The most important thing the UMBC men’s basketball team did last season, its first under coach Ryan Odom, was to reverse a trend: America East teams were used to beating the Retrievers, Odom said. That had to change, and it did.
The most important thing UMBC had to do this season was maybe even more difficult than shedding its also-ran reputation: The Retrievers had to beat an America East team that was used to beating everyone else.
In Saturday’s conference tournament final, facing a Vermont team that had won 23 straight series meetings, was a double-digit favorite in Burlington’s Patrick Gymnasium and looked the part of an NCAA tournament darling, UMBC forged its own unlikely piece of March Madness. Senior guard Jairus Lyles’ long 3-pointer with less than a second left lifted the second-seeded Retrievers over the defending champion Catamounts, 65-62, and into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008 and second time ever.
"Win the game, that was all that was going through my head," said Lyles, who finished with a game-high 27 points on 10-for-23 shooting. "[Odom] called a play, I waved it off. Trae Bell-Haynes gave me some space, so I just raised up and hit the shot right over him."
Lyles, who chose to remain in Catonsville for his final year of eligibility rather than play elsewhere as a graduate transfer, was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player after averaging 19.3 points over UMBC’s three playoff games. He was joined on the All-Championship team by UMBC senior guard K.J. Maura (eight points) and freshman forward Daniel Akin (six points, four rebounds) and Vermont's Trae Bell-Haynes and Payton Henson.
The Retrievers (24-10), who tied a program record for wins in a single season, will learn their NCAA tournament draw during the selection show Sunday.
“I am so proud of these guys,” Odom said. “You have to earn the right to win and these kids did that. They were eager to compete and win. And that’s what you saw today.”
Vermont (27-7) twice led by as many as nine points in the second half, including a 57-48 advantage with 8:21 remaining, but was held without a field goal for the remainder of the game.
Lyles tied the game at 62 with 1:01 to go on a runner in the lane. Bell-Haynes, the America East Player of the Year, scored 18 for the Catamounts, but had his final shot blocked by junior wing Joe Sherburne with 24 seconds remaining.
That set up Lyles’ last-second heroics. With the ball in his hands for the entire possession, Lyles created space between himself and Bell-Haynes at the top of the key, rose for the shot and nailed his fifth 3-pointer of the game.
He had already helped carry UMBC to that point. The former DeMatha standout scored 15 points in the first half and closed the period with a late 3-pointer for a 37-35 edge. Vermont responded on the defensive end to start the second half, holding the Retrievers to just three baskets on their first 16 tries over the first 12 minutes.
Three free throws by Everett Duncan and a three-point play by Bell-Haynes capped a 12-2 run that put Vermont ahead 47-39.
Still, that wasn’t enough against an opportunistic UMBC team. The Retrievers committed only four turnovers in the game, the second fewest for an America East tournament game. They forced 13 Vermont miscues and outscored the Catamounts 23-6 in points off of turnovers.