CHARLOTTE — For days and years and decades to come in the town of Catonsville, through the fervent sports region of Maryland and sacred hoops area of Baltimore, they’ll talk about how their team seized college basketball’s dubious role of David who at long last finally conquered Goliath. They’ll talk about how their University of Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers pieced together the most triumphant and palpable 40 minutes of basketball to accomplish what many deemed unreachable.
They’ll talk about the heroic performance and cold-blooded sharp-shooting of Jairus Lyles, who poured in a magical 28 points on just 11 shots to fuel the tiny pocket of UMBC fans with an unrelenting buzz that swept over Charlotte’s Spectrum Center on Friday night. They’ll talk about the gutsy performance of 5-foot-7 guard K.J. Maura, who was tasked and ultimately handled the intimidating frontcourt of the lauded Virginia Cavaliers.
They’ll talk and they’ll talk about this mystical 74-54 win over the nation’s top-ranked team and about how they became the first 16 seed to topple a 1 seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament. After 135 failed attempts over 33 years, these Retrievers delivered resoundingly across the country on the 136th.
“Historic game. Unbelievable,” UMBC coach Ryan Odom said. “Unbelievable is all you can say.”
It’s all you can say. This wasn’t just any 1 seed. This was the Associated Press No. 1, the prohibitive favorites for the national title. These Cavaliers entered a highly-anticipated run on full blast, winning the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title over North Carolina, the reigning national champions. Up to this point, they showed no signs of cracks or flaws and were seemingly indomitable.
After all, they ripped through the country’s best conference, racking up 31 wins and losing just twice — with both setbacks coming by a combined eight points. On Friday, UMBC routed them 20. The Retrievers romped the heralded Cavs’ defense for 53 second-half points on 67.9 percent shooting (19-for-28). It canned 12 of 24 3-pointers. The Cavs shot just 4-for-22 from long distance. How? How can this be? How does this add up?
Simply put, UMBC was never fazed. Never. It set the tone from the jump, locking down the perimeter and forcing Virginia to settle for jumpers. The Cavs missed their first three looks, and eventually bullied through the lane for an easy deuce, but the Retrievers answered every punch.
When Mamadi Diakite muscled in for a layup to put Virginia up 7-3, Jourdan Grant and Arkel Lamar canned back-to-back triples to put UMBC ahead, 9-7. The Cavs then went on a 9-1 run to take their largest lead of the night — 16-10 with 6:32 left in the first half — on layups by Riverdale Baptist alum Nigel Johnson and a three-point play by Diakite. But here came the Retrievers, who stormed back with a 9-0 run thanks to treys from Joe Sherburne, Maura and Lyles, a monumental sequence that hushed a lively Cavs and locked the game at 21-21 at halftime.
The magic only intensified after that. UMBC scored the first six points of the second half to take a 27-21 lead that only swelled. Six points became 11. Eleven became Virginia’s largest deficit of the season at 14. Fourteen became 17 and the reality that was really happening. Virginia was left stone-faced and ship-wrecked. UMBC elated and filled with jubilation. And they made sure to rub in, too.
After a 3-pointer that kept the unthinkable rolling, Sherburne pretended to slap a title belt around his waist as he backpedaled in transition. When Lyles canned another 3, another bucket a of a 23-point second-half effort, he stuck out his tongue like Michael Jordan and pranced down the other end of the floor. After zipping through the lane for an uncontested layup, Maura pretended to shoot arrows into the crowd.
For UMBC, there were zero expectations. Heck, they weren’t even supposed to be here. KenPom gave them a 9 percent chance of winning the America East and a 3 percent chance on Friday. Yet, Lyles became an overnight sensation when he drilled the game-winning, last-second 3-pointer at Vermont for the conference title. On Friday he willed his name into college basketball lore forever.
The night prior, in one of those crammed, L-shaped locker rooms of Spectrum Center, the Loyola (Chicago)-Miami game aired on an overhead television. Grant, Lyles, Maura, and company huddled around, all eyes fixated on those dwelling seconds. Ramblers guard Donte Ingram chugged down the floor before hitting a deep pull-up 3 at the buzzer that gave Loyola (Chicago) a monumental upset win over Miami.
UMBC coaches and players exploded with shouts and excitement. Grant, though, barked a bold prophecy: “Ah, man! That about to be us tomorrow! That about to be us! Shock the world, just like them! It’s March!”
And did they ever shock the world. They’ll talk about this moment forever. About how they were one’s to finally to do it: a 16 finally toppled a 1. About how they dismantled the nation’s meanest defense. About how they made history. History forever.