As UMBC departs for NCAA tournament, Retrievers look back at and ahead to 'special' season

Before Ryan Odom got to the NCAA tournament as a player at Division III Hampden–Sydney, an assistant coach at Virginia Tech and a head coach at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, he made it as the wide-eyed son of a coach.

On Tuesday, as his UMBC men’s basketball team prepared for its send-off to its first-round game Friday night in Charlotte, N.C., against top-seeded Virginia, Odom recalled one of his favorite memories of March Madness. Every detail was crystal-clear.

It was 1984, and he was rooting for the Cavaliers this time. (His father, Dave, was an assistant coach on Virginia’s staff.) In the first round, the seventh-seeded Cavaliers had just gotten by Iona. Then they upset Eddie Sutton's Arkansas team. Then Jim Boeheim's Syracuse team. Then Bob Knight's Indiana team, which in the Sweet 16 had ended Michael Jordan's North Carolina career.

In Seattle’s Kingdome, the site of the Final Four, Odom saw Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing and Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon. Here he was, a 9-year-old among the giants of the game.

“Just a special, special time,” he said.

The No. 16 seed Retrievers are not expected to enjoy so long a stay in the tournament, but not for a lack of belief. Guard Jairus Lyles, whose last-second, “SportsCenter”-making 3-pointer Saturday against Vermont clinched the program’s first Big Dance ticket in a decade, said UMBC is “trying to not relive that moment too much because we know we got to win the game on Friday.”

Guard K.J. Maura said the Retrievers “don’t go to the games thinking we’re the underdogs no more. We got to the mindset that we’re going to win the game.” Later, he acknowledged that Virginia has a “pretty solid,” “pretty consistent” defense, which is like calling the Great Wall of China a pretty dependable fence.

“We’re going to have to play our best basketball just to hang in there,” Odom said.

It has been tough to escape the afterglow of Saturday’s America East Conference championship, which perhaps partly explained why UMBC left for Charlotte about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, almost 80 hours before its game against the Cavaliers. Lyles said passers-by on campus have stopped him “all the time” to ask him about the shot, how he made it — anything he might remember about the play that has elevated the Catonsville school to a national consciousness.

When the doors to the Retriever Activities Center were thrown open and the team was introduced to the dozens of fans lining the Retrievers’ walk to the team’s buses and police escort — “Ladies and gentlemen, your 2018 America East men’s basketball champion!” — Lyles was the first in line. Reserve forward-center Nolan Gerrity had a GoPro camera out to record the procession. Odom brought up the rear, glad-handing and smiling through a biting wind.

“To see this come to reality,” he had said earlier, “is just special.”

Note: Atlantic Coast Conference Sixth Man of the Year De’Andre Hunter has been ruled out for the tournament with a broken left wrist, Virginia coach Tony Bennett announced. Hunter, a redshirt freshman who averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds in 33 games, suffered the injury during the ACC tournament. He will have surgery Monday.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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