Practice was almost over. The clock on one end of the UMKC gym was counting down from 3 minutes and players on the other end were quietly listening to coaches explain one last play before leaving for Las Vegas.
The Kangaroos are headed to the Western Athletic Conference tournament with an above .500 record for the first time in their four years in the league. It’s been six years since a UMKC team had a winning record entering a conference tournament — the 2010-11 squad left for the Summit League Championship with a 16-14 mark.
The road to get above .500 has been a rather long one, but the Roos had expected to take it with Martez Harrison leading the offense.
“He could do so much by himself,” UMKC coach Kareem Richardson said.
Richardson, fresh off being an assistant on the 2012 Louisville team that won the NCAA National Championship, accepted the UMKC job for the fall of 2013 and brought Harrison on board. Their arrival on campus was supposed to be the beginning of the Kangaroos’ revival.
Harrison, a Kansas City native, was named WAC Freshman of the Year, then 2015 Player of the Year, and as a junior he led UMKC in scoring with an average of 15.4 points and 4.2 assists per game.
But this November, Harrison was suspended indefinitely for “violation of athletic department policy.” It was revealed following a Title IX investigation that the violation stemmed from an accusation of domestic violence, leading to his dismissal from the team on Dec. 12. The next day, Harrison was handed a one-year suspension from the school.
With Harrison’s return no longer on the floor, the Roos fell into a slump and lost six straight contests. They no longer had Harrison’s dynamic personality to talk them through games, and a team that was verbally challenged, as Richardson joked Tuesday before the WAC tournament, needed someone like him to break the others out of their shells.
“Martez was loud by nature,” Richardson said. “When he left it was like you could hear a pin drop at practice.”
But waiting in the wings to take charge for UMKC was senior LaVell Boyd, a junior college transfer from the southside of Chicago who joined the Roos last year. He quietly, in the most literal sense, was the team’s second-best scorer last season, just behind Harrison averaging 14.1 PPG.
“They used to always talk to me about me being afraid to step on his toes,” Boyd said. “He was the hometown kid. He was here two years then. It was basically his program. But I had to let it go.”
Challenging as it was for someone like Boyd, whose childhood nickname Pep is more a reference to his actions than his soft-spoken demeanor, to take on a leadership role, Boyd excelled in it. This November, he took off. At the time Harrison was suspended, Boyd was leading the team with 18.3 points per game.
He enters the WAC Tournament as a first-team all-conference selection averaging 18 points and nearly four assists per game.
He was happy, but he wasn’t boisterous after getting the new on Tuesday. He’s never been the type to brag.
Boyd is four points away from scoring his 1,000th point in his second and final year as a Kangaroo. He will become the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college when he accepts his diploma later this spring.
No. 3 seed UMKC will play No. 6 seed UT-Rio Grande Valley at 9 p.m. Thursday at The Orleans Arena.
WAC men’s tournament
Thursday-Saturday at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas
No. 5 Seattle vs. No. 4 Utah Valley, 2 p.m.
No. 2 New Mexico State vs. No. 7 Chicago State, 4:30 p.m.
No. 3 UMKC vs. No. 6 UT-Rio Grande Valley, 7 p.m.
No. 1 CSU-Bakersfield vs. Seattle-Utah valley winner, 6 p.m.
N.M. State-Chicago State winner vs. UMKC-Rio Grande Valley winner, 8:30 p.m.
Semifinal winners, 8 p.m., ESPN