At approximately 6:06 p.m. Sunday, the broadcast of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s selection show cut to a live-stream inside Retriever Sports Zone. “How about the UMBC Retrievers?” Greg Gumbel said over a wave of booming cheers, as if the Catonsville school were announcing itself to the world.
At approximately 6:22 p.m. Sunday, after a decade of waiting for its next NCAA tournament appearance, UMBC got something of a reprieve. In the first pairing of the first region revealed, the Retrievers saw their name in the 68-team field. They were a No. 16 seed. And above them? No. 1 overall seed Virginia.
The wave of noise flowed back, but differently now. The first cheers had felt like a release, the carryover of a dramatic Saturday afternoon victory. When the UMBC team and its family members and its hundreds of fans on hand saw they were faced with doing the historically impossible — no No. 1 seed has ever lost to a No. 16 seed in the men’s tournament — the hubbub was more defiant. It was less “Here we are, America” and more “Here we go.”
The Retrievers (24-10) will face the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament champion Cavaliers (31-2) on Friday in Charlotte, N.C., at 9:20 p.m. on TNT. A win would qualify as the greatest upset in NCAA tournament history — one Las Vegas sports book has already installed Virginia as a 221/2-point favorite — but it had taken something of a minor miracle to get UMBC in front of a projection screen Sunday, waiting to hear its name called.
On Saturday afternoon, the Retrievers played another top seed. To punch its first ticket to the Big Dance since 2008, UMBC would have to upset Vermont, the defending America East Conference champion, in Burlington. The Retrievers were the No. 2 seed, but little else offered hope. Not only had UMBC lost both its regular-season meetings with the Catamounts by double digits, it had lost 23 straight games in the series, too.
But when the game’s final possession arrived, the score was tied at 62 and Retrievers star Jairus Lyles had the ball in his hands. Second-year coach Ryan Odom called a play. He waved him off. Staring down Vermont’s Trae Bell-Haynes, the league’s Player of the Year, Lyles dribbled himself into a rhythm and rose for a 3-pointer at the top of the key. The ball arced so high, it left ESPN’s frame briefly. When it reappeared, it swished through the net.
“He said after the game, ‘That's the shot I've been working on all year before and after practice,’ and that's true,” junior forward Joe Sherburne said. “He's always doing those dribbles right into 3s. He's the hardest worker and he's the most talented. That's a pretty good combination.”
As Lyles took in the delirium around him — the ecstasy on his teammates’ faces, the slack-jawed shock spreading across Patrick Gymnasium, the wounded pride of the opposing Catamounts — Odom kept his cool. He knew there was still time left on the clock, and that meant there was still a pulse in Vermont.
More than a decade earlier, as an assistant coach for Virginia Tech, Duke had been left for dead inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, trailing the Hokies by one with 1.6 seconds remaining, the ball 94 feet from the basket. Enough time, as it turned out, for Sean Dockery to take a dribble and hit a half-court buzzer-beater.
“So trust me, that was running through my mind right there,” Odom said of the 2005 loss. “It's not over.”
Not until Vermont’s full-court heave failed did the party really start. Sherburne marveled Sunday at how the team managed to jump around the court for over 10 minutes, a “really weird,” really long time to celebrate. When the team got back to its hotel over an hour later, the nets from both baskets clipped, the snippets of twine stuck behind ears or tied around hats, Odom began going through his phone.
There were a lot of texts to answer, over 200 in total since the win, he estimated, the congratulations coming from family, the college ranks (Maryland’s Mark Turgeon, Houston’s Kelvin Sampson) and even the NBA (Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder).
One older message caught his eye Sunday morning. He had been scrolling through his text log with Lyles, who had decided in the offseason to stay at UMBC for his final year of eligibility instead of moving on to a program with a bigger brand name, when Odom noticed a prescient message of consolation.
Despite leading the Retrievers to just their fourth-ever 20-win season (he was also responsible for their third), Odom had been passed over for America East Coach of the Year. This irked Lyles.
“He was like, ‘No way, man!’ ” Odom recalled. “And I was like, ‘Dude, I couldn’t care less about that thing.’
“And he said, ‘You’re right.’ He said: ‘All that matters is the championship.’ “