No. 16 seeds had tried 135 times. And 135 times, they had failed. Then the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Retrievers played the game of their lives on Friday night, and altered college basketball history.
UMBC — who? — shocked No. 1 overall seed Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 74-54, a score that sent shockwaves throughout the sport, and throughout the sports world as a whole. It busted brackets and opened up paths to the Final Four in San Antonio.
Virginia had been the best team in the nation for the majority of the regular season. It won a tough ACC by four games over the likes of Duke and North Carolina. It won the ACC tournament as well. It was the unquestioned top seed in the tournament.
And now it has a unique, infamous place in college basketball history.
No. 16 seeds had come close in the past. They had twice come within one point. They had once taken a No. 1 seed to overtime. But they had also been on the wrong ends of countless blowouts.
Even with the game of their lives, therefore, a Retrievers upset seemed unfathomable. But after a tight first half ended 21-21, UMBC approached the second without fear. It took a three-point lead, then a six-point lead, then an eight-point lead.
As the lead ballooned, the whispers crescendoed. They became phone calls to friends, and maybe even panicked yells in Charlottesville. As the lead stretched to double digits, they became alarm bells. It was happening. It was really happening.
Virginia looked shellshocked. It took uncharacteristically poor shots. It played uncharacteristically undisciplined defense. And it didn’t help that UMBC, for a period early in the second half, seemingly couldn’t miss.
The hero was senior guard Jairus Lyles, who hit three 3-pointers and had 28 points on 11 shots. Junior forward Joe Sherburne also hit three from beyond the arc. The Retrievers made 12 of their 24 3-point attempts, while Virginia made just two of its 22.
UMBC went up double-digits with over 16 minutes remaining and never looked back. It kept going at the Cavaliers rather than simply trying to ice the game. As a result, the lead never dipped back below 10.
“I don’t think there was any point in the game that we thought we couldn’t play with them,” Lyles said after the game.
And it wasn’t just the 3-pointers. The Retrievers had Virginia’s top-ranked defense – statistically the second-best of the past 17 years – on its heels. They found avenues to the rim where there was no help. And when there was help, they made circus shots.
The Cavaliers, accustomed to playing at a methodical pace, weren’t prepared to mount a comeback. They continued to play at that methodical pace until time began to run out on their season. And when they did begin to press and take quicker shots, the press wasn’t effective; the shots were rushed and errant.
They also missed De’Andre Hunter, the freshman forward who had been ruled out for the tournament with a broken wrist. Hunter was the ACC sixth man of the year. But his absence is no excuse.
Virginia had failed in the NCAA tournament before under Tony Bennett. It had failed in the Elite Eight, and the Sweet 16, and the round of 32. Despite claiming top-two seeds three of the previous four years, it had never made the Final Four under Bennett, who had, perhaps unfairly, developed a reputation for being unable to win in March.
But Virginia had never failed like this before. It had never come up so inconceivably short. It entered the game a 20.5-point favorite. It exited as a 20-point loser.
It actually had been on the wrong end of an unbelievable upset before – just not in the postseason; not one this consequential. Back in 1982, the No. 1 Cavaliers lost to tiny Chaminade, then an NAIA school, in Maui. That upset was widely considered the greatest in college basketball history.
That is, until Friday. Until UMBC did the impossible.
The realization began to set in with around three minutes to go. Expressions on the Virginia bench ranged from bereft to distraught. Disbelief, needless to say, spread throughout the crowd.
And finally, at the 136th time of asking, No. 1 fell.
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