For a little over two hours Friday night, Fang Mitchell went back in time. The former Coppin State men’s basketball coach was watching No. 16 seed UMBC’s historic NCAA tournament win over top seed Virginia in Charlotte, N.C.
Though he was sitting at home in the Atlanta suburbs, Mitchell was suddenly transported back more than two decades to another huge upset in the NCAA tournament.
Suddenly, Mitchell was reliving his former team’s victory as a 15th seed over No. 2 seed South Carolina in Pittsburgh in the opening round in 1997.
“I knew that you have to stay close at halftime, and when I saw it was 21-21 at half, I knew they had a shot,” Mitchell said Saturday. “The longer you stay in it, the better your chances become.
“When you get into that second half and things aren’t going right [for the higher seed], things get a little tight for the team that's supposed to win it. UMBC was as loose as they could be.”
In Coppin State's 78-65 win over the 30-point favorite Gamecocks, the Eagles fell behind by “seven or eight points” early in the second half and came back behind guards Antoine Brockington and Danny Singletary, who combined for 42 points in the game and forward Reggie Welch, who had 15 rebounds.
In UMBC’s 74-54 win over the Cavaliers, who came in as 20½-point favorites, the Retrievers built a seven-point lead before the first media timeout in the second half and saw the lead quickly climb behind senior guard Jairus Lyles, who scored 23 of his 28 points after halftime, as well as 5-foot-8 senior guard K.J. Maura, who dictated the pace at both ends, and sophomore forward Arkel Lamar, who had 12 points and 10 rebounds. It marked the first time since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985 — and eventually to 68 — that a No. 16 seed had beaten a No. 1 seed.
Watching the game unfold, Mitchell was reminded of one undeniable fact. As dramatically as college basketball has changed over the past two decades with the influx of teams built around one-and-dones, there is one constant when it comes to the NCAA tournament.
“You always have a chance when you have good guards,” said Mitchell, whose Eagles lost to No. 10 seed Texas in the Round of 32, 82-81. “If you have good guards and a big man who can rebound, you’re in good shape.”
Hall of Famer Gary Williams, who won a national championship at Maryland in 2002 behind the backcourt of Juan Dixon and Steve Blake as well as Lonny Baxter at center, said 3-point shooting determines the outcome of most college games, especially in the NCAA tournament.
“A normal offense for a lot of teams is to take a lot of 3s. If you're making 3s, that completely changes the game," Williams said Saturday. “It’s hard to defend a team that comes down and takes a 24-footer, and I think what it did was it shook up Virginia and all of a sudden they couldn’t play that pack-line defense. It opened up some driving lanes that UMBC did a great job of taking advantage of."
Williams said it should come as no surprise that UMBC coach Ryan Odom has accomplished so much in two years, despite not having any ties to Baltimore.
“When I went to Ohio State [from Boston College], I had no ties to Columbus,” said Williams, who spent three years with the Buckeyes before coming to Maryland, his alma mater, in 1989. “You just try to build a program and do what you have to do.”
Just as Coppin State benefited from two key transfers, Welch and center Terquin Mott, the Retrievers have made their recent run on the shoulders — and shooting prowess — of Lyles, who began his career at Virginia Commonwealth and was briefly at Robert Morris before landing in Catonsville.
Derek Brown, a longtime assistant coach under Mitchell and Coppin State women’s basketball coach who still lives in the area, said Saturday: “You get lucky sometimes and get a kid fall into your lap, like Lyles did. … You’ll get a combination of five or six kids who can play and know how to play with each other and then you have something and try to take advantage of it, and that's what they’re doing right now.”
ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg said Saturday that UMBC is a good example of lower-tier teams that can grow together outside the white-hot glare of the national spotlight and thrive once it is pointing in their direction.
“I think upper-class teams that have a little substance to them and are invested in each other and invested in winning has a factor in the [upsets],” said Greenberg, who gave Odom his first college coaching job as a graduate assistant at South Florida.
Greenberg also said there are two other factors that have led to the slew of upsets in this year’s NCAA tournament — a lack of fear for the underdogs and a lack of experience for the favorites.
“Guys are not afraid,” Greenberg said. “They grew up playing against these other kids in AAU. Virginia doesn’t overwhelm you with their individual talent. It’s their collective responsibility that overwhelms you. The whole is equal to the sum of its parts, but last night Ryan’s game plan was really good and then they had a guy (Lyles) that absolutely went off.
“It’s always been there. We’ve seen Princeton [beating UCLA in 1996] and we’ve seen Vermont [beating Syracuse in 2005] and we’ve seen Hampton [beating Iowa State in 2001], we’ve seen Davidson [beating Kansas in 2008]. I think these upsets are more prevalent today because the most talented teams are not experienced and the most experienced teams aren’t as talented.”
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon knew how good the Retrievers could be.
When UMBC visited Xfinity Center earlier this season, the Retrievers took a surprising 24-18 halftime lead that could have been a lot bigger had they not missed 15 of their first 17 3-point shots before making their last two before halftime. The Terps, who were coming off an eight-day break for final exams, recovered in the second half to win, 66-45.
As for Friday’s game, Turgeon said: “I’m surprised by the score. I thought they could play them tough. They are hard to guard, they space the floor. When Lyles is playing the way he’s playing, he demands so much attention. In the NCAA tournament, the pressure is so great on the top seeds, especially the first weekend, sometimes it doesn’t surprise you the No. 1 seed or the No. 2 seed struggling when the other team is playing really free.”
Turgeon said he has become friends with Odom since he took the job at UMBC, and Odom’s kids attend Turgeon's summer camp in College Park.
“I was really nervous about playing them this year,” Turgeon said Saturday. “I’ve really followed them closely, watched the [American East] championship game against Vermont. I really didn’t think they could play any better than they played that day, to be honest with you. … They took it to another level last night.”
It brought back all kinds of memories for UMBC assistant Eric Skeeters. As an up-and-coming assistant at Coppin State in 1997, the Baltimore native said he has been talking to the Retrievers all season about pulling off the kind of upset they did Friday in the Round of 64. He has constantly talked about Coppin State’s South Carolina game.
In fact, at UMBC’s pregame meal before the game, Odom put on a video for motivation.
“They showed a clip of the end of the [Coppin State]-South Carolina game with Fang celebrating and me celebrating on the bench, and zoomed on my face and it was like, ‘Skeets has been there before. He's done it. It’s happened before,’ ” Skeeters said Saturday. “We’ve talked about it all year. Things like that happening. Why not us?”