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Mike Lopresti | | November 2, 2018

What life has been like at UMBC since that incredible upset of No. 1 Virginia

UMBC upsets Virginia, 74-54

With apologies to Virginia, for dredging up a nightmare . . .

But as the new college basketball season begins, how's Cinderella doing?

Nearly eight months later, the ripples of one miraculous, unbelievable night in the NCAA tournament still roll across the campus of UMBC. The moment a No. 16 seed proved it was possible to beat a No. 1 seed — and did it by 20 points. Sheer magic then, when the Retrievers took down Virginia, it has come to mean even more now for the school in Baltimore.

In the applications office, they understand. The UMBC visitation day for juniors in April saw a 22-percent increase. Another day in September was up 27 percent.

In the president's office, Freeman Hrabowski III understands. He could go on all weekend about it.

"I have a cup on my desk. It's black with gold letters, and the quote is from a Facebook page and it says this, 'Whenever you hear 'we can't,' tell them 'UMBC.' That quote was from Dan Rather during that period."

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"One day I'm watching a dog show on TV and a dog wasn't supposed to win and they said the dog was the 'UMBC of the show.' Another time I'm watching the Kentucky Derby, and they said one of the horses did a UMBC. So this idea of the underdog excelling is one that took over in a lot of different ways.

"Applications are up substantially. The quality of students is up substantially. Everywhere I speak — I was in Cleveland today — they always remind people, 'Don’t forget that his team made history this year.' My driver said, 'You’re that team, how did you guys do that?' I always say one thing — an amazing group of students, an amazing coach . . .  and grit. That's the one word out of all of this we are using more than ever.

"Think about it. To have the top line in the New York Times crossword puzzle, it doesn't get any better than that. My wife was in Paris at the French Open and she had on her UMBC cap. People were coming up to her talking about UMBC. Who can imagine people talking about UMBC basketball in France?"

In the public relations office, they understand. Dinah Winnick, director of communications, can provide all manners of examples, with the slogan Grit & Greatness at the bottom of her email.

How, by unofficial count, UMBC appeared in 4,700 news articles around the world. How the school trended globally on Twitter. How the team toured the governor's mansion and received a standing ovation on the statehouse floor. How UMBC made it into the crossword puzzles of both the Washington Post and New York Times. How coach Ryan Odom was invited to throw out the first pitch at an Orioles game, and announce a draft pick for the Ravens.

In the campus bookstore, they understand.

They had 3,000 T-shirt orders in one night last March.

"We had long lines for a long time in the bookstore," said Hrabowski, who mentioned that the demand has even led to thievery in his own family. "People keep coming and stealing my T-shirts. All my wife's friends, my cousins, they keep taking my stuff. Everybody wants it."

Bookstore interim director Gina Thurston emailed, "Logo and emblematic merchandise is up nicely even some months later."

In the basketball office, Odom understands.

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"Certainly it was a lot different," he said of his summer. "We called it the new normal."

There were times he would come home and find his wife and kids curled up, watching the tape of the Virginia game. It was like pulling out a family photo album. There is also the newly extended contract, with nearly double the salary.

"I think it was one of those moments for those who are interested in sports, you kind of remember where you were at that particular moment. So whenever we see somebody out and about, they want to tell you where they were during that time. I've heard a zillion stories about what was going on when they were watching. When you have something that's so historic like that, it's never happened before, and the way it happened, it really sticks with folks."



That would include recruits.

"We don’t have to explain who we are as much anymore," Odom said.

In the locker room, returning starter Joe Sherburne understands.

"You can imagine anywhere we go, if we're wearing a T-shirt that says UMBC basketball, somebody's probably going to say something to us. Nobody asks if we're a junior college anymore."

When he went home to Wisconsin for a family wedding this summer, a neighbor was waiting to have a glass bowl inscribed to commemorate the game.

"Usually people I haven’t seen in a while want to say something. Just about every day," Sherburne said.

No wonder. Here was a team that needed a last-second win in its conference tournament to even make the field — one of those all-initial places that nobody knew. And the Virginia upset was no fluke, but a total beatdown of a juggernaut from the mighty ACC. Never mind the ride ended 48 hours later against Kansas State. The immortal deed was done.

Besides that — and this really makes Hrabowski glow — UMBC’s leading scorer that night, Jairus Lyles, was a graduate student. The second leading scorer, Sherburne, was first-team Academic All-American with a 4.0 grade point average in financial economics. Another senior starter, K.J. Maura was 5-8, 140 pounds — one of the smallest players in all Division I.

"I think we're giving hope to guys that are not even that tall, like me," Maura said afterward. "People that feel like they are underdogs in their life, I think we have given hope to everything they want to do in life.”

Really, could a president dream of better advertisement for his school?

Sherburne, now a graduate student, realizes that his academic feats gave the UMBC fairy tale even more heft.

"I know our president will tell you he cares way more about that, although he does care about sports. He's a self-proclaimed nerd. It made me happy to make him and everybody else who might not care as much about basketball happy."

But time moves on. Lyles is with the Utah Jazz G-league team, Maura is hoping to catch on in pro ball overseas. Odom has to replace his backcourt, and the Retrievers, as is their custom, open against a big name. They'll be at ranked Marquette Tuesday, playing 10 minutes from Sherburne's house. Plus, UMBC will be something of a target in America East play. The more famous you get, the more people see you as a trophy win.

Odom:  "You want your program to be in a position where others want to play you and if they beat you, it means something. We're right there at that particular time, and how we handle it going forward is really, really important."

A new season beckons. But last March lingers, and always will.

That goes for the university president.

"We have thought a lot about how to take advantage of the success, and what it's meant," Hrabowski said. "It's inspired students and faculty and staff and alumni and legislators — and the governor (Larry Hogan). Remember the governor is the one person who predicted we would upset the whole thing. You can imagine he’s very proud. He has pictures down in his man cave in the governor's mansion."

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Hrabowski was invited to take part in a team meeting recently, when the subject — amid the adulation poured upon the program — was humility.  "I’ve never been more deeply moved by an educational experience."

It also goes for the coach who orchestrated the night that shook the college basketball world.

"It's very emotional, the moment that you're going through it," Odom said. "Now it's simply something that we look back on with pride. It's not a moment I ever want them to forget or shy away from, or not talk about when somebody asks them. Not only did it mean a lot to us, it meant a lot to others, and we don't want to lose sight of that.

"But at the same time, it doesn't give us a right to have a moment like that again. We have to understand how it happened and what it meant, and move forward. The goal doesn't change. Our goal is not to recreate that moment. Our goal is to be the best versions of ourselves we can be, and go out and create new and exciting moments. That's what we're after."

How No. 1 seeds do in the NCAA men's basketball tournament

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