History was not on UMBC’s side as it entered its showdown against top seeded Virginia on March 16, 2018 looking to become the first 16-seed to knock off a number one seed in NCAA Tournament history.
“All we had talked about leading up to that game was numbers really don’t matter,” UMBC head coach Ryan Odom said on NBC Sports Radio. “It just takes one night.”
But that historic evening when everything went right in a stunning 74-54 win over the Cavaliers, one of the great upsets in sports ever, almost did not happen.
The University of Maryland-Baltimore County, like most mid-major basketball programs, needed to win its conference tournament to make the NCAA Tournament. UMBC went 12-4 in America East play but lost both of its games against Vermont. The Catamounts finished 15-1 in conference play, cruising past UMBC in each of its regular season meetings and earned the right to host the America East championship game.
Tied at 62, Silver Spring native and DeMatha Catholic alum Jairus Lyles buried a 3-pointer with less than a second to play to send UMBC dancing for the first time in a decade.
Prior to that victory, the Retrievers had lost 23 straight games against Vermont.
Now the stage was set. UMBC was the No. 16 seed in the East Region and would face 31-2 Virginia. The Cavaliers won the ACC regular season and tournament championship in 2018. Virginia was also voted No. 1 in the final five weeks of the Associated Press Top 25 poll. This was a total mismatch on paper.
But after one half of basketball on a Friday night in Raleigh, N.C., UMBC and Virginia were tied at 21. This didn’t look like much of a mismatch anymore.
“The way we felt about [the game] at halftime was we’re 20 minutes away from history,” Odom said. “It would be a shame if we got too excited or too far away from the game plan.”
Far from it. The Retrievers opened the second half with a 17-3 run that left everyone in the building stunned and never looked back. UMBC finished the evening with 53 second half points.
The Cavaliers had allowed 53.4 points per game in 2017-18, tops in the nation. And 15 of Virginia’s previous 33 opponents scored less than 53 points in a game. It was a defensive powerhouse, but that all fell apart against the Retrievers those final 20 minutes as the possibility of an upset drew closer.
“Both teams really struggled scoring in that first half and that gave us, ironically, some confidence going into the second half,” Odom recalled. “We felt like at that point we could play with them. If we could start hitting some of the shots we were getting in the first half, that we would have a legitimate shot to stay in the game. Obviously it turned out a little different than that and we did more than just hang in.”
How did this happen? Was there a perfect locker room speech? Nope.
“We approached it the same way we would have any other game,” Odom said. “That particular team was very experienced in a lot of ways.”
The Retrievers did have an ingredient that is common in many upsets in the NCAA Tournament: Quality guard play. It’s almost impossible to pull off an upset of that magnitude without it.
“You know how it is, guards win games in college basketball,” Odom said. “We had three really good ones that were able to outplay really good players, guys that went on the next year to win the national championship.”
UMBC’s backcourt of Lyles, K.J. Maura, and Jourdan Grant combined for 46 points. Lyles led all scorers with 28 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field.
Following the jubilation of making history, UMBC needed to turn its attention to Kansas State.
Less than 48 hours after shooting 67.9% from the field in the second half against the top-ranked defensive team in the nation, the Retrievers scored just 43 points in 40 minutes and went 14-of-47 from the floor. UMBC still trailed the Wildcats by just three points with under 90 seconds to play before ultimately falling 50-43.
“We’re all proud about the Virginia game but we think more about the Kansas State than [the Virginia Game],” Odom said. “Would I have like some more shots to go in? Absolutely. It would have been special to make it to the Sweet 16. But certainly...no regrets.”
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