UMBC is Everything That is Great About March Madness

UMBC. U Must Be Cinderella.

I can’t take credit for that. CBS’ Grant Hill is the one who came up with that phrase at the end of their historic win over top-seeded Virginia on Friday night.

But as they spent much of their weekend trying to inform you of this, I feel obligated to tell you that it actually stands for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

What UMBC did this past weekend was historic and it was a first, but there’s so much more than that from the backstories to the nuances to the players and everything in between that captures just what the NCAA Tournament is all about.

Let’s start with how they got in the tournament, because that alone deserves some respect. Jump ahead to January 21 when UMBC was humiliated by Albany, 83-39, as the Retrievers fell to 13-8 on the season. Yes, you read that correctly. UMBC lost to a conference opponent by 44 points less than two months ago.

But, UMBC responded by winning 8 of their last 10 to close out the regular season, giving them the 2 seed in the America East Conference Tournament. UMBC cruised past UMass-Lowell and Hartford to set up a championship game between the Retrievers and the top-seeded Vermont Catamounts.

Vermont had already beaten UMBC twice this season, including a 28-point thumping on February 3. And because the AEC didn’t have an arena for a conference tournament, all games were hosted by the higher seed. That meant UMBC would have to beat Vermont on their home floor.

UMBC used a 10-1 run in the second half to tie the game at 58 with five minutes left, and the teams shared baskets until the game was knotted at 62 a piece with 15 seconds left. UMBC senior guard Jairus Lyles had the ball in his hand with the shot clock off and a chance to stun Vermont.

Lyles’ game-winner sent UMBC to the “Big Dance” for the first time in 10 years.

With a respectable 24-10 record, UMBC was anticipating being a 14 or 15 seed, but the selection committee not only put the Retrievers as a 16 seed, but paired them with the No. 1 overall seed, the Virginia Cavaliers.

You all watched the game on Friday night just as I did, so I won’t focus on the game itself. Everything else going on around it was arguably just as exciting.

Let’s go back to UMBC’s Jairus Lyles. Lyles, a VCU transfer, who scored 28 points on 9-11 shooting led the way in the Retrievers’ upset against Virginia. First, no one, and I mean no one, puts up that kind of a stat line on this Virginia defense, which ranks in the top 5 in nearly every major statistical category. What’s even crazier is that Lyles’ parents are both UVA alums, the very team Lyles just defeated. You can’t make this stuff up. Also, his name is “Jairus” not “Jarius” and I’m thinking he would appreciate it if you took the time to learn his name.

Maura (right) won the America East Defensive Player of the Year and has been aptly described as a “pest” on the defensive end. Photo courtesy of Twitter (@puertorock1507).

Now, onto his backcourt partner and fellow senior, K.J. Maura, who became America’s “darling” seemingly overnight. He’s listed at 5’8″ 140 lbs, but even he’ll tell you he’s 5’7″ 135 lbs on a good day. But, as they say, “it’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, it’s about the size of the fight in the dog.” And there’s a lot of fight in this little Retriever. Maura, a Puerto Rican native, says he plays for his country every single time he steps on the floor. Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria in late-September of 2017. Maura’s family is still recovering from the storm, but they were fortunate enough to be able to make the trip to watch their son play Friday.

Lyles and Maura stole the show in the opening weekend this year, but their coach, Ryan Odom, deserves a lot of credit for what he did in just his third year in charge at UMBC. Odom was born in North Carolina and had spent 2015-16 as the head coach at Lenoir-Rhyne, a Division II University, which is just an hour north of Charlotte, where UMBC pulled off this historic upset.

Odom is now meeting with UMBC to discuss a long-term contract extension as an attempt to stave off offers from high-major universities that will certainly come this offseason. All of this after one, yes outstanding game, but one game. The magnitude of college basketball in March cannot be matched.

The No. 9 seed in the South Region, Kansas State, knocked off UMBC in the Round of 32 on Sunday night, 50-43, ending their historic run.

To truly understand just how captivating this weekend was for UMBC, according to the Baltimore Sun, the university’s bookstore received more than 3,000 orders for merchandise the day after the Virginia game, which more than doubled their sales from all of last year.

But, before you go and move on to the Sweet 16 and leave UMBC as an afterthought until March Madness rolls around next year, I highly suggest you check out UMBC’s Twitter, @UMBCAthletics, and maybe even drop a follow. I’d scroll all the way down until you get to just before the start of the Virginia game and work your way up from there. Yes, it’s a lot, but I guarantee it will be put a smile on your face.

This past weekend as you well know, UMBC became the first 16 seed to beat a 1 seed in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and brought a whole ‘nother meaning to “anything can happen in March.” It has forever turned this tournament upside down and that is nothing short of historic.

That you did, UMBC. That you did.