. If UMBC wins, the men will host again on March 13 against the highest remaining seed for the America East Championship.

Banner image: L.J. Owens takes his shot against UVM. All photos courtesy of UMBC Athletics.