When the miracle team that was always supposed to lose in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament finally did lose Sunday — two days, one round and who knows how many shredded brackets after UMBC stunned top overall seed Virginia in an historic upset — the Retrievers retreated to a small locker room inside the Spectrum Center.
Everything about the team’s past 48 hours had felt outsized, magnified. How a once-anonymous school had found itself being hailed in newspapers, on the radio, during news broadcasts. How a No. 16 seed had become America’s team over 40 near-perfect minutes. How a team from the America East Conference had found itself on the verge of the Sweet 16.
For UMBC’s unlikely bunch of Davids to find themselves shoulder-to-shoulder, then, packed in the locker room like sardines after a 50-43 loss to No. 9 seed Kansas State, the Goliath they could not conquer, must have been jarring. They had been close to attaining so much, even more than what they already had accomplished, which was immense.
So to reckon with the grand ambitions the Wildcats had spoiled, the Retrievers consoled themselves with the smaller moments of unthinkable delight Kansas State could not touch.
Junior forward-center Nolan Gerrity was unsure about telling reporters his. He must have thought it was kind of silly, which it kind of was. But with a grin, he told it anyway. Before the Retrievers faced Virginia on Friday night, the team met with analyst Grant Hill. Gerrity knew something odd about the former Duke and NBA star: that he had been in a music video for the rock band Nickelback’s song “Rockstar.”
“So I asked him about it,” Gerrity explained. “[Hill’s] wife is represented by the same management as Nickelback, so he just said that he felt like a rapper during the music video and he'd never been asked that question before, so it was really cool. ... He thought it was so funny.”
On Saturday night, junior forward Joe Sherburne was close to falling asleep. It was getting past midnight, his phone was facing down, the TV was off. But he had to make sure the alarm on his phone was set. So he picked it up.
“And I see, ‘Oh, my God,’ ‘Oh, my God,’ ‘Oh, my God,’ on texts,” he said. This was not a family emergency. In Wisconsin, where Sherburne’s from, this was the opposite of a family emergency.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose “Discount Double Check” celebration Sherburne had aped in the upset Friday night, had tweeted at him.
Which changed Sherburne’s slumber plans, if not his life altogether.
“I'm not falling asleep now,” he recalled thinking. “I just sent around a couple of rounds of texts like, ‘Look at this,’ and then I turned my phone back over and I didn't look at it again. But it took awhile to fall asleep.”
Many of point guard K.J. Maura’s admirers weren’t as big in stature. The senior who has joked that he’s 5 feet 8 “on a good day” said he had gotten a lot of messages from little kids who wanted to thank him. They said he had offered them hope, had given them strength that they could follow their dreams as he had.
Around Maura and Sherburne, team members moved quietly around the locker room, carrying markers and their personalized name plates. Before they left this small locker room having accomplished such big things, they wanted autographs from teammates.
A reporter asked: Was this a team tradition?