For UMBC women’s basketball’s Te’yJah Oliver, the path to a breakthrough senior year started last summer in a familiar place.
Every day, Oliver made sure she was in the gym — and not just for team workouts. She got shots up outside of team activities and made time for extra sessions in the weight room to ensure she had the stamina to be an impact player for all 40 minutes of a game.
As a junior, Oliver had already led the Retrievers in scoring with 11.2 points per game. After a summer of hard work, her scoring average has spiked to 19.1, the second-best mark in the conference behind Binghamton’s Kai Moon (20.2). For Oliver, it all comes back to those long days in the gym.
“I feel like I have more confidence in myself,” Oliver said. “So I feel like I do it every day just [like] going back to my gym every day.”
First-year head coach Johnetta Hayes knew Oliver was talented but spent the offseason trying to get the Clinton, Md., native to another level. During preseason workouts, the coaching staff continued to challenge Oliver to find that higher gear. Oliver embraced the challenge and that’s carried over to her play this season, Hayes said.
“She wins every sprint [in practice], she’s aggressive,” Hayes said. “I saw her transition from wanting to play the game and be that player in the game consistently.”
Though Hayes and her staff started to push Oliver in the right direction, Hayes said it was ultimately Oliver’s drive and internal motivation that pushed her to become a better player.
“… She made the decision to be better,” Hayes said. “She’s been better in the classroom and on the court and has been a joy as a teammate.”
Not only is Oliver’s scoring up from last year, her efficiency is on the rise as well for the Retrievers (6-14 overall, 2-7 in the America East). Instead of her added responsibilities meaning worse shooting percentages, the opposite has happened for Oliver. Despite taking about more than six shots per game from the field this year, her shooting percentage has jumped from 39.3 percent to 41.0 percent.
That consistency has allowed her to score at least 15 points in all but three of the Retrievers games this season, and it’s not just around the rim that Oliver has success. While dedicating herself to being a better player this summer and being challenged by the coaching staff, she also took a substantial step forward as a 3-point shooter.
Throughout the first three years of her UMBC career, Oliver shot 25.8 percent from beyond the arc. This year, she’s shooting 39.8 percent and has become her team’s main 3-point threat. Oliver shoots 5.9 threes a game, which is nearly 60 percent of the Retrievers 3-point attempts. Nobody else on the team attempts more than 1.9 per game. Though her role is a lot to handle, Oliver has taken the increased responsibility in stride.
“It means a lot,” Oliver said. “Sometimes [Hayes] gets on me for taking a shot too fast or run through the offense to get a better shot or take time off the shot clock. For them to have the trust in me it just allows me to go harder and do whatever I need to do to get a win for the team.”
As with the rest of her game, becoming a better shooter started in the gym. First it was pulling up in transition. Then it was spot-up 3-pointers. After that, it was working on hitting them off the dribble, then working on shooting coming off screens. She also added to her mid-range game.
It’s a process that’s ongoing, as both Hayes and Oliver are still looking for ways for the senior to get better. After every practice, Oliver stays to hit shots to give her body the repetitions for when she’s tired at the end of games. She does the same thing on off days. Even if it means a coach will be late for a recruiting trip, someone will stay to make sure Oliver can get her shots in. From the coaching side, Hayes said she and her staff are looking for any way to get her looks all around the court.
It’s all added up to a year during which Oliver is leaving her mark on the UMBC record books. On Dec. 29, she scored 30 points against Lafayette to become the 21st player in program history to reach 1,000 career points. Oliver has since risen to 12th on the list with 1,150 career points and at her current pace could move up to eighth by the end of the regular season. If she finishes the year averaging better than 20 points a game, she’d be just the fourth Retriever to do so.
For Hayes, Oliver is the type of player she wants to build her program around. Though UMBC has struggled after returning all but one player from last year, it’s important that the top player has bought into the new coaching staff.
“To get one of the best players to buy in to what we want to do and show up and give her very best shows who she is,” Hayes said, “and why she has the opportunity to play at the next level.”
All statistics are entering UMBC’s Feb. 5 game against Stony Brook.
Photo Credit: Zoë Pekins