Amaze. Inspire. Surprise. You’ll be hearing those words a lot in the coming weeks—together, they cut to the heart of why we love sports in the first place. So in the days leading up to the naming of SI’s Sportsperson we’ll be looking back and shining a light on the athletes, moments and teams (and one horse) who did one—or all—of those things in 2018. There can be only one Sportsperson. But it has been a year full of deserving candidates.
It was going to happen eventually, sure. But like this? Even those who foresaw some upstart No. 16 seed one day toppling a No. 1—which had not happened in the 135 previous such matchups—could not have forecasted the way UMBC laid waste to Virginia on March 16. What played out on that Friday night in Charlotte was not just an upset but a drubbing. A team from a program that had only one previous NCAA tournament appearance picked up its first against the ACC’s reigning regular season and conference champions. The Cavaliers’ vaunted defense—the most efficiently stifling since Kenpom.com began tracking that metric in the 2001-02 season—gave up 53 points in a half, just one fewer than their offense scored in the entire game. A team that had two months earlier lost to Albany by 44 points beat the team ranked No. 1 in the national polls by 20, and it honestly felt like it more.
When the great white whale of NCAA tournament upsets was finally captured, it came with an almost incongruous decisiveness—no nerve-racking final minutes, no tension-building timeouts, no buzzer beaters. Whatever was sacrificed in drama was made up for in the opportunity for a sort of collective relishing, at least outside of Charlottesville. As the Retrievers pulled away there was ample time to marvel at how Jairus Lyles, far and away the best player on the floor that night in North Carolina, transferred not just once but twice (from VCU to Robert Morris, then from there to UMBC) before pouring 28 points on the school that both of his parents attended, or how his coach, Ryan Odom, was a native of the area who two years earlier had been coaching in Division II. There was time for the athletic department’s cheeky Twitter account to become an internet star and to swoon over the school’s adorable statue of its mascot, True Grit. There was time to commit the TNT broadcast crew’s repeated reminders to memory: it stands for the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
In the immediate wake of their win, the Retrievers were the toast of the sports world—their director of digital media was even profiled in The New York Times. But the NCAA tournament can churn through darlings with unforgiving pace, and soon enough the event’s underdog-loving spotlight was shining on Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean and their own surprising trip to the Final Four. But UMBC’s place in college hoops lore will be a rightfully lasting one, invoked by announcers whenever a No. 1 seed is forced to sweat in its tourney-opener, offering a subtext of possibility every time an aspirant 16-seed takes the floor. For decades, that hope was rooted in the hypothetical. On a Friday night in Charlotte, with a flurry of three-pointers and a spark of defiance, UMBC made it real.