The most surprising thing about the matchup between UMBC and Virginia — before the game — was that the Retrievers were only a 20-to-1 long shot to become the first No. 16 seed in the history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to beat a No. 1 seed.
The Cavaliers, who were the unanimous No. 1 team in the final Associated Press poll of the regular season, were favored by 21½ points and that betting line seemed like easy money.
But it apparently was time to provide the absolute validation of the mother of all sports cliches: That’s why they play the games.
The Retrievers didn’t just upset the team that was basically favored to win the tournament. They routed the Cavaliers, 74-54, and delivered the greatest bracket buster of them all.
Yes, they’re now the little team from Baltimore County that could. Now, it's just a matter of figuring out how it happened and making sure you’ve got your Powerball tickets for Saturday night’s drawing. The jackpot is closing in on a half-billion dollars, but at the moment anything seems possible.
The thing that makes the Big Dance special is the possibility that a No. 12 seed can beat a No. 5 seed and make a run at the Final Four. Every few years, a Cinderella team captures our imagination and reminds us why we love college basketball.
This one is extra special, coming as it did at the end of a season that was rocked by a massive corruption scandal.
It’s particularly special here in Maryland because UMBC was the only representative of the region to make the tournament after injuries and inconsistency knocked the young and promising Maryland Terps out of consideration. Yes, the same Maryland team that beat UMBC by 21 points early this season.
How does such an upset happen? It’s pretty simple, even when we’re talking about the college basketball upset of the century.
It’s impossible to know how any team will respond to the pressure of the NCAA tournament, much less one of the teams that has dominated the sport for the entire season and is expected to end up in the Final Four.
It’s also impossible to predict what an unheralded team with absolutely nothing to lose will do when faced with an opportunity to make history.
What the Retrievers did was shoot 67.9 percent in the second half and what Virginia didn’t do was have any answer whatsoever. They hit just four of 22 3-pointers and simply wilted under the unexpected onslaught by Ryan Odom’s upstart team from the America East Conference.
Quite frankly, UMBC wasn’t even supposed to be here. The Retrievers already had pulled their big upset for the year, knocking off a heavily favored Vermont team in Burlington, Vt., to win their conference tournament.
For the Cavaliers, this piece of dubious college basketball history will fit not so nicely with their other unwanted claim to fame. The last time they were ranked No. 1 before this season was right before they went to Hawaii in 1982 and lost to tiny Chaminade in Honolulu in what is still remembered as one of the greatest upsets in the history of the college game.
Somehow, they found a way to top it.