CHARLOTTE — The droplets of magic that practically remained hung in the balance after a jumper bricked strong off the back iron and into the palpable Sunday night buzz of Spectrum Center. University of Maryland-Baltimore County, the mightiest Cinderella in college basketball history — the 16-seed that slayed No. 1 Virginia not even 48 hours prior — slugged and tussled with another high major foe in Kansas State, trailing by just four with three minutes left in regulation.
The tank sputtered and teetered toward E after every missed jumper, every ill-timed turnover, every opportunity, and in that moment, the big-bodied Xavier Sneed seemingly sapped it all for good with a thunderous put-back slam over the top of UMBC forward Joe Sherburne. It powered the Wildcats ahead by six and hammered a notion that story time was over.
On a night where shots simply didn’t drop through the twine, largely due to the exhilarating but fatiguing craze of Friday’s historic moment, and turnovers that piled above the norm, UMBC’s inspiring run came to a close in the 50-43 loss to Kansas State.
“Nothing can take away this — this loss can’t take away what these kids … have been able to accomplish,” said UMBC coach Ryan Odom, who took over the program after a four-win season just three years ago. “Certainly in the NCAA Tournament, just to be here is a blessing for sure.
When Odom ambled back to the dressing room, his players burying their famous golden jerseys into their dejected faces, he scribbled one word on the whiteboard: “Proud.”
“[They] captured our country and beyond,” Odom said.
In pregame warmups, UMBC players sported newly-made long-sleeve shirts that read “UNLEASH CHAOS” on the front and “SHOCK THE WORLD” on the back. Under Armour shipped them from Baltimore to Charlotte just in time for another shot at history, but, like all magical entities, it wilted.
Overnight sensation and DeMatha alum Jairus Lyles, who hit the game-winning 3-pointer in the America East title game vs. Vermont and poured in 28 points on 11 shots in the epic win over No. 1 Virginia on Friday, struggled to find scoring space all night. He finished with 12 points on 4-for-15 shooting, six rebounds, four assists and four steals. His 71 offensive rating by KenPom is the third lowest this season.
“I think they did a good job of speeding us up,” Lyles said. “We made history the other night, but we wanted to win tonight. … We didn’t execute enough.”
For the game, UMBC (25-11) shot 29.8 percent (14-for-47) overall, 27.3 percent from deep (6-for-22) and 50 percent at the free throw line (9-for-18). On Friday, the Retrievers connected on 12 of 24 attempts from long range and entered Sunday night with a 38.5 percent clip from 3-point distance, good enough for 36th nationally. UMBC also turned the ball over 17 times — 25.7 percent of its possessions on Sunday, the highest miscue rate of the season.
“We had way too many turnovers. I couldn’t even tell you the last time we had 17 turnovers in a game,” Odom said. “So, I think it was there. Certainly the free-throw shooting was not what it needed to be.”
Even through the noticeable fatigue and a first half that featured just seven field goals, UMBC trailed by only five at halftime, 25-20. The dynamic Lyles and conference Defensive Player of the Year, 5-foot-8 guard KJ Maura helped hold Kansas State to just 37.5 percent (9-for-24) in the first half.
It picked up where it left off out of the gate — jumping on top 7-0 after a shake-and-bake layup by Lyles. Kansas State didn’t score until Makol Mawien’s layup off an inbound play at the 13:40 mark. Jourdan Grant answered that 14 seconds later with a 3-ball on the other end, which gave UMBC its largest lead of the night at 10-2. But then the Retrievers grew stagnant and fell into an offensive lapse, going on a 4:16 scoring drought that yielded the lead for good.
The Wildcats exploited, of course, going on a 13-4 run for a 15-14 lead at the 8:29 mark. UMBC never led again. It did, however, draw within just one point on multiple occasions. Sophomore forward Max Curran drilled a 3-pointer at the top of the key to make it 32-31 with 14:25 to go. Maura made two of three free throws to bring it to 34-33 at the 11:07 mark and Lyles sank a deep triple to make it 38-37 with 6:01 remaining, but all those pulsating moments were merely a tease.
The harsh reality is the magic had ran dry. But the legendary tale tale will never die and a 30-for-30 is only inevitable. An entire nation had rallied around a team that not long ago hung in the shadows of mid-major forgottens, led by a grad student who could’ve bailed for the real world, a 140-pound grinder and a bunch of unrated prospects going toe-to-toe with the big guns.
The message through all this is quite clear: “Just believe in yourself,” Odom said. “I think that’s the first thing. People will tell you in life you can’t do something and if you believe them, then you won’t. These kids never wavered. They believed they could do this and they got it done. … The rest is history.”