CHARLOTTE — For the past 34 NCAA men’s basketball tournaments, for 135 games, it had been the unassailable task. As crazy as this event can be, a No. 16 seed had never beaten a No. 1. It could not happen. It was more likely that Bigfoot would meet you for coffee, or D.B. Cooper would send you a Christmas card.
Zero wins, 135 losses. Only the Washington Generals could feel more inferior. Every year, the question came up: Could a No. 16 ever win? Every year, the thought was shot down before you could count to 16.
And then during the literal 11th hour of the first round of the 2018 tournament, as this Friday night trickled toward St. Patrick’s Day, the pessimism succumbed to the relentless possibility of sports. It happened. Maryland Baltimore County happened. Virginia happened, too, an unfortunate natural disaster. March happened like never before, producing the Madness’s maddest result ever, opening the mouths of thousands of Spectrum Center onlookers and making it seem like hands had been glued to the tops of heads.
UMBC, a forgotten program that had won 41 games in the seven seasons before Coach Ryan Odom arrived two years ago, became the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 in the men’s tournament. Virginia became the biggest top-seeded failure in the sports history. And by the end, the game wasn’t even close: Retrievers 74, Cavaliers 54. Twenty freakin’ points.
“You’ll remember this,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “It will sting. Maybe a 1 seed will get beat again, maybe not. Maybe we’ll be the only No. 1 seed ever to lose. It’s life. It goes on. We’ll have to get past that.”
For Virginia, it was humiliating. For UMBC, it was exhilarating.
“We were talking about it before the game, just trying to go out here and make history, doing it for our program, our teammates, our coaching staff,” said guard Jairus Lyles, the son of Virginia graduates, who scored 28 points. “We just wanted to make history today.”
Said guard K.J. Maura: “ It’s an indescribable feeling.”
As the unthinkable happened, the reactions at the Spectrum Center ranged from the underdog’s bravado to the favorite’s shock and frustration to the crowd’s complete pandemonium. UMBC kept scoring against the nation’s toughest defense. Virginia kept shrinking into uncertainty. Was this happening, really? A No. 16 seed was ahead of the No. 1 overall seed by seven points, then eight, 11, 14, 16. The Retrievers, in gold and black uniforms that reminded you of the basketball team in “Teen Wolf,” could not be stopped. Joe Sherburne made a three-pointer and pretended to slap a championship belt around his waist. Maura zipped to the basket, made a one-handed scoop and the entire bench lifted their arms and left them frozen in the air to celebrate. Lyles hit tough basket after tough basket, scoring 23 of his 28 points in the second half. Yes, it was happening.
Bennett closed his head and shook his head. Virginia forward Mamadi Diakite clapped his hands and yelled, “Wake up! Wake! Up!” It didn’t work. The Cavaliers’ star-aligned season met a star-crossed tournament. They entered the NCAA tournament as the nation’s best team and hoping to make history. And they did. And it was the absolute wrong kind.
After the buzzer, Maura pretended to shoot arrows into the crowd. Lyles stood and barked. And Odom, the son of former coach Dave Odom and a former Virginia ballboy, defeated the team that defined part of his childhood joy.
“So proud of these kids,” Odom said. “I take so much joy in watching them smile and not just at the end there, but throughout the game. You know, I think it’s pretty easy to tell, to everybody in the arena, these guys have passion. These guys love to play this game. This game means a lot to them. It’s just a special, special effort.”
In the seven years before Odom arrived, UMBC had a 41-173 record. In two seasons, he has led them to a 46-23 mark, including 25-10 this season. He arrived at the NCAA tournament declaring, “When I first took the job, there was no way you would have said this could be possible this quickly.”
And when he entered the arena Friday night, there was no way this victory could be possible.
“I called it!” shouted a UMBC band member, sweat trickling down his painted face, as the band prepared to leave the arena. “I said we were going to score 74 and win!”
The band member screamed one last time.
“We saw history,” an elderly couple said in unison, nodding to each other as they exited.
It happened because UMBC played its best game while Virginia played its worst. The Cavaliers came here allowing 53.4 points a game. The Retrievers scored 53 in the second half alone, breaking open an ugly 21-21 tie at halftime and sending the crowd roaring as if all of Charlotte were in attendance. UMBC made 19 of 28 shots (67.9 percent) in the final 20 minutes. For the game, the Retrievers made 12 of 24 three-pointers against a Virginia team accustomed to allowing half that total and only 30.3 percent shooting from deep. They were smaller, but they destroyed the Cavaliers on the boards, outrebounding them 33-22.
From the start, Virginia was a mess on offense. The ball movement was suspect; the team had just five assists. The players didn’t compete with the same composure and attention to detail. And they missed open shots badly and finished 4 of 22 from three-point range.
“We lost our way,” Bennett said. “It wasn’t a lack of effort, but it was a hard team for us once they got ahead of us.”
It was a bitter result for a team that entered the tournament 31-2 and having claimed both the ACC tournament and regular season titles. The Cavaliers went 17-1 in the conference, 20-1 counting the tournament. They didn’t lose a conference road game all season. After past NCAA tournament disappointments in the Bennett era, they thought they were ready to make a Final Four run this time. But then their sixth man De’Andre Hunter found out he had a broken wrist this week. And in this game, everything about them was off. It was as disjointed and uncertain a performance as you’ll see from Virginia. And now it must live with this epic failure.
Still, UMBC had to win the game, and it did so with flair.
“We kind of all wanted to be in the ‘One Shining Moment’ video,” said Sherburne, who finished with 14 points. “We were all in the locker room, singing the first line because that’s all we know, but I think we’re going to have to learn the rest of the song, too.”
Oh, they had better learn it. They’re not just going to be in the video. They’re going to be the team that makes it special this time.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.