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.
It’s important to remember that the narrative did not begin on a Friday night against mighty Virginia. It began six days earlier at Vermont, the Goliath in UMBC’s little basketball world. Going into the America East tournament final March 10, 2018, UMBC had lost to the top-seeded Catamounts 23 straight times, including two defeats by a combined 43 points earlier in the season. The Retrievers had won 23 games under second-year head coach Ryan Odom but had been to the NCAA tournament just once in program history, in 2008.
Zach Seidel, director of digital media for UMBC and 2012 graduate of the university: I guess I'd been here for 10 years, and I had seen so much losing basketball. I started interning here the time they won the [conference] championship, and then my freshman year, they made the championship, and they were .500. And then after that, they won, like, 48 games over the next seven years. So, I mean, I had just seen so much bad basketball.
Griff Aldrich, Longwood head coach and former UMBC director of recruiting and program development: I think Ryan [Odom] said this in the media, that UMBC was a sleeping giant, and I think that was true. I think there were a lot of good pieces there institutionally to have that program be turned around.
Ryan Odom, UMBC head coach: We had a ton of respect for [Vermont]. They had beaten us twice going into that game. The first game, we had our moments up there. The second game here, we were down 46-41 in the second half, and we chose to focus on that with the team: “You’re in this thing, so even though the final score ended up being [81-53], look at the score right now and look at how much time is left. So if we don’t finish like that, we have a chance. You’re not playing somebody you can’t beat.”
Aldrich: Well, we found out that there was this huge storm coming. So we said, “Well, we need to get up there earlier, because they may cancel all the flights on Thursday.” So ultimately what happened is, we beat Hartford on Tuesday night [in the semifinals]. We decide Tuesday night that we're leaving Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. for an 8:30 flight up to Burlington [before Saturday’s game]. Well, the flight gets canceled. … We now have to fly to Providence. So we sit in the airport for, like, five hours, waiting for the flight to Providence, waiting to see if it's going to get canceled. Then we arrive at, like, 4:30 in Providence. Our bus doesn't show up ’til, like, 7, because it was supposed to pick us up in Boston. And then we bused ... to Burlington. And at one point, we're going, like, 30 mph down the road [in the snow]. And we ended up getting in at, like, 1 or 1:30 on Thursday morning.
Jourdan Grant, former UMBC guard and the Retrievers’ top reserve in 2017-18: Trips like that, you'll be able to tell your kids about. And we embraced it. We embrace those moments. That team last year, just a bunch of clowns joking, laughing on the bus, getting ready for a championship game.
The title game tipped off at an unusual time, 11 a.m., and UMBC got off to the start it wanted, taking a 37-35 halftime lead on a 3-pointer from senior guard and leading scorer Jairus Lyles. But Retrievers point guard K.J. Maura quickly got into foul trouble, and Vermont roared back to seize a 57-48 lead with 8:21 left in the game. UMBC trimmed it to 62-60 with 2:19 remaining.
Steve Levy, sports information director for UMBC men's basketball: I thought to myself, “As long as they don’t get to double digits, the noose is going to start to tighten on them a little bit.” They’re the ones expected to win and win big.
Joe Sherburne, starting forward for UMBC: The game was really drawn out. We had that really long video review [with 79 seconds remaining and Vermont leading by two]. They thought it went off of Jairus, and then they reviewed it for a long time, went up, and then we had an inbounds play. And then I think Jairus had a really hard floater to tie it [at 62].
Vermont got the ball to conference Player of the Year Trae Bell-Haynes, but UMBC sophomore forward Max Curran blocked his layup attempt with 30 seconds left on the clock.
Grant: Me and Max Curran always fight about who got the last block. There's a picture, and my hand is up there, and his hand is on top of my hand, and the ball’s against the backboard.
Sherburne: I remember the block happened off the backboard, and then the ball hit me in the head. And it went right here, and it went behind me, and I had to grab it. I had to know where it was. It’s one of those things where you look back on it and you're, like, scared, even though it already happened. Like, “Oh, my gosh. What if I didn't grab that?” Because Vermont's guy was right about to grab it if it didn't hit my head.
Lyles: That was probably the most important play of the game, right there.
Odom: I think that’s where you saw the growth in our program. The year before that, we wouldn’t have been able to get that stop. The trust — Max hadn’t played a ton of minutes. He was hurt, in and out, and for he and Jourdan to follow the scouting report and come up with that block in front of Bell-Haynes, it was just huge.
Sherburne: Once we had the ball on offense, it was over. We had to clear out for Jairus.
Nolan Gerrity, reserve center for UMBC: I knew we were going to get a good shot, get a clean look and we were going to score. So I just remember when we had the ball up top and it was tied, I was like, “All right, going to the tournament.”
Sherburne: Coach called a play, Euro 2, and then, obviously, everybody knows, several people waved him off.
Odom: It was a play that [Jairus] would give it up to K.J. and then get it back. Then he would come to the top and make the play off of a ball screen. … To Jairus’ credit, he worried that if he gave it up, they would reset the deck and he wouldn’t get it back. They might deny him.
Sherburne: [Odom] called a play called Clip, which is just me coming up and setting a ball screen. It's supposed to be, I sprint up real fast and they think I'm about to set it, and I slip. But I kind of just walked up there and walked past him. … Nobody on our team would ever want the ball, because it needed to be in Jairus' hands.
Lyles: I wanted to take that last shot. I had put in the work all season. My team believed in me. They wanted me to take that shot. I know my coaches wanted me to take that shot. But I had a plan — not run the play but get the iso in the middle of the court, spread it out and make sure they didn’t have any time to score if I missed.
Odom: Jairus, it was obviously like he was in the gym by himself, making that same move we used to see after practice. … It’s trust. That’s really what it is. I could’ve called timeout, but you have trust. Bill Belichick’s trusting Tom Brady. There’s a level of trust between a coach and a player, and he had earned that.
Lyles dribbled between his legs three times and rose to shoot from behind the 3-point line, with Bell-Haynes’ hand in his face.
Levy: As soon as the ball leaves his hands, I’ve got a perfect view. I see Joe’s hands go up. And it’s like, “This is going to go in.”
Grant: Honestly, I knew it was going in, but you just got to wait for it to get out the air and go through the net. That three seconds was probably the longest three seconds of my life.
Lyles: It’s still crazy to think about. It couldn’t have been scripted any better.
Freeman Hrabowski, UMBC president: Those last few seconds, I’ve played them over and over again, whenever I want to be inspired. I’ve got it on my phone. I’ve showed it to people all over the country if they didn’t see it.
Sherburne: It was an insane amount of time to jump [in celebration]. We kept jumping for 15 minutes. The excitement never wavered. I remember our volleyball team was on the court. They drove up there. I had tears coming out of my eyes, and they were just like, “Let it out, Joe!”
Gerrity: I was just thinking, “We're the conference champs.” I didn’t at that time think about the NCAA tournament. On the bus ride back to the airport and stuff, I did, but while we were at Vermont, not at all. I was just thinking about, like, “We just won on a buzzer beater, and now we have the trophy, and we just broke the trophy.”
Sherburne: It was flimsy.
Odom: When you work as hard as that team had worked, just to earn the chance to play for a championship, that’s huge. Once that ended and we secured it, it was like, “Wow, we’re going dancing.”
UMBC traveled home immediately, with plans to celebrate Selection Sunday on campus the next evening.
Levy: I’m in the Giant grocery store on Sunday morning and I’m getting calls from the CBS guys: “Hey, we want to do a live look-in. Can you get Coach [Odom] there early to do something in the studio with Clark Kellogg?”
Sherburne: I just didn't want to be in the First Four.
Gerrity: It was kind of, like, anticlimactic because, you know, it's Selection Sunday. You’re really eager to see your name up. And then, like, “All right, 16 seed UMBC and No. 1 Virginia.” And then they just kept going. We were the first name to be drawn.
Odom: The first thing I thought was, “Wow, we’re a 16?” I was kind of shocked at that. I thought we’d be a 15. … My second thought was, “Oh my gosh, we’re playing Virginia. No way.”
Levy: I know the coaching staff did not like the matchup at all because of the friendships. I mean, Ryan, one of his best friends [Orlando Vandross] is on the Virginia staff, and he has the greatest respect for [Virginia coach Tony] Bennett. He’s worried if we’re going to score 30 points the whole game.
Gerrity: I knew that they were good and that they played defense. I didn't know anything else. Couldn't name you one player.
Levy: You don’t want to embarrass yourselves. You’re getting the big CBS crew with [Jim] Nantz, Bill Raftery, Grant Hill and Tracy Wolfson. You don’t want to embarrass yourselves. So it was like, “Well, Bennett is a classy guy, and if they get up 25, they won’t beat us by 40 or 50.” Did I think we could be the first 16 seed to win? No, I really didn’t think it could happen.
Part 2 coming next week.