UMBC stuns Virginia in historic NCAA upset

Image source taken from CNN

Streeter Lecka

Image source taken from CNN

0-135. That was the all time record of 16 seeds against 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. The hypothetical of a 16 over 1 upset has been one of the most improbable scenarios in all of sports. While there’s been a few scares, most matchups are blowouts leaving the public questioning if the impossible feat could ever be done.

Late Friday night, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) Retrievers defied the sports universe defeating the number one overall seed in the tournament Virginia, 74-54. They became the first 16-seed to take down a 1-seed, and in doing so cemented their spot in the lore of March Cinderella stories.  

Virginia was the most popular pick to win the National Championship. The Virginia Cavaliers finished 31-2 in the regular season and were the clear best team in the ACC, a conference that got nine teams into the tournament. They’re known for Head Coach Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense, which gets labeled often as a boring style of basketball. They had not translated their regular season dominance into March, the Elite 8 being the farthest they went.

However, this year seemed different. The Cavaliers stifled teams left and right this year. In my tournament preview, I said that UMBC would be able to do “Not much against UVA’s historically good defense.” That was the general feeling. This had the feel of the Virginia team that would finally break through and go to the Final Four.

The first half had the feel of a typical Virginia game. Not much offense and great defense for both sides, and it was tied at 21 going into the break. There was no reason for Virginia to panic. But the Retrievers came out of the game strong in the second half, taking a 6-point lead early on and then expanding on it. That became an 8-point lead, and then 11, and then 16. I remember thinking “this can’t actually be happening. Virginia is going to make a run and catch fire and this will be a blowout.” But it was UMBC that caught fire instead.

Virginia plays their defensive oriented game, but they’re not a team accustomed to coming from behind in games. They don’t have the offensive firepower to go on a long scoring streak and UMBC literally did not miss. They shot 68% in the second half and scored 53 second half points. Virginia on average gives up 54 points in a whole game. Jairus Lyles, the same player who hit the game-winner less than a week before to beat Vermont and secure a spot in the tournament, scored a game high 28 points, while lightning-fast 5’8” senior point guard K.J. Maura provided constant energy for UMBC. When the final TV time out at the under-4 minute mark hit, the reality of this improbable upset was beginning to sink in.

As the AP story following the game mentioned several times, UMBC is known mostly for their chess team’s success. They have about 13,000 students. Their Twitter account gained about 80,000 followers as they pumped up their brand following the win. Teams like Mercer and Florida Gulf Coast received more general admissions following their upset tournament wins. UMBC will probably see a similar trend.

Virginia is now remembered for being a part in two of the biggest upsets in college basketball history, the other being a loss to Chaminade of the NAIA while the Cavaliers were ranked #1. The loss is too recent to tell how it will affect the program. Being the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed is a giant scar on their program. Virginia basketball may not be dead, but they are certainly wounded.

As for UMBC, the magic ended Sunday Night in a loss to Kansas State. Now being a must-see team, the Retrievers gave everyone a good show. They played a gritty and hard-fought game, and captured the hearts of all basketball fans in doing so. With so many rumors of corruption in the top college basketball programs, it was refreshing to see a team go about the game the right way.