'We don't even have a football team. Now we won?' Disbelief and pride as UMBC basketball upsets Virginia

When the final second ticked down, they burst from their dorm rooms, howling, tearing off sweatshirts and hats, sprinting across campus at this suburban Baltimore County university that had just made history.

Never before had it been done: a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — not until the University of Maryland, Baltimore County overwhelmed Virginia, 74-54, on Friday night. The radio announcers were calling it the greatest upset in NCAA history, perhaps in all of sports.

On campus, they didn’t know what to do.

“Where do we go?” someone shouted from a pack of undergrads to burst from the dorms.

“To The Commons!” they chanted, running on.

Among the dozen or so was Sean Brown, a 19-year-old sophomore and biology major, who figured a few hours earlier he might as well watch the game. Now, he was overcome.

“Our school has changed forever,” he shouted, hoarsely.

Overnight, this research university – known more for science than sports – jumped into the record books of college basketball. This is a university where students are researching ways to build batteries from glucose found in the body. They're working to track pharmaceuticals through sewage treatment plants. They're studying results in Latin America of free-trade coffee.

They’re playing basketball, too, as the rest of the country learned Friday night.

“This school just showed we can be athletic as well,” Brown said.

But there was no one outside The Commons, just a few fans like freshman Michael Spano, hugging everyone he came across and telling them how this really, truly was the greatest moment of his life. Then the cheer arose again, “They didn’t believe in us! They didn’t believe in us!’ ”

The pack, now about 20 – “We’re more of a commuter school,” Brown explained – carried on toward the heart of the campus, the statue of the UMBC mascot, a Chesapeake Bay retriever named True Grit.

Standing before the dog, a 1996 alum was sobbing. Students flung themselves across the statue. They hugged it, rubbed its nose, posed beside it for photos, showering love on the 500-pound sculpture.

“This is crazy, crazy man,” junior Patrick Ogoh said.

Sure, he knew the odds going into the game, something like a 3 percent chance to win.

“No one gave UMBC a chance,” he said. “We’re known as the brainiacs of Maryland.” He shook his head. “We don’t even have a football team. Now we won? This is incredible.”

From the crowd, someone shouted, “Where my dogs at?” They all barked and barked and barked.

The university began in 1963, when 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 was founded with a nod toward research. Class opened with 750 students and 45 faculty members in three buildings. That year of 1966, a dance was held in the student cafeteria and the mascot was decided, the Chesapeake Bay Retriever.

Now, 52 years later, the small crowd gathered around that retriever after having just watched their university beat the top-ranked basketball team in the country.

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

He watched the game at home in Elkridge, and as the clock wound down knew he had to come. Now, he watched the students celebrate, waiting for them to move on.

Then this 38-year-old microeconomics professor stepped through the spilled beer, leaned down and kissed the wet nose of a bronze dog.

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/Tim_Prudente

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