If you were among the blissfully ignorant Friday night wondering, “What’s a UMBC?” we at The Baltimore Sun are here to help.
With its historic 74-54 win over top-seeded Virginia, the No. 16 seed Retrievers men’s basketball team offered America two plausible explanations for the UMBC initialism: U Must Be Cinderella (fake) and University of Maryland, Baltimore County (real).
But the Retrievers are more than just the team that ruined your bracket. They’re the team with the bite-sized point guard, the graduate student who’s tight with the school president, and the coach with the rising star.
UMBC’s upset was unprecedented
There are too many unbelievable stats about Friday night’s game to list. Among them: The Retrievers were 20.5-point underdogs and won by 20. Virginia hadn’t allowed an opponent to score 70 points all season. Just 3.4 percent of all submitted brackets on ESPN’s Tournament Challenge had UMBC scoring the upset.
But the most damning figure was the one that offered the Retrievers the least hope. Entering the game, No. 16 seeds were 0-135 all time against No. 1 seeds.
The coach and star have Virginia ties
UMBC coach Ryan Odom is the son of Dave Odom, the former longtime Wake Forest and South Carolina coach who worked as an assistant at Virginia for much of the 1980s.
Retrievers star guard Jairus Lyles also has a Cavaliers connection. His mother, Carol Motley, and father, Lester Lyles, a former NFL cornerback, met as students at Virginia.
But Lyles told The Baltimore Sun on Sunday that he didn’t grow up a Cavaliers fan. It was nothing against the program; he was just more of an NBA fan who didn’t watch much NCAA basketball until he got to college.
The player and the president
Near the end of TNT’s coverage of Friday night’s game, cameras captured Lyles embracing an older-looking fella in a nice suit on the court.
When Lyles had a breakthrough year for the Retrievers last season, he had a choice: Stay in Catonsville as a graduate student or use his final year of eligibility at a bigger program.
He was close to Odom and his teammates, and he was already leaning toward returning to the program. But as Lyles mulled his decision, he and the school’s top official grew close.
Hrabowski admired Lyles’ commitment to excellence as a student-athlete. Lyles was struck by all Hrabowski had achieved in civil rights and academia.
“I think he looks at it like: 'This [Hrabowski] is an African-American male that is doing the kind of things that I want to do in whatever capacity I do it in,’ ” Lyles’ mother said.
K.J. Maura: really small and really good
Officially, UMBC point guard K.J. Maura is listed at 5 feet 8 and 140 pounds. In reality, he's smaller than that. During ESPN’s broadcast of the America East Conference final, Maura was reported as weighing about 132 pounds — the lightest player in college basketball.
It hasn’t mattered much. The mighty mite who grew up in Puerto Rico imitating the legendary Steve Nash before moving to Florida and drawing charges against top recruit Andrew Wiggins was named the America East Defensive Player of the Year this season. All prior winners were above 6 feet.
“We always said that if K.J. was 6-1, 6-2, he'd probably be an NBA player,” former high school and Abilene Christian assistant coach Patrice Days said.
The upset before the upset
Nearly a week before Lyles became nightmare fuel for Virginia fans, he stomped on the NCAA tournament hopes and dreams of another fan base.
Last Saturday, the second-seeded Retrievers faced top-seeded Vermont in the America East final. UMBC hadn’t come close in its two regular-season meetings against the Catamounts, and Odom’s squad would have to win in Burlington.
The Retrievers trailed for much of the game, but a late push gave UMBC the ball on the game’s final possession. Lyles waved off a play call from Odom, rose for a contested 3-pointer and saw it drop through the net. UMBC was headed to its first NCAA tournament in a decade. The Catamounts wouldn’t be joining them.
"Win the game, that was all that was going through my head," said Lyles, who finished with a game-high 27 points.