Danielle Durjan and the rest of Towson's women's basketball team sat in a room packed with students and fans, anxiously waiting for the news to become official.
Reminders were littered throughout the room of how far the Tigers had come in just one season. The Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship trophy sat on a table in the background, and a small monitor was showing highlights from the team's first winning season since 2011.
All eyes were looking forward, though. In the front of the room was an even larger screen that displayed where the Towson squad and the program's future was heading next.
The Selection Monday special for the NCAA Tournament on ESPN held no secrets for the Tigers or the other 63 teams. The Tigers knew they had earned an automatic bid after winning the CAA tournament, and the NCAA Tournament bracket had been accidently leaked by ESPNU just hours before it was officially slated to be released to the public.
But that didn't matter, at least not to Durjan and the rest of the team nor the Towson faithful -- because for the first time ever, their team was on that bracket. The No. 15 seed Tigers were set to take on perennial powerhouse Connecticut.
"It was surreal and exciting at the same time," said Durjan, who finished her senior year averaging 6.0 points and 2.7 rebounds. "Just to know that this is my last season playing basketball and I was able to do something that a lot of people don't get a chance to do ... made me very proud of myself and my teammates."
To say Towson underwent a drastic turnaround would be an understatement. The team went from finishing 9-21 in 2017-18 to reaching 20 wins for just the second time in program history. The players now view winning as an expectation, and dreams of postseason contention have become the standard.
And that's just how second-year head coach Diane Richardson wants her players to feel.
"We talked about that in our preseason training," Richardson said. "We knew that if we followed the guidelines, we could win the CAA championship. We talked about it throughout the year and they bought into that. We had that on our minds every single game."
Richardson came to the program before the 2017 season, when winning was hard to come by. The Tigers hadn't finished with a winning record since 2012, and even that season ended with a five-game losing streak. The team had made it out of the first round of the CAA tournament just twice in seven years.
But Richardson, who has lived in Ellicott City, Md., for 25 years, was determined to change that. She had followed the team throughout her coaching career, which includes stops at Maryland, American and West Virginia, so she knew the program better than many.
When she got the call from Towson, it was an opportunity she couldn't pass up.
"I took it personal," Richardson said. "I was a fan already. It just hit my heart that it was here in my hometown area."
Maryland head coach Brenda Frese, who got to know Richardson when she was part of her coaching staff in 2007, said she was proud, but not surprised, when Towson made the NCAA Tournament. She also knew how much the team's success meant to her former assistant coach.
"When you talk about the pride that she has for Maryland, for her community, for her to be so embedded in this community for her entire life, go through the trenches and help Towson make history for the first time ever, there's got to be a tremendous amount of pride for what she's accomplished," Frese said.
Richardson's first order of business was changing Towson's culture. That involved instilling trust and respect among her players and helping them understand their potential. She wanted them to know the only way they were going to win was together.
Changing the culture also meant building a winning mentality. The Tigers had to learn how to expect to win every time they stepped on the court. For a team that had lost more than it won for several seasons, establishing that winning mindset was difficult at first.
"The first year was tough," Richardson said, "because they weren't used to winning. So they didn't always give the extra push at the end to win. In those tough games, we couldn't pull it out because they were used to losing. But that was a whole different story this year."
For Durjan, a guard who spent time at Sacred Heart and Harford Community College before transferring to Towson in 2017, developing the team's chemistry was critical. More than half of Towson's roster for the 2018-19 season was new to the program, which meant there needed to be a strong relationship between new and returning players if the team was going to succeed.
Although that relationship developed continuously during the course of the season, it didn't take long for the team to come together.
"The good thing is that a lot of us came [to campus] over the summer," Durjan said. "So we were able to build something then and figure each other out. But it all comes down to trust. The extra passes and knowing your teammate is going to get the rebound is all built on trust. We all know winning is the goal, so everything is all about making us better."
That work paid off for the Tigers as the season progressed. After starting the season 3-4, Towson won nine of its next 11 games and went 15-8 to close out the regular season. It was during a six-game win streak that included single-digit wins against Drexel, Delaware and Northeastern that Durjan and her teammates knew what they had established in the offseason was working.
"We just started clicking," Durjan said. "This was basically the first year we had played together with so many new faces. It was around December when we started to realize that we were for each other, and it showed [in the results]."
It was at the start of that win-streak -- a 12-point comeback victory against Marshall University -- that Richardson knew her players had grasped a winning mentality.
"We were down at halftime, and we talked about wanting to win and fighting to win," Richardson said. "And they came back out and they fought. I knew they had it in them then."
Again, it was not shocking to Frese when Richardson's team started winning.
"When you're losing, changing the mentality is the biggest hurdle," Frese said. "But it's no surprise with Coach Richardson's positivity and energy for her to change the program. But Towson really is a sleeping giant when you look at the facilities and their commitment to athletics. And when you look at recruiting in this region with the talent that's out there, they've done just a phenomenal job."
Towson went on to lose to Connecticut, 110-61, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The players suffered from nerves early in the game, Richardson said, and they entered a shooting slump that allowed the Huskies to surge ahead. But there wasn't any negativity on the bus heading back to Maryland. The prevailing thought was getting back to the tournament next season.
"We knew we gave it everything we had," said Richardson, whose team finished 20-13. "But we're excited to work to come back next year and know what we need to work on to get back to that point. It's been our goal ever since we got back on the bus."
The mold has been broken. Towson is now a team that will be mentioned in future postseason discussions. As Richardson said, she and the rest of the people in the program want the Tigers to be "fresh on people's tongues" when talking about successful programs.
And no matter what Towson goes on to accomplish, this year's players will forever be able to say that they started it all. That's something Durjan will never forget.
"It's a really cool feeling knowing that future teams or players looking to come to Towson will know that this team won a championship here," Durjan said. "This team will always be together forever because of that."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Towson Athletics
Issue 253: April 2019