CHARLOTTE — The triumphant howls and euphoric celebrations echoed resoundingly through the hallow halls of Spectrum Center as this once unassailable moment 33 years in the making uncorked every emotion on God’s green earth. March Madness had reached a new level of mad. Never before had basketball seen this type of Cinderella or an upset of this magnitude — and sports hadn’t seen anything comparable since the “Miracle on Ice,” when the United States toppled the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics men’s hockey semi-finals.
But this, University of Maryland-Baltimore County’s 74-54 boggling romp over No. 1 Virginia on Friday, March 16, 2018, to become the first 16-seed to defeat a 1 in NCAA Tournament men’s history was no miracle. These Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, to put it properly, came ready. All week long, minutes after their seeding was unveiled during the Selection Show last Sunday, they fixed an adamant vision to make history.
“We were talking about it before the game, just trying to go out here and make history,” said UMBC senior guard Jairus Lyles, who then went out and poured in a cold-blooded 28 points on just 11 shots.
In between the lines, they formulated a masterful gameplan. Earlier in the week, Lyles envisioned his Retrievers having success from 3-point-land on Virginia’s lauded, pack-line defense. On Thursday, senior guard Jourdan Grant predicted if they hit 10 or more treys while holding the Cavaliers to less than five, they’ll have a chance. The stat line from deep? UMBC: 12-for-24. Virginia: 4-for-22.
“We had the confidence coming in the game,” Lyles said. “We knew we could play with them.”
And once UMBC made that clear, the many who mocked and doubted became Retriever believers. Lyles flailed his tongue through and after tough bucket, like Michael Jordan and all. Senior forward Joe Sherburne drilled a triple at the top of the key that upstarted the second half tear and then slapped the Aaron Rodgers discount double check belt around his waist. Senior guard K.J. Maura, the America East’s Defensive Player of the Year at 5-foot-8, continued to rip through Virginia’s pack-line defense, firing pretend arrows into the crowd after every layup.
The historic moment captivated America, first and foremost the 17,943 lucky ticket holders inside that Charlotte arena, reverberating through the TV sets and smartphone screens of a million others.
History has been made, but the bigger picture? UMBC isn’t done. The Retrievers continue their magical run Sunday when they take on ninth-seeded Kansas State at approximately 7:45 p.m. on truTV. A trip to the Sweet 16 in Atlanta and a date with Kentucky is on the line.
“We’re not done,” Lyles said. “It’s just having all the guys realize we have another game to play. Just because we won this game doesn’t mean we’re going to win the next game. Everybody on the team wants to make a run and make more history. … We have nothing to lose.”
Sherburne added: “We go into every game thinking we have a chance to win. Kansas State won, right? They’re a good team, too. We have another big challenge ahead of us on Sunday.”
KenPom, which gave UMBC just a 9 percent chance at winning the America East conference tournament title and 3 percent chance of defeating No. 1 Virginia, has Kansas State as 10-point favorites with an 81 percent chance of prevailing. If UMBC wants another golden shot on Sunday, it’ll need to slow down junior guard Barry Brown (16 points per game), sophomore forward Xavier Sneed (10.8 points, 4.8 rebounds) and Dean Wade (16.5 points, 6.3 rebounds), if he’s healthy enough to suit up (stress fracture in foot).
UMBC will also need to take care of the ball, as Kansas State has the sixth highest steal percentage in the country (11.2), a product of their scrappy, in-your-face ball pressure defense. On Friday, the Retrievers turned the ball over 12 times — a serviceable number — and committed just four turnovers in the conference title game at Vermont.
A telling sign for the Retrievers is Kansas State is susceptible to dynamic guard play. Hence why they’re 0-7 against Kansas, Texas Tech and West Virginia. If Lyles, Maura, Sherburne — the undersized 6-6 forward — Arkel Lamar and company continue to perform — most notably hitting 3-pointers — then this incredible run will live for another round.
Tucked in the back of that crammed locker room, through the media scrum and pure ecstasy, four UMBC players and a team manager form a circle and snicker at a graphic glowing on Josh Rosario’s iPhone that reads “PERFECT BRACKETS REMAINING: 0.”
“No more brackets. No more brackets are left!” Rosario repeatedly yelled.
“It’s over. It’s over. And it’s over. I told you! I told everyone!” freshmen guard Isaiah Rogers said.
“All brackets gone!” the team manager said. “Put that in the news!”
Oh, has it ever been in the news. No matter the outcome of Sunday, these Chesapeake Retrievers have launched themselves into sporting lore forever. If you need another reason to believe, just trace the buzz from the Spectrum Center halls. This is March like we’ve never seen before. And the reason? U Must Be Cinderella isn’t finished rewriting history just yet.