Brainy UMBC vaults to sports fame with NCAA tournament upset

Before Friday night, the best-known team at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County played chess.

Then the UMBC men’s basketball team stunned top-ranked Virginia in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and overnight this suburban research campus, a place where “brainiac” is a term of endearment, vaulted into sports history.

“Where is UMBC?” hordes of college basketball fans searched online; the university website crashed. The 27-year-old behind the university’s spunky Twitter account found himself interviewed by The New York Times. UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski’s phone rang so much with praise from politicians, business leaders and other luminaries that he didn’t get to sleep until 6:30 a.m.

“The only word I can think of is ‘surreal,’ ” Hrabowski said from North Carolina. “People began to Google us and to see the academic achievements. … It is by far the greatest source of visibility we have had in the history of the university.”

Never before in the annals of March Madness had a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed, not until the Retrievers overwhelmed the Cavaliers, 74-54, Friday night — an improbable feat for a team whose point guard is the lightest player in all of college basketball. The radio announcers were calling it the greatest upset in NCAA history. Perhaps in all of sports.

With the start of Spring Break, the campus was mostly empty Saturday. “Congrats Big Dawgs on making March Madness history!” read an electronic sign on a campus building.

Gov. Larry Hogan, who tweeted a bracket last week picking UMBC to win the national championship — it seemed a fanciful bit of pandering, then — donned his UMBC hat for a photo online.

“So proud of UMBC! Biggest upset win in college basketball history. 20 point win over #1 seed in nation! Bring on Kansas State!”

The Retrievers play the No. 9 seed Wildcats in Charlotte on Sunday evening.

UMBC made its first appearance in the NCAA men's basketball tournament a decade ago — a brief visit as a No. 15 seed in 2008, just long enough to lose by 19 points to No. 2 seed Georgetown — but that was an anomaly.

At UMBC, chess has long been king, and the school is a perennial contender for the prized President's Cup. The university produces more African-American MD-Ph.D. students than any other university in the country. In November, the school celebrated its first Rhodes scholar.

Hrabowski heard from alumni around the country. One in Seattle told him about celebrating the win with colleagues at Amazon. The basketball team exemplified a value Hrabowski extols on campus: grit.

“My players, my students remembered that nothing takes the place of grit,” he said. “It worked. It was amazing.”

By Saturday, Zach Seidel was taken aback with his own sudden celebrity. As the man behind the Twitter account of UMBC Athletics, Seidel’s quick-witted sass won thousands of social-media admirers. Again and again he shot back at those who doubted the university. The Pikesville man — a former Baltimore Sun intern — has fielded interview requests from ESPN, USA Today, SB Nation and Yahoo, too.

“I just started letting my personality come out,” he told The Sun. “Twitter’s about interaction, and I just wanted to make sure we had some fun.”

Former Coppin State Coach Fang Mitchell, watching the game at home in the Atlanta suburbs, was transported back two decades to another huge tournament upset.

Mitchell found himself reliving his team’s victory as a 15th seed over No. 2 seed South Carolina 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. “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.”

Virginia entered the game as 20 1/2-point favorites. From the halftime tie, the Retrievers built a seven-point lead before the first media timeout in the second half, and kept going. Senior guard Jairus Lyles scored 23 of his 28 points after halftime. Five-foot-eight senior guard K.J. Maura dictated the pace at both ends. Sophomore forward Arkel Lamar contributed 12 points and 10 rebounds.

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 growing number of teams built around one-and-dones — students who play a freshman year and then turn pro — there is one constant when it comes to the NCAA tournament.

“You always have a chance when you have good guards,” Mitchell said. “If you have good guards, and a big man who can rebound, you’re in good shape.”

University of Maryland coach Mark Turgeon knew how good the Retrievers could be.

When UMBC visited Xfinity Center in December, the Retrievers took a surprising 24-18 lead — and it could have been a lot bigger, had they not missed 15 of their first 17 3-point shots. The Terps, who were coming off an eight-day break for final exams, recovered in the second half to win 66-45.

“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.”

As for the Virginia upset?

“I’m surprised by the score,” Turgeon said. “I thought they could play 'em 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.”

It brought back all kinds of memories for UMBC assistant Eric Skeeters. As assistant at Coppin State in 1997, the Baltimore native said that he has been talking to the Retrievers all season about pulling off the kind of upset they did Friday. He has spoken constantly of that South Carolina game.

At UMBC’s pregame meal, head coach Ryan 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,” Skeeter said. “And it was like, ‘Skeets has been there before, he's done it. It’s happened before.’

“We’ve talked about it all year. Things like that happening — why not us?”

The university was founded in 1963. The General Assembly authorized expansion of the University of Maryland system to include a new campus in Baltimore County. Spring Grove State Hospital donated 435 acres for the campus and workers broke ground in 1965.

From the outset, UMBC has prioritized research. Classes opened with 750 students and 45 faculty members in three buildings. In 1966, students attending a dance chose a mascot: The Chesapeake Bay Retriever named True Grit.

Fifty-two years later, a small crowd gathered around a statue of the retriever after having just watched their university beat the top-ranked basketball team in the country.

“This is unreal,” economics professor Nick Kelly said. “I’m still in disbelief that UMBC won. It is the greatest upset moment of my life.”

Students flung themselves across the statue. They hugged it, rubbed its nose, posed beside it for photos.

“Where my dogs at?” someone shouted. The rest barked and barked and barked.

When they left, Kelly, the 38-year-old economics professor, stepped through spilled beer, leaned down and kissed the wet nose of True Grit.

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