Never been done: No. 16 seed UMBC topples No. 1 Virginia in historic NCAA tournament upset, 74-54

For The Baltimore Sun

You feel the frenzy building, rising, the hysteria of 135 failed versions finally bubbling over.

No. 16 seed UMBC was going to beat No. 1 seed Virginia, the first such occasion in the history of men’s college basketball.

That sentence has to be typed, just to make sure it actually happened. This was no far-fetched dream. It was no longer some hypothetical what-if scenario.

No – what happened inside Charlotte’s Spectrum Center on Friday night, a 74-54 Retrievers victory, will live forever.

“Historic game,” UMBC coach Ryan Odom said. “Unbelievable. So proud of these kids.”

But how did it happen? How did the best team in all of college basketball, the team with the glitzy seed and the drooling Vegas oddsmakers, succumb like this? No other No. 1 seed had ever lost to a No. 16 seed, and the team that spoiled that streak was one that needed a buzzer-beater to even qualify for this game?

You could tell from the outset that this wouldn’t be your run-of-the-mill beatdown of a lowly, lesser seed.

It all started with Virginia’s first possession.

Ty Jerome, one of Virginia’s sharpshooting guards, missed a jumper.

Fine. No worries. It’s one shot.

But then there was a second miss. And then a third.

The Cavaliers eventually bullied their way into the paint for their first layup of the game, but that early going proved prescient – Virginia shot just 39.1 percent from the floor in the first half, not to mention 11.1 percent from 3-point range.

“I don't think there was any point in the game that we thought we couldn't play with them,” Retrievers senior Jairus Lyles said.

At the same time, UMBC wasn’t ceding to Virginia’s top-ranked defense. The Retrievers drove into the paint not recklessly but forcefully. Just enough to establish their will, to prove that they were serious about this upset bid (even if you’ll never hear them call it that).

In doing so, they found the cracks in Virginia’s pack-line.

And after halftime, they exploited the Cavaliers.

“When we were tied at 21 and we hadn't shot particularly well,” junior Joe Sherburne said, “we made some silly turnovers, then we felt there's no way we're not going to win this game. All we have to do is start hitting shots.”

UMBC built a quick seven-point advantage coming out of the intermission, at which point this was no normal underdog story. This was the stuff of legends, and that is in no way an exaggeration.

“We were up seven right away in the second half, and we were getting real excited on the bench but there was still like 16 minutes left in the second half,” Sherburne said. “I personally was trying to stay really level-headed and you know that they can come right back right away real quick because they're the No. 1 team in the country for a reason.”

But the whispers in the crowd had picked up a bit. The Virginia fans quieted. The UMBC fans did the opposite.

Suddenly that seven-point lead ballooned to 11, and eventually all the way up to 14. It was Virginia’s largest deficit in any game this season. The Retrievers were penetrating Virginia’s supposedly impenetrable defense, somehow avoiding those unavoidable double teams. Then they were knocking down shots, 67.9 percent of them in the second half, each more unexpected than the last.

The cheers grew more deafening.

The UMBC band played louder. Faster. It’s pace quickened to match the magnitude of the event – let’s just call it history, all right? – unfolding in front of thousands of pairs of eyes.

Spearheading it all was the same man who punched UMBC’s tournament ticket in the first place, Lyles. He knocked down 3-pointers, finished layups through contact. Even his floaters were falling, each one a tiny bit more of the sand escaping Virginia’s hourglass. He would finish with a game-high 28 points.

Virginia took some strides to come back, but they were all in vain. The Cavaliers we’ve watched dominate all season weren’t the same Cavaliers on the court Friday night.

“You feel for [Virginia],” Odom said. “But, certainly doesn't take away the happiness that I have for these guys right here. These guys have worked extremely hard to earn a moment like this.

“Just to go toe to toe with the No. 1 team in the country, I mean … unbelievable is all you can say.”

Give UMBC more credit than just for their play, too. The composure that takes not to panic, and to buckle, and to screw everything up? That might be more difficult than winning the game.

But still, there was doubt. Surely this can’t happen. Surely UMBC cannot be the team that will be written about for the rest of time, or at least as long as college basketball survives.

It was. It is. It will forever be.

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