What's for lunch today? Thanks to UMBC, many decide on free pizza

If it’s free, it’s for me.

And for you, too, thanks to the UMBC men’s basketball team.

During Monday’s lunch hour, Little Caesars fulfilled its promise to give away pizza to everybody if a 16th seed beat a No. 1 seed during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Retrievers became the first team to do that in 136 tries when they shocked and awed Virginia, 74-54, on March 16.

The deal entitled each customer to one $5 HOT-N-READY Lunch Combo — a 4-inch deep-dish pepperoni pizza and a 20-ounce Pepsi product — from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at participating restaurants.

Dennis Chacko, Mieron Tewelde and Ephraim Alfa planned the trip to Charlotte to watch the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Retrievers take on Virginia, the top seed in college men’s basketball, on a whim.

Like many UMBC students, the 20-year-olds were excited just to see their team in the tournament. They didn’t think the unimaginable would actually happen.

Then it did.

“We were going crazy, man,” said Chacko, a junior chemical engineering student from Bowie.

The three celebrated the victory with dozens of others who queued up in a parking lot Monday for free lunch at the Little Caesars pizzeria in Elkridge.

The historic upset was the first basketball game — UMBC or otherwise — that Tewelde had ever attended. The junior math major hasn’t been to one since. He might never again.

“I thought, ‘This might be a historic moment,’” he said, explaining his decision to go.

The event has precipitated a change that could only occur at UMBC, where “brainiac” is a compliment, and the chess team is venerated.

“Now people are talking to the basketball players,” Tewelde said.

Alfa, who studies math and economics, said he called his brother to tell him the friends were traveling to the game.

“A No. 16 has never beaten a No. 1,” he recalled saying. “But I’ve never been to an NCAA tournament.”

At his apartment in Pikesville, Darrell Waller, 62, put down his beer and jumped around his living room with friends and family as the Retrievers pulled off the upset.

In line for pizza on Monday, Waller recalled running into his downstairs neighbor in the building after the victory. Both relished having witnessed it.

“I heard you upstairs,” the neighbor said.

“I heard you downstairs,” he responded.

George Wagner, 58, of Catonsville, went with the statistics and picked against the hometown team in his bracket. But by the end of the game, he was cheering along with the rowdy crowd at the Oak Creek Cafe in Arbutus.

“I’m a Marylander, first and foremost,” he said. “It was the upset of the whole tournament.”

Wagner waited eagerly in line for a pepperoni pizza. He likes Little Caesar’s and wishes the chain would open more branches in the area. His favorite is the ExtraMostBestest pizza, with extra pepperoni and cheese for $6.

“It’s killer,” he said.

At the Little Caesars in a shopping center at the corner of Timonium and York roads in Timonium the line stretched out the door and in front of other stores. But the wait was minimal to get in, as staff had pizzas and drinks ready for those who ordered.

Although it was cold, with temperatures in the low 40s, people in line seemed to be in good moods. Some commented on how great it was that UMBC upset a No. 1 seed, while others wondered why Little Caesars waited until April 2 to give out the pizzas since UMBC won on March 15.

Here’s something that's simply delicious about the promotion: On a day the Michigan Wolverines can win the entire tournament, it’s the once-little-known (outside Baltimore, of course) Retrievers who will be honored by a pizza chain based in Detroit.

The national championship game is tonight between Michigan and Villanova in San Antonio, Texas.

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