Baltimore Sun reporter Jonas Shaffer discusses the UMBC basketball team's loss to Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
As the UMBC men’s basketball team tried and tried again Sunday night to become the first No. 16 seed in NCAA tournament history to beat a No. 9 seed — it was also the first to try, a telling stat in this truly mad March — the Retrievers were left to deal with the problem they had made for themselves.
For all that they had accomplished Friday night, for how they had made UMBC into a household name with a stunning upset of tournament favorite Virginia, the first-ever toppling of a No. 1 seed, they still would have to face a very good opponent in the second round. They would have to do the unthinkable again. They would have to have their One Shining Moment a second time.
The harsh reminder of their 50-43 loss to Kansas State, the pebble in their Cinderella slipper, was that the Wildcats could shoot and defend and play like an NCAA tournament team. Beating the Cavaliers was something of a miracle, and yet a spot in the Sweet 16 had never seemed at once so close and so far away.
“Nothing can take away, this loss can't take away, what these kids ... [have] been able to accomplish throughout this entire season,” coach Ryan Odom said. “Certainly in the NCAA tournament, just to be here is a blessing, for sure.”
The Retrievers (25-11), whose place in the tournament was uncertain until the last second of their conference tournament final, fought as if their school’s future hinged on the outcome. They chased down fast breaks and flailed at loose balls. They pressed full court against a team with ballhandlers who’d not so much as glanced at UMBC recruiting letters. They had a reserve, sophomore forward Max Curran, shoot a deep, cold-blooded 3-pointer his first time on the court in the second half.
The Retrievers’ grit was true. Their accuracy was not. As the score hung endlessly, stalling like a broken clock, at 34-33, they turned chance after chance into nothing worth celebrating: four turnovers and two missed 3-pointers.
A 3-pointer by star guard Jairus Lyles (4-for-15, 12 points) drew UMBC to 38-37 with six minutes remaining, but that, too, was a tease. Forward Xavier Sneed quieted a crowd talking itself into a go-ahead basket with a dunk. A jumper by guard Barry Brown (game-high 18 points) pushed the lead to 42-37. The Wildcats (24-11) held the Retrievers at arm’s distance from there, snuffing out a weekend of unexpected glory with a cold, exacting precision. They cared not for what had happened Friday night here at Spectrum Center, holding UMBC to 29.8 percent shooting and forcing 17 turnovers.
“For the most part, I felt like we got open shots,” Lyles said. “We just didn't make any shots today. It happens some games. Unfortunately, it happened today.”
Against Virginia two nights earlier, never before had 40 minutes of basketball so profoundly affected a school best known for its “mega-nerd” president, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, and champion chess program. In the team’s locker room postgame, Hrabowski had called the win the biggest moment in school history, a distinction hard to dispute as decades’ worth of attention were crammed into the next 48 hours.
The deluge of stunned onlookers late Friday night wondering, “What’s a UMBC?” crashed the university’s website during and after the 20-point win, with as many as 1 million unique visitors online at one point. A media intelligence company valued the company’s bracket-wrecking publicity at about $119 million as of Sunday morning, or “roughly a third of the publicity value UMBC has generated in the past 12 months,” according to Yahoo Sports.
Merchandise at the on-campus bookstore flew off the shelves Sunday, students passing on the start of their spring break to wear their Retrievers pride, many for the first time.
A Sunday afternoon tweet from the snarky @UMBCAthletics Twitter account, the subject of more gushing media coverage than the team’s stars, asking for “dog pix” got over 3,500 replies from its tens of thousands of followers. A tweet Thursday from former President Barack Obama (follower count: 101 million) congratulating Loyola Chicago, a fellow Big Dance darling, got approximately 2,000.
There was a profile in The New York Times (“Cinderella Story? It’s True for U.M.B.C. in Academics, Too”) and a commemorative cover from Sports Illustrated (“Sweetest 16”). Stephen Curry sent a delivery of unreleased Under Armour shoes to the team; Aaron Rodgers sent a message of support to starting forward and Packers super-fan Joe Sherburne.
“I [see] you Joe,” Rodgers wrote, appending “#SweetSixteenBound?” to the tweet.
Rodgers’ question was fun while it lasted. On Sunday, the Retrievers scored the game’s first seven points. They held Kansas State, playing without leading scorer Dean Wade, scoreless for the first six-plus minutes, then answered the Wildcats’ first salvo with a 3-pointer. A Maryland state flag waved for a TV camera courtside as UMBC’s fan section, swelling with the arrival of a bus of students from Catonsville, roared its approval.
Soon, though, there were jeers and groans, the former directed toward officials over some questionable early calls — even the mild-mannered Odom shared his mind during one timeout — and the latter lamenting the Retrievers’ erstwhile offense. Ten minutes into the first half, UMBC led 14-10. Another 10 minutes later, it trailed 25-20, its largest deficit of the tournament, the Retrievers having found Kansas State’s on-ball pressure more confounding than Virginia’s historically good defense.
There were fundamental breakdowns — the Wildcats’ Barry Brown intercepted a long inbounds pass and took it the distance for a layup — but there were also moments of jitters. Point guard K.J. Maura (10 points), among the most sure-handed players in the country — who takes the ball from a guy dribbling as low to the ground as the 5-foot-8 Puerto Rican, anyway? — was uncharacteristically reckless. In the team’s first 35 games, Maura never had finished with four or more turnovers. In the first half alone, he had four.
Even the students at UMBC who until Friday’s game didn’t know the school had a basketball team — this is a university known for its academics, not athletics, you might have heard — knew 29.9 percent first-half shooting would not do.
But then, the Retrievers’ chances of even being here Sunday were always astronomically small. Even in defeat, they were an outlier in all the best ways.
“We're giving hopes to teams that come to the tournaments with lower seeds,” Maura said. “I think we're giving hope to guys that are not even that tall like me. People that feel like they're underdogs in their life, I think we're giving them hope to everything they want to do in life.”