Eight days in March

An oral history of UMBC's historic NCAA tournament upset of Virginia

The UMBC bench reacts to their 74-54 victory over Virginia during the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16, 2018 in Charlotte, N.C. (Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)

Eight days in March. That was all it took for UMBC to carry college basketball fans on one of the most improbable and charming rides in the recent history of the sport. From now on, every time the NCAA tournament commences, the Retrievers will be spoken of as the ultimate dragon slayers, the first men’s No. 16 seed to topple a No. 1. A year later, here’s that story in the words of the players, coaches and administrators who pulled it off. You can read the first part here.

Virginia was at once an unlikely and likely victim. The Cavaliers were the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament after sweeping the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament championships, losing just twice in their first 33 games. But three days before they faced UMBC on March 16, 2018, ACC Sixth Man of the Year DeAndre Hunter was ruled out for the postseason with a broken wrist. That swayed public opinion little: On ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, just 3 percent of brackets had the Retrievers winning.

Griff Aldrich, Longwood head coach and former UMBC director of recruiting and program development: You're always scheduling a year in advance, and we had some friends on the UVA staff who were interested in UMBC playing the following year [in 2018-19]. So during the year, we were like, "Hey, do we want to play UVA? They want to play us on such-and-such date. It's a buy game. They'll pay us X. It's a bus ride [to Charlottesville]. It's convenient. Blah, blah, blah." And then the next day, they play Pitt and held Pitt to [seven first-half] points. And everybody was like, "Hell, no. We're not playing them."

Ryan Odom, UMBC head coach: I had watched enough film to know they held really good teams, NCAA tournament teams, to 36 points in a full game. So we were real about it. What we talked about was, “You can’t get frustrated when you’re not scoring. You have to guard, guard, guard and do your best to hang in the game.” We worked on shooting shots where you’re contested, because that’s really all you get.

The game tipped off at 9:20 p.m. at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., where Odom, a Durham native, had coached three years earlier.

Jairus Lyles, starting guard for UMBC: We treated it like any other game. We didn’t want to go in there thinking this was the Monstars we were playing.

Joe Sherburne, starting forward for UMBC: Odom writes on the board before every game, "Go 1-0 today." So it was just kind of the same thing. And that was on the board before we played Virginia.

Odom: I can’t say I kept it simple [pregame]. I talked to them about what it meant to me to go back there, and I kind of thanked the team for bringing me and my family back to that moment. That was important.

Sherburne: Their second possession of the game, when they threw the ball in the post, and I was guarding the post, and it was [Isaiah] Wilkins — he kind of just took two dribbles, didn't really move me at all and shot a hook shot that he missed. And I was kind of surprised that he was so much bigger than me but didn't move me out of the way.

Aldrich: I remember telling [assistant coach] Nate Dixon, after there's maybe about 12 minutes left [in the first half] — he looked at me and said, "What do you think?" I said, "Nate, I think we can win this thing." And at the time, I can't remember what it was, maybe 12-8 or something, and he looked back at me. He kind of raised his eyebrows. He goes, "You may be right."

At halftime, the game was tied. Virginia had set a season low with 21 first-half points. UMBC had been held to 35 percent shooting, but it had fared better from beyond the arc (5-for-12) than inside (2-for-8).

Steve Levy, sports information director for UMBC men's basketball: The first time things kind of hit me was at halftime. I’m right on the front row of press row. Zach is sitting a row behind me, and he goes, “Steve, UMBC’s internet, the main site, crashed.”

Zach Seidel, director of digital media for UMBC: It got to the point where, in my personal column and in the UMBC Athletics column [on Tweetdeck], everyone was just talking about us. ... I was sitting next to the person who does social for the conference, for the America East, Jess Ramberg. She was sitting next to me, and I was like, "Is this normal?" And it started going so fast that, like, the whole browser, it just froze. She's like, "That's weird."

Freeman Hrabowski, UMBC president: Every two or three seconds another text was coming in. I was supposed to be giving a keynote address at Berkeley [in California] that night, and the conference had allowed me to give my talk early and leave. And all these people who were at this academic conference at Berkeley were texting me as they watched the game. They were supposed to be listening to a speech, but all these people at a STEM conference were watching, saying, “Freeman, this might happen!”

Lyles: We had nothing to lose at that point. We hadn’t played a good first half at all, and just coming out for that second half, we knew as soon as it started that we could win. I mean, coming into the game, we knew we could win, but the second half, we made that a reality. It was a tie game, and we hadn’t even played our best basketball.

Lyles took over. With UMBC up 29-24, the senior scored 15 of the Retrievers' next 18 points. Midway through the second half, they led 47-31.

Tracy Wolfson, sideline reporter for TNT’s broadcast: You kept thinking that Virginia was going to come back, so in those huddles, I was, like, waiting for something, almost. I was really waiting for some sort of fire, some sort of emotion. And I think in the eight-minute timeout, it was kind of like, "We're good. We're good. Don't worry about it. Don't worry about it." … But then when you switched to the four-minute mark, there's just shock. There's just, like, no answers.

Odom: Virginia started scoring. They made some 3s. They started playing a little more aggressive, got some offensive rebounds. And we had to answer every time they did that. That’s why we put it up in our locker room: “Champions always answer.”

After Lyles’ run, Virginia never got within single digits of UMBC. A 3-pointer by senior guard Jourdan Grant with just over a minute left extended the Retrievers’ lead to 72-52, the first time the Cavaliers had allowed 70 points in a game all season. The final score: 74-54.

Aldrich: I do remember when that ball went in, and I think I was standing up, and I just gave [assistant coach] Bryce [Crawford] a big hug. It was one of those shots where you're just like, "I just think it's meant to be. I just think it's meant to be."

Grant: That made “One Shining Moment.”

Odom: My wife said, “I told you we were going to do it.” So did [senior guard] K.J. [Maura]. He ran right over to me before the game ended and said, “I told you!”

Aldrich: They had a little coaches' area, and I walked in there, and I think [assistant coaches] Eric Skeeters and Nate Dixon and Bryce were all in there, and you just kind of sit there for a second. And I'm there with my hands on my head going, "What just happened? What just happened?"

Seidel: My parents have no idea what's going on. They're trying to call me, because they're both UMBC alums, and I'm just rejecting their calls. And they're like, "What is wrong with you?" … I said [in a text message], "Can't talk. New York Times, ESPN, CNN want to talk to me." And my mom answered back in our group chat. She goes, "You're [expletive] full of [expletive]. What's really happening?"

Levy: The Twitter followers [for @UMBCAthletics] went from 5,500 to about 110,000 at its maximum.

Lyles: I got, like, 10,000 followers within, like, 24 hours. Everybody’s phone was blowing up.

Sherburne: I know K.J.’s turned off because it was too much.

Aldrich: I think I had over 350 text messages when it was all told and done. I finally had to turn my phone off. Even in the middle of the night ... I got in bed at around 3:30, and the phone was still buzzing. So I finally just turned it off.

Levy: It finally dawned on me that this was a reality when literally the first 12 or 13 minutes of “SportsCenter” was UMBC-Virginia.

ESPN's college basketball crew breaks down 16-seed UMBC's stunning 74-54 win over Virginia, with Sean Farnham saying it "is the Miracle on Ice" of college basketball. ✔ Subscribe ...

After a night of little sleep, the Retrievers woke up to a new reality. With a win over No. 9 seed Kansas State on Sunday night, they would advance to the Sweet 16.

Levy: Jim Nantz said to me, and he’s probably said this to every 16 seed, but he said to me, “I want to be the one. I want to be the one to call the 16 seed over the 1.” So when I saw him the next day, he kind of gave me the wink.

Seidel: Going anywhere in North Carolina, if you were wearing any UMBC stuff, it was like you were a celebrity.

Lyles: I think Steph Curry sending us those [Curry 5] shoes, with a little message in the box telling us that everybody was watching — that was a very special moment.

Owen Odom, Ryan Odom’s youngest son: The Fortnite creators — I got their phone number, but then I called them once, and they blocked me.

Seidel: I said [during the Virginia game], "Joe likes the Packers." So I'm like, "Let's just try and tweet at Aaron Rodgers, see what happens."

Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers quarterback (via Twitter): I [see] you Joe. #upsetkings #SweetSixteenBound? #umbcfannow

Nolan Gerrity, reserve center for UMBC: I remember a shriek out of Joe when that happened.

Sherburne: I didn't go to sleep.

Ryan Odom: We had to expend a lot of energy and a lot of emotional energy to win that Virginia game. And it’s hard to do that two days later.

After another back-and-forth defensive struggle in the second round’s final game, Kansas State led 25-20 at halftime. The Retrievers kept it close in the second half, but could never retake the lead.

Watch the Game Highlights from Kansas State Wildcats vs. UMBC Retrievers Watch highlights, game recaps, and much more from the 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament o ...

Sherburne: I just wish I had made one shot, and I thought we would've won. If I had made one. All my misses were left and right, so something was just wrong that day, and it was really annoying.

Odom: We had 18 chances to tie or take the lead. You can’t ask for more than that. Your defense can only be but so good at that time of year against a quality opponent.

Lyles: We didn’t make any shots that game, including myself. If we make three more 3s, we win that game.

Gerrity: I think if we had had another day, I think we would've had a lot better chance.

Levy: Up until the one-minute mark, I kept thinking, “We’re going to find a way to win this game.” We were too good not to have a couple of these shots go down. And then it just didn’t happen.

The Wildcats won, 50-43. UMBC ended its season 25-11 overall, a program record for wins.

Odom: There were tears in the locker room. I took time to talk about each one of the seniors, just what they had meant to the program and how much I appreciated them and we all appreciated them.

Levy: I remember thanking K.J. and Jourdan and Jairus, and I choke up a little bit. Then that got them going.

Lyles: Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to suit up for UMBC anymore, of course there was a wave of emotion. Not to be able to go into battle anymore with those guys, there was definitely a lot emotion in the air, tears. But at the end of the day, nobody expected us to be there.

Gerrity: My dad always said that every basketball season kind of ends with a thud, and he kind of said that, you know, this one doesn't, because we beat Virginia. There's not going to be a moment as exciting as that. No matter what happens, you're going to be the first team ever to do that.

The team's flight back home arrived early Monday morning, where dozens of fans awaited their arrival. Players soon scattered for spring break, and the tournament went on without UMBC.

Sherburne: We went to Little Caesars on April 2 [the day of the NCAA final], and there was a huge line, and I was trying to get to class, and we tried to walk to the front of the line and be like, "Hey, we're the reason you're getting free pizza." And, like, 5 percent of the line knew why there was free pizza.

Gerrity: I think I kind of learned throughout this that people don't know sports as much as you think they do. I still get asked what UMBC stands for. Not much has changed. I still get the question if we're D-I or not.

Sherburne: Sure, you're supposed to say, "Well, we gave hope to all the other small schools, 16 seeds, so they can do it, too." No, screw that. We're the only ones.

Odom: Every time we step into an arena, doesn’t matter if it’s big time or the lowest level, we’re getting the other team’s best shot. That has definitely changed. Year one, we could sneak up on somebody, because they just expected us to lose. Now they expect to see what they saw on March 16. Fair or not, that’s the way it is, and that’s where you want your program to be. You want it to mean something for another team to beat you.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Charlotte
UMBC's Jairus Lyles reacts after a score against Virginia during the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16, 2018 in Charlotte, N.C. Streeter Lecka / Getty Images