For the UMBC men’s basketball team, the story usually centers around the senior trio of Keondre Kennedy, L.J. Owens and Darnell Rogers. Lately, another senior Retriever has poked his nose into that group: Szymon Wojcik.
Wojcik, a 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward out of Wroclaw, Poland, has scored double-digit points four times in UMBC’s past five games and seven times in its last 12 games. He posted 19 points, nine rebounds and two blocks during an 80-60 win against Hartford in an America East semifinal March 9. He posted 17 points, eight boards and three blocks in a 93-85 win against UMass Lowell in a quarterfinal March 6.
Not bad for a player who only made it into eight games for UMBC in 2020-21 and had been at two schools (Northwest Florida State College and Missouri State) prior to that. Retrievers head coach Jim Ferry said Wojcik’s development represents “the biggest transformation in a year in this conference.”
“We’ve all believed in Szymon,” Ferry said. “Part of it has been getting Szymon to realize how good he is, and he’s starting to play with that confidence now and comfort. He’s just been tremendous all year for us. We’re really lucky we have him.”
UMBC will need another big-time effort out of Wojcik when the Retrievers battle for the America East title at Vermont March 12. The Catamounts went 27-5 overall and 17-1 in the conference during the regular season and entered the league tournament with an 80.4 percent chance of earning the conference’s automatic bid, according to Ken Pomeroy.
UMBC is in its third America East title game in five years and is looking for its second NCAA Tournament appearance during that same span, with the first being the historic run in 2018. But this is a different Retrievers team than those previous iterations, with first-year coach Ferry bringing a quicker-tempo, higher-scoring brand of ball.
The ascension of Wojcik also makes this a different UMBC team. He was the best player on the floor against Hartford, stretching the floor at the offensive end (2-for-3 from 3-point range) and protecting the rim at the defensive end.
Wojcik is finding himself on the floor more as his production ticks up, too. Though he’s averaging 13.4 minutes per game on the year, he’s played 23 or more minutes in four of UMBC’s past five games.
“It’s all about confidence,” said Wojcik, who is averaging 7.1 points and 3.5 rebounds per game on the season. “There is not a single thing that I do different. Every day we practice the same drills, same mentality, same shots we do. It’s all in my head, basically. I just believe I can do it, and then I do it.”
UMBC will almost certainly need the most recent version of Wojcik to beat Vermont. The Retrievers were swept by the Catamounts during the regular season, dropping 17-point and 27-point decisions to the America East power. Vermont is led by senior forward Ryan Davis (17.1 points, 5.7 rebounds per game) and graduate guard Ben Shungu (16.0, 4.5).
Wojcik will be among those asked to keep Davis, the America East Player of the Year, in check. The 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward scored 21 points during the January matchup at UMBC and 18 during the February matchup in Burlington, Vt.
“When we went up there to Vermont, I was trying to tip every single ball that he had just to play with him a little bit to try to make him understand that it will not be easy to take a shot,” Wojcik said. “It’s for title. He can shoot, he can drive, he can dunk, he can post up. I’m just thinking that I’ll do everything in my mind to stop him. If it takes blocking shots, I’ll block shots. If it takes getting closer to him, I’ll take his space and make his shots difficult.”
MAKING UP FOR LAST YEAR: UMBC entered last year’s America East tournament as the top seed, so it had a prime opportunity to make its third NCAA Tournament appearance in program history … until that quest fell apart in the semifinals against UMass Lowell. The Retrievers had a 64-54 lead against the River Hawks with less than seven minutes remaining in the game, but UMass Lowell closed the game on a 25-13 run to escape with a win.
No. 4 seed Hartford defeated No. 2 Vermont, 71-65, that same day. Hartford beat UMass Lowell in the America East title game for the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Hawks lost to eventual national champion Baylor in the first round.
“Last year still burns to this day,” UMBC junior forward Nathan Johnson said. “It’s still in the back of our minds. I think that’s what’s fueling a lot of us that returned from last year’s team. We don’t want that feeling again, so we’re excited to go up to Vermont and get a championship.”
GOOD VIBES: UMBC legend Jairus Lyles, who made the buzzer-beater at Vermont to send the Retrievers to the NCAA Tournament in 2018, was at Chesapeake Employers Insurance Arena for the semifinal win against Hartford. Lyles spoke with the team before the conference tournament, according to Ferry, and now the Retrievers will try to duplicate what Lyles’ team did in 2018.
“I’m going to try to see if we sneak him in a uniform for our trip up,” Ferry joked. “Nah, we’ve got all the guys we need. We’ve got all the guys we need. We just have to go up there and play well.”
Photo Credit: Gail Burton/UMBC Athletics