CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — So how do you top winning your conference tournament on a buzzer-beater 3-pointer? Well, knocking off the No. 1 team in the country by 20 points in the first round of the NCAA Tournament should do it.
UMBC’s magical season rolled on Friday night when it throttled Virginia, the tournament’s top overall seed 74-54 to become the first 16 seed to upset a No. 1 in the history of the men’s tournament, a victory that set the sports world ablaze and easily ruined thousands of brackets.
“We didn’t know what seed we would be when we won the America East championship,” said Retrievers guard Jairus Lyles. “Once we saw that No. 16 seed we knew we had a chance to make history. It’s a very surreal moment.”
It was Lyles who got the Retrievers here, so it was only fitting he carried them to a historic win.
The 6-foot-2 senior guard knocked down the 3 from the top of the key as time expired to lift UMBC to a 65-62 win over Vermont in the conference championship game, propelling them into the NCAA Tournament for only the second time ever. He scored 27 points that night as the Retrievers ended a 23-game losing streak against the Catamounts by erasing a 9-point second half deficit.
THAT was supposed to be their big upset.
Lyles scored 23 of his 28 points in the second half against the Cavaliers, but UMBC would need no comeback this time. It led by double digits most of the second half and outscored Virginia 53-33 after intermission.
“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,” Lyles said. “We just wanted to make history.”
In so doing, UMBC (25-10) ended the No. 1 seed’s reign of terror against No. 16 seeds at 135 wins.
So how did a team that starts a 5-foot-8, 140-pound point guard and lost by 44 points earlier this season to Albany, beat the No. 1 team in country?
With heart, according to coach Ryan Odom.
“These guys have passion, these guys love to play this game,” Odom said. “This game means a lot to them and, you know, just a special, special effort.”
It’s hard to imagine a bigger upset will ever take place in college basketball, the kind of win for everyone who has ever been an underdog.
Underdogs like 5-foot-8 KJ Maura, who despite giving up 6 or 7 inches to Virginia’s guards made several big shots and passes and harassed the Cavaliers non-stop on defense. His family was there to celebrate, waving a Puerto Rican flag and holding up a big cardboard cutout of his face.
“I carry Puerto Rico in my heart,” Maura said of the U.S. territory. “It’s a very special moment for them right now, making history as a team, but I’m also making history for my country. I play for them, especially after what happened with the hurricane. We’ve been hurting lately. This moment gives a little bit of life to my country, and I’m very proud and happy for that.”
So what’s next in UMBC’s bag of tricks?
They’ll face No. 9 Kansas State on Sunday with a chance to go to the Sweet 16. Given their confidence level is through the roof here at the Spectrum Center after beating the unanimous No. 1 team in the AP Poll, there is nothing they feel they can’t accomplish.
“We go into every game thinking we have a chance to win,” said guard Joe Sherburne, who had 14 points after provided a huge spark early in the second half. “Kansas State won, right? They’re a really good team too. We have another big challenge ahead of us on Sunday.”
Hey, are you going to count them out again?