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Mike Lopresti | | March 17, 2018

Why UMBC’s shocking, historic win over top-seeded Virginia will stand alone

UMBC upsets Virginia, 74-54

There seems to be only one thing to say.


This was Miracle on Ice. This was Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson. This was Joe Namath beating the Colts, and “Hoosiers” in real life. Only unlike Hickory, UMBC did not require a last-second jump shot, but rather merely to run out the clock on a 20-point drubbing.


Matter of fact, this was better. In the age of social media, the Retrievers became famous in the time it took to split Virginia’s defense. The upset tweeted around the world. No matter the turmoil of the regular season just past, or the curves in the road still ahead, the 2018 tournament will always be remembered and marked as the instant March Madness found a new level of insanity – and opportunity. This was the year One Shining Moment came two weeks early.

Every No. 16 seed from now till eternity will be told the story of the UMBC Retrievers. Now we know. Anything is truly possible.

UMBC by… 20? That bang you heard Friday night was an entire sport’s jaws hitting the floor.

MORE: UMBC upsets Virginia with historic win while its Twitter account spits fire

Lyles leads UMBC over Virginia
What’s been the gold standard for college basketball stunner? Probably the 1982 holiday game in Hawaii when tiny NAIA Chaminade took down No. 1 ranked – oh, dear – Virginia.

Not to pile on the Cavaliers at this dark hour, but it can’t feel good to have been the victim of the TWO biggest upsets in the annals of the sport.

But Friday night in Charlotte will stand alone for a lot of reasons.

How rarely it has happened.

As in, never. Not in 135 previous tries had a No. 16 seed beaten a No. 1. The years and decades came and went. No end seemed in sight. But it was.

When it happened.

Not in the shadows of the regular season, but the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament, and the last session of the first round -- just when we were ready to move the slate to 0-136 and say goodbye to the 16-seeds for another year.

MORE: Last perfect bracket busts after UMBC pulls off biggest upset in NCAA tournament history

Who it happened for.

The University of Maryland-Baltimore County has only been around as a school for just over 50 years, built on the site of a former orphan’s home. The Retrievers lost 10 games this season, and needed a last-second shot to get past Vermont in the America East tournament for the NCAA bid. They were easy for much of the nation to overlook. Not anymore. 

Studio crew discusses UMBC's victory
Ryan Odom, the coach who put this all together, was once a Virginia ball boy. K.J. Maura, a guard, is 5-8. The forward who was the second leading scorer Friday, Joe Sherburne, has never gotten a B in college.

And Jairus Lyles — Jairus The Unstoppable on Friday — is a graduate student. His parents attended college, too. They went to Virginia.

See how this fairy tale just keeps adding more and more pages?

Who it happened against.

Virginia was No. 1 in the tournament, No. 1 in the polls, just off making history by going unbeaten on the road in the ACC. The Cavaliers have never played in a national championship game, but a lot of brackets said the time was now. Only, it wasn’t.

MORE: The unusual, improbable, unthinkable first week of March Madness

How it happened.

UMBC shredded the Virginia defense that had suffocated one big-name opponent after the other. The Cavaliers allowed only 53.4 points a game this season. Led the nation by light years.  The Retrievers scored 53 – in the second half. That’s more than North Carolina put up against Virginia the entire game back in January.

Lyles, the new governor of Maryland – if he wants to be – scored 23 of his 28 points in the second half. That’s as many as the whole Florida State team scored on Virginia in the second half in February. Now he’s got himself a March legend for keeps. “It’s always exciting to make history,” he said. Exciting to watch it, too.

We can look around the inner sanctum of NCAA Tournament surprises and try to figure out where this should be placed.

Virginia Cavaliers vs. UMBC Retrievers: Game Highlights
Let’s see, there’s Villanova over Georgetown. The Retrievers didn’t miss many shots in the second half Friday night, but they missed more than Villanova’s one. But what rarely gets mentioned is how closely the Wildcats played the Hoyas that season. There was fair warning. We’re talking Big East peers.

MORE: We're tracking every March Madness upset in 2018

There’s North Carolina State shocking Houston in the 1983 title game, and Loyola-Chicago stopping Cincinnati’s threepeat in the final seconds in 1963. There’s George Mason and Butler and VCU reaching the Final Four. All worthy of mention. 

But do any carry this flavor of pure and utter shock? George Mason would come close, having to surprise four teams to get to the 2006 Final Four. Another is Kemba Walker and UConn in 2011, surviving 11 consecutive sudden-death games.

But still, nobody ever confused either of them for a No. 16 seed.

Over on the women’s side, that Mississippi State last-second win over UConn in last spring’s Final Four is way up there. And actually, the women have their own 16 over 1, exactly 20 years ago, when Harvard stunned Stanford. But as anyone from the Stanford camp will remind you in about 10 seconds, the Cardinal lost two key starters to knee injuries just days before the game.

This UMBC feat is unique because it is… well, unique. Which is why the Retrievers own the basketball world, at least until the Kansas State game Sunday. How long were they awake, reliving the magic Friday night as the messages and adulation and wonder poured in, before it hit them they have another game to play? Maybe more? Is there any time for them to fully understand what they've done? 

A 16 is one game from the Sweet 16. Poor Kansas State. The Wildcats could never have imagined they’d suddenly be the bad guys in an historic fairy tale.

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