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UMBC aims to prove in NCAA tournament it's more than that title-clinching buzzer-beater

The Retrievers get ready to take on Virginia in the NCAA tournament.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s time for UMBC to move past “the shot.”

Not that it wasn’t a shot that will linger for years in the program’s men’s basketball history. It was. Coach Ryan Odom acknowledged as much — if that shot wasn’t worth celebrating, nothing is.

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But now, almost a week later, the moment has passed. Senior Jairus Lyles’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer to clinch the America East Conference championship and an NCAA tournament berth isn’t played out on “SportsCenter” anymore (although it did make the rounds for a day or two). Now the NCAA tournament has arrived. As memorable a moment as it was, there just isn’t time to dwell on it anymore.

And UMBC knows that.

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“We’ve definitely moved past it,” Lyles said Thursday. “Of course it will go down in history and we’ll relive that moment forever, but we definitely moved past it because we know we’ve got to play Virginia on Friday, not Vermont.”

The Retrievers' first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade will take them to Charlotte, N.C.

The Retrievers (24-10) will match up against probably the toughest team in college basketball this season, No. 1 overall seed Virginia. The Cavaliers (31-2) began the season unranked, but as they steamrolled through opponents and stifled offense after offense, that changed. Quickly.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s vaunted pack-line defense, which smothers opponents faster than water does fire, was as good as expected. But for Virginia’s offense to excel the way it has — the Cavaliers make 39 percent of their 3-point shots and share the ball well — was more of the surprise.

The end result: Virginia enters the tournament with as many titles (one in the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and one in the conference tournament) as losses.

Now, it’s UMBC’s turn to try to deal them a third defeat.

The Retrievers will face the Cavaliers at 9:20 p.m. Friday on TNT.

That, of course, is understating the improbability. In the history of the NCAA tournament, a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed. Entering Thursday, the underdogs are 0-132 all-time. Eighty-nine of those losses have come by more than 20 points.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the odds certainly aren’t in the Retrievers’ favor. Even that probably sounds too optimistic. But if Odom’s team didn’t believe in itself, would Lyles have even attempted that shot?

UMBC will rely on its own 3-point proficiency, converting essentially the same rate from deep (38.7 percent) as Virginia. It will defend doggedly, following the lead of America East Defensive Player of the Year K.J. Maura. It will approach the game not as a foregone conclusion, but as a chance to give the best team in the country a reason to sweat.

“We’re going to have to play lights out basketball just to be in the game,” Odom said. “Our guys understand that.

The No. 16 seed Retrievers are not expected to last long against No. 1 seed Virginia, but not for a lack of belief.

“But at the same time, I want them to be confident because they haven’t won 24 games for a reason. I want them to go in there freed up … We’re trying to win.”

In the end, that tenacity might not matter. Virginia, as every top seed before them has done in the first round, is expected to win, and likely handedly (even without ACC Sixth Man of the Year De’Andre Hunter, who is out for the rest of the season with a broken left wrist).

But UMBC give up? Not a chance. The team knows who it is, and it’s much more than just one shot.

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“We’ve worked for everything we’ve earned,” senior guard Jourdan Grant (Archbishop Spalding) said. “It’s a tough task on Friday … When it comes down to it, it’s just finding a way to win.”

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