CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The University of Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers came into Friday’s game with the same sort of confidence that the 135 No. 16 seeds before them had. On any given night, if everything breaks your way, maybe you can pull it off. And more times than not, any casual observer can see that confidence start to fade as the overmatched opponent tries to keep up appearances for the nationally-televised audience and alumni in the stands.
But not for the Retrievers on Friday night. Point guard K.J. Maura was shooting a bow and arrow from the floor toward his bench after a made three-pointer in the first half and, after going into halftime tied at 21 with the top overall seed in the tournament, UMBC raced to a six-point lead before a minute of the second half had elapsed. By the end of the game, UMBC’s players didn’t have to keep up a brave face for their fans in the stands. Security had to keep those fans from rushing the court.
In UMBC’s 74-54 win over Virginia, the Retrievers became the first No. 16 seed in men’s basketball tournament history to top a No. 1 seed. And they knew it all along.
“I don’t think there was any point in the game that we thought we couldn’t play with them,” said Jairus Lyles, who led all scorers with 28 points. “We knew we could play with them before the game. Tying up with them at halftime definitely gave us more confidence.”
This was the big one. The one that for so long seemed impossible. But within the past 10 or so years, parity has taken hold of college basketball. Since 2010, six No. 14 seeds have beaten No. 3 seeds. Four No. 15 seeds have topped No. 2 seeds in that same span. Things have been trending in this direction, but to happen to the top overall seed? A 31-2 team that won both the ACC regular-season title and conference tournament? To a team nicknamed the Retrievers?!
Virginia coach Tony Bennett figured UMBC would give his team trouble. During the season, there were times the Cavs hadn’t played well against teams that ran a four-guard offense, and that would only be exacerbated with the loss of ACC Sixth Man of the Year De’Andre Hunter to a broken wrist. Lyles is a fantastic scorer, Maura is a tenacious defender and both Arkel Lamar and Joe Sherburne can hit from outside.
“Without De'Andre—I thought we had enough with what we had—but that allowed us to sometimes switch and he could -- his versatility helped us. When we didn't have that, we were always a little nervous,” Bennett said. “I think again their quickness—their size is small—couple times we couldn't take enough advantage of that. They did a great job blocking out, but again they put a lot of pressure on you with that and they run their offense.”
The first half played like so many of the Cavaliers’ games this season. Virginia’s defense choked out the opponent by forcing UMBC to shoot 35%, turn the ball over six times and score just four points in the paint. Lyles, the team’s leading scorer, figured going into the game that Virginia would key in on him and he attempted just two shots in the first half.
But the Retrievers went into halftime tied at 21 after trailing or being tied for nearly 18 of the 20 minutes. Virginia was hardly shooting better from the floor, and UMBC was outdueling the nation’s top squad from behind the arc (five made threes to just one for the Hoos).
By the first media timeout of the second half, the Retrievers had control of the game. They started the half on a 13-3 run that included nine points from Sherburne.
“In the first half I passed up a couple threes and that really angered my teammates,” Sherburne said. “So in the second half I made sure I got some off. And there was one I missed and Arkel got the rebound, passed it right back to me. I thought about doing an extra pass over to K.J., but I knew everybody was going to yell at me if I didn’t shoot that one too. I just let it go.”
Virginia let it go, too. The Cavaliers never got the deficit to single digits after Sherburne’s three with 16:23 left in the game. Guard Kyle Guy said the team tried to make “home-run plays” from there on out as UMBC’s lead swelled.
This was a sports version of David and Goliath in a true sense. Virginia entered the game as 20.5-point favorites and would lose by 20. David felled Goliath with a rock to the forehead, but he also cut off the giant’s head.
The Retrievers probably shouldn't have even been here. A quality 24-10 season in coach Ryan Odom’s second year at the helm, UMBC had to come back from nine down against the defending America East champion Vermont in the conference tournament—a team the Retrievers had lost to 23 straight times. UMBC then hit a three in the final second to get an automatic bid. So congratulations, you get to play the best team in the country for all your efforts.
But Virginia was known to Odom. His father, Dave, was an assistant at UVA from 1982-1989 before returning to Wake Forest as the head coach. The younger Odom was a ball boy for that 1982 team. He still remembers sitting under the basket for Ralph Sampson’s final points in University Hall, walking past all the ACC coaching legends and even rebounding for Michael Jordan when the Heels came to town.
Bennett revitalized that Virginia dominance of yesteryear that Odom saw firsthand as a ball boy. Three of Virginia’s four 30-plus-win seasons have come under Bennett. But in six trips to the NCAA tournament, only two have seen the Hoos get to the Sweet Sixteen. Bennett knows the narrative about squad and how it can’t get over the hump. This was supposed to be the year for that. Even with Hunter going down for the tournament, the Cavaliers still figured to be a Final Four team.
In 1982, Virginia was on the wrong end of the greatest upset in college basketball history, falling to Chaminade 77-72 in Hawaii. Thirty-six years later, the top-seeded Cavaliers found a way to one-up Sampson’s squad.
“We talk about it all the time. The adulation, the praise, it comes and we got a lot of that this year,” Bennett said. “Then on the other side, there'll be blame and people pointing that out. That can't, in the end, define these guys and our team or us, because it was a remarkable season but we got thoroughly outplayed.”
As Pollyanna as Bennett wanted to be in the minutes following the embarrassing loss, this will define the 2017-2018 Virginia Cavaliers. Not the top-ranked defense. Not the ACC titles. But forever being the answer to the trivia question “the University of Maryland-Baltimore County became the first No. 16 seed in NCAA men’s basketball tournament history to beat a No. 1 seed when they beat this team in 2018?
Bonus points if you can name UMBC’s mascot.