LJ Owens went a long way to find a new home to showcase his basketball skills.
And the winding road led him to UMBC, just 30 miles from his Annapolis, Md., home. The William & Mary transfer now plays in front of a lot of family and friends, gets to slide home many weekends to enjoy momma’s lasagna, and is helping keep the Retrievers rolling through an injury-plagued, 8-12 start this season.
“It has been really good coming here,” Owens said. “Last year I was about three-and-a-half or four hours away [at William & Mary]. It has been fun having lots of family and friends come to the game. The extra amount of support has definitely been a positive.”
Owens accentuates all the positives in somewhat of a trying season in Catonsville, Md. Now there is legitimate cause for optimism, as a 69-60 America East road win at Hartford Jan. 22 proved. UMBC snapped a four-game losing streak and will close out January playing at home.
Owens is a part of the Retriever reclamation. The 6-foot-3 sophomore was a hot commodity coming out of Severn School in 2018, a consensus three-star recruit who ranked among the top 20 prospects in Maryland, according to ESPN.com. He ultimately chose William & Mary, appearing in all 31 games for the Tribe in 2018-19. He averaged 24 minutes and was fifth in the Colonial Athletic Association among freshmen with his 6.9 scoring average.
Former William & Mary coach Tony Shaver had a taken a shine to Owens early on. The Tribe were the first program to offer a scholarship, loyalty that meant much to Owens. When the school parted ways with Shaver after last season, Owens started looking for a new home, too.
There were other extenuating circumstances — an illness in the family Owens doesn’t like to air publicly — but it was a convincing enough argument to the NCAA that it allowed him a waiver to become immediately eligible at UMBC. The Retrievers had recruited him early and often as well, and were among Owens’ finalists with W&M, St. Joseph’s, Delaware and Quinnipiac.
When rules permitted this offseason after Owens entered the transfer portal, UMBC was the first school to make contact.
“I had a good relationship with Coach [Ryan] Odom and his staff,” he said. “I talked to acouple of schools and UMBC was pretty much the standout. They had recruited me hard out of high school, and like I said, it was closer to home and that was important now. They were truthful with me, genuine guys, and didn’t just say things I wanted to hear. I knew they were good people, so I definitely felt comfortable coming into this situation.”
Odom’s feel-good Retrievers program, still basking in the glow of that monumental upset of top-seed Virginia two years ago and with a new home arena since Owens visited as a Severn junior, hasn’t been all that comfortable lately. Odom was forced into using 12 different starting lineups in the first 19 games due to a glut of injuries that may force the new Retrievers’ logo to include one of those veterinary cones over the mascot’s head.
Nine players have missed a total of 56 games heading into UMBC’s game against Maine Jan. 25. In fact, newcomer Owens has been the only Retriever to start every contest. Guard Darnell Rogers, another key newcomer, has been limited to seven games, and veteran Arkel Lamar is out for the year.
“Coming into the season we had a couple of guys who had to have surgeries, and seems like since Day One, we’ve been battling some things,” Owens said. “That’s just how the dice rolls. We can’t control it. We have to fight through it and have a next-man-up mentality.”
The Retrievers dropped those four straight conference games since ending December with an 89-57 win against Penn State York, and the season to date has been challenging.
“The biggest thing has been we haven’t had enough guys to make things uncomfortable in practice situations,” Odom said. “I think that’s really impeded our progress, but we’re not that far away. We’re getting as healthy as we’re going to get, and we’re getting tougher and more cohesive.”
Sophomore guard R.J. Eytle-Rock recently returned and he’s working back into the mix, a key piece alongside Owens. Owens is second on the team in minutes (30.6 per game), and his 10.2 points are also second among the Retrievers still playing. He knocked down a game-winning jumper with 17 seconds to beat Florida Gulf Coast in his second UMBC game Nov. 9, scoring a season-high 21 points that night.
“He can really score,” Odom said of Owens. “That’s the first thing you notice about him. He has the ability to score baskets in bunches. I think he’s just hitting his stride now.”
Owens was in double figures his first three games, all wins, and later had a seven-game streak of double-digit scoring.
“The main part of my game is scoring but just making simple plays, being a team-guy first, getting everyone else involved is the most underrated part,” Owens said. “I’m trying to be a better leader, too.”
Owens has a great feel for the game, likely passed down from his father, Londell Owens Sr. Londell played at Kent State 1984-86 and helped make his son fall in love with the game. And the game came incredibly easy for LJ, the Capital Gazette Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018. He averaged 23.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists as a senior and finished his career as a four-year starter with an Anne Arundel Country record 2,166 career points. Severn was 25-6 and runner-up in the MIAA B Conference his senior year.
“It came pretty easy after my first couple of years,” he recalled of high school. “I was able to score at all three levels and that was the natural thing for me. The transition to college, the first couple of weeks you find out everyone is bigger and faster, but then the game starts to slow down for you.”
It’s starting to come more easily again as Odom plugs pieces back into his lineup.
Truth be told, one of Owens’ biggest problems has been trying to find enough tickets for all his family and friends. On average, he’s needs about 10 each game, and that’s using up a lot of favors with teammates. They actually don’t mind too much because of the return on the court from a good teammate.
“We weren’t sure he was going to be able to play [this season] and receive a waiver,” Odom said. “We’re so excited and thankful to the NCAA for allowing that to happen. He’s enjoying school and we’re certainly enjoying having him be a vital part of our team.”
And now the Retrievers are just looking for more wins. The optimistic Owens thinks that’s coming.
“We can go as far as we want to work,” he said. “I think we’re heading in the right direction. We’ve got a lot of young talent and we just have to keep working.”
All statistics are entering UMBC’s game against Maine Jan. 25.
Photo Credit: Gail Burton/UMBC Athletic Communications