CHARLOTTE, NC (Scott Fowler/The Charlotte Observer) - Good dog! Very good dog!
The UMBC Retrievers pulled off the previously impossible Friday night, making NCAA tournament history in Charlotte by upsetting Virginia, 74-54, before an absolutely shocked crowd at the Spectrum Center.
Before the late game in Charlotte, No. 1 seeds in the NCAA men's basketball tournament were 135-0 against No. 16 seeds. Make that 135-1, as the Retrievers stunned the tournament's No. 1 overall seed with an underdog performance for the ages.
I've been watching the NCAA tournament for more than 40 years, and I've never seen anything like this upset coached by Ryan Odom, the son of former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom.
I sat in my seat in the Spectrum Center marveling at everything UMBC did, repeatedly breaking the rule about not cheering in the press box because this was a story that seemed too good to be true. I have always wanted to see a No. 16 beat a No. 1 no matter who was involved and here it was – the biggest upset in NCAA history.
"I think we kind of all wanted to be in the 'One Shining Moment' video," joked UMBC's Joe Sherburne, who scored 14 points. "We were all in the locker room singing the first line, because that's all we know."
There have been huge upsets in NCAA finals, absolutely – N.C. State over Houston, Villanova over Georgetown. But a team from the America East conference beating the ACC regular-season and tournament champion in Virginia, a club that came in 31-2 and was favored by many to win the 2018 NCAA championship?
You don't see that every day. Or every decade. In fact, no one has ever seen it since 1985, when the NCAA men's field expanded to 64 teams and the annual "1 vs. 16" battles became a four-part symphony of predictability. Each year four No. 1s face off against four No. 16s, and each year we hope for something amazing.
And each year, until this time, it didn't happen.
'We just made history'
UMBC – which stands for University of Maryland, Baltimore County, but prefers to go by its initials – wasn't even supposed to make the NCAA tournament. The Retrievers needed a last-second shot to get to Charlotte, beating favored Vermont in the America East tournament.
UMBC also lost 83-39 to Albany earlier this season. Yes – a 44-point margin. It lost to Colgate. It lost to Army.
But the Retrievers did something they will never forget Friday night, breaking open a 21-21 halftime tie with an incredible burst to start the second half. Virginia had never allowed 70 points all season – until now. UMBC scorched the nets by shooting 19 for 28 in the second half (67.9 percent).
Jairus Lyles, who hit the buzzer-beater to get UMBC to the NCAA tourney in the first place, kept driving and scoring. He finished with 28 points and was the best player on the court. "We just made history tonight," Lyles said.
Sherburne knocked down some huge 3s. And a 5-foot-8, 140-pound point guard named K.J. Maura, who is from San Juan, started doing a Harlem Globetrotters dribbling routine that made all of Puerto Rico proud.
"I carry Puerto Rico in my heart," Maura said. "It's a very special moment for them right now, making history as a team, but I'm also making history for my country."
In other words, a bunch of players you never heard of started blasting a Virginia team that went 20-1 against ACC opponents this season.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett called a timeout, and then another, and it didn't matter. UMBC stretched its lead to an incredible 16 points with 11 minutes, 44 seconds left in the game. Virginia started trying to climb back in it, but UMBC showed the sort of poise that the Wahoos have shown all season and ended up winning by 20. Twenty points! In the aftermath, signs started sprouting on social media proclaiming that UMBC must stand for "U Must Be Cinderella" -- and that seemed fitting.
There have been other huge sports upsets before, of course. In the women's NCAA tournament, No. 16 Harvard upset No. 1 Stanford in 1998. Buster Douglas once beat the mighty heavyweight Mike Tyson. The New York Giants ended the New England Patriots' quest for a perfect season in a Super Bowl a decade ago. A scrappy U.S. hockey team taught us to believe in miracles in 1980. Friday night will be mentioned in the same breath as all of those forever.
Coach with local connections
Odom was once the interim head coach for the Charlotte 49ers before the 49ers decided they could do better by hiring Mark Price. Talk about a mistake – Price has since been fired and Odom has turned around a UMBC team that went 7-25 in 2015-16. Odom said afterward it was "special" to pull the historic upset in Charlotte.
"We had an unbelievable experience here in Charlotte because so many friends and family here, not just at the university obviously at UNC Charlotte, but just in general," Odom said. "My brother still lives here. My parents live in Winston-Salem. My two best high school friends live here.... So absolutely, it's special to win here for sure."
It's a devastating loss for Virginia – one that will rank with Chaminade's upset of a Ralph Sampson-led Wahoos team in 1982 as one of the biggest upsets ever.
But for UMBC, this is a game-changer.
For their players, and for Odom, it is a life-changer.
Charlotte witnessed history Friday night – in a game that will be remembered decades from now as one of the most famous ever played in the Queen City. Even if UMBC doesn't win another game in this tournament -- it plays Kansas State Sunday at 7:45 p.m. in Charlotte for the right to go to the Sweet 16 -- the Retrievers have already written their name in college basketball's record book with a Sharpie.
And while Virginia never saw it coming, Friday night was no fluke. UMBC outplayed the No.1 team in the country – and outplayed them by 20 points. "A thorough butt-whooping," Virginia coach Tony Bennett called it in his postgame interview on CBS.
The NCAA tournament will never be quite the same again. In 2050, most college basketball fans will have to look up who won the 2018 NCAA basketball tournament, no matter who it is.