When the game tipped off shortly before 10 o’clock, there had already been 135 games played in tournament history involving No. 1 seeds and No. 16 seeds. The top-seeded team had never lost, and there was no real reason to think Virginia-UMBC would be any different. The Cavaliers were 31-2. They had won the regular season title in the ACC with a 17-1 record and then swept through the ACC tournament. UMBC was playing in the NCAA tournament for only the second time and was thrilled to be there.
Two years earlier, the Retrievers had won seven games, leading to the firing of coach Aki Thomas and the hiring of Ryan Odom. The name Odom was familiar to college basketball fans. Ryan’s father, Dave Odom, had been a college head coach for 22 years — at East Carolina, Wake Forest and South Carolina.
A large chunk of Ryan Odom’s childhood had been spent in Charlottesville. The Odoms had moved there in 1982 when Ryan was 8 and his father had become Virginia coach Terry Holland’s top assistant. The Odoms’ house was a short bike ride away from University Hall, which was then Virginia’s basketball arena.
“If I was a fan of any team growing up, it was probably Virginia,” he said. “Those seven years were really my formative years as a basketball fan.”
Ryan had played Division III basketball at Hampden-Sydney and then followed his father into the coaching business. He rose up the ladder, starting as a graduate assistant at the University of South Florida and then moving to Furman, UNC Asheville, American, Virginia Tech and finally UNC Charlotte before being hired in 2015, at the age of 40, as head coach at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne.
Odom’s team won 21 games his first season and reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II tournament. That performance got the attention of — among others — UMBC Athletic Director Tim Hall, whose men’s basketball program was in a downward spiral.A new $90 million state-funded arena was due to open in the winter of 2017, and UMBC needed to make some progress on its old court before it moved to its new one. Hall hired Odom as his new coach.
In his second season, Odom led UMBC to its first tournament bid since 2008. The Retrievers would go on the board as a No. 16 seed, lined up to have 40 minutes of semi-fame and then simply be added to the list of 16th seeds who had been victims of power-school top seeds.
I knew UMBC had no chance to win. Stay close for a while if it could make shots from the outside? Perhaps. But win? That wasn’t going to happen. I had written about lower-seeded teams often in the past, and I knew the drill. For the players, the highlight might be the open-practice day before the first round.
If UMBC shot the ball well enough, if it had a hot-shooting night from three-point range, it might keep the game competitive. But sooner or later, the Cavaliers’ pack-line defense would start to extend to the three-point line; there would be a 15-2 burst, and that would be that.
And so I opted to go to Pittsburgh instead of Charlotte for the first round of the tournament. It made perfect sense. Easiest trip — drive under four hours. Perfect logistics — hotel across the street from the arena. Plenty of column potential: Villanova, which I thought was the best team in the tournament; Duke, always writable; Trae Young, Oklahoma’s freshman sensation; and a semi-local team for The Washington Post — Radford, which won a play-in game in Dayton, Ohio, to earn the right to play Villanova in another 1-16 matchup.
And then I sat in my hotel room and watched UMBC play Virginia. I was going to stay up as long as the game was competitive. Once Virginia began to pull away, I would go to sleep. Except it never happened.
It was 21-21 at halftime, in many ways a typical Virginia game. The Cavaliers always played at a slower-than-slow pace, and sometimes it took a while for their pack-line defense to wear a team down. I actually dozed off during the 20-minute halftime and woke up just in time to see Joe Sherburne make a layup while being fouled at the start of the second half to put UMBC ahead 24-21. No one knew it at that moment, but Virginia would never catch up.
UMBC guard Jarius Lyles was unconscious. Lyles had come out of one of the great high school basketball programs, DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., 30 miles from UMBC’s campus. He finished the game with 28 points on 9-for-11 shooting (3 for 4 from three-point range) and seemed to make a basket every time U-Va. appeared ready to start a run. Virginia, a team that made it a habit to squeeze the life out of teams with second-half runs, never made one.
More astonishing: Against one of the best defenses in the country, UMBC shot just under 68 percent in the second half, and diminutive guard K.J. Maura repeatedly beat Virginia’s guards up the floor to set up UMBC’s offense.
“Lyles was great, absolutely great,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said months later. “But the kid we absolutely couldn’t handle was Maura — at both ends of the court.”
Maura was from Puerto Rico and had been playing at a junior college in Florida before Odom brought him to join his program. UMBC listed him at 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds. He was no more than 5-6, and if he weighed 140 pounds it was with a weight belt on him. But Odom saw something in him other coaches didn’t: a knack for the game, a kind of intangible feel for how to play.
After their 74-54 win, the Retrievers became instant national celebrities. Their upset was compared to the 1980 U.S. hockey team at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, unknown Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in 1990 and the New York Jets and Joe Namath in Super Bowl III. In men’s basketball there was no tournament upset to compare it to, because a No. 16 had never beaten a No. 1.
The game brought up most often was the December 1982 contest between Chaminade, an NAIA team, and — yes — Virginia, ranked No. 1 in the country at the time and led by three-time national player of the year Ralph Sampson. Terry Holland’s top assistant coach at the time? Dave Odom.
The Retrievers, no doubt exhausted from celebrating, lost their second-round game two nights later, 50-43, to Kansas State. But nothing could change what they had done. Odom became a celebrity, especially in the Baltimore-Washington area. His name was bandied about for a number of jobs, but none appealed to him enough to leave UMBC — especially after Hall got him a big raise.
When Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey was at Delaware in the 1990s, he described the life of a mid-major from a one-bid league this way: “For us, winning our conference tournament and getting to the NCAA tournament is like a power school getting to the Final Four,” he said. “If you win a game, it’s like winning the national championship.”
College basketball has changed since then, and experienced mid-major teams now have a better chance to compete with freshmen- and sophomore-laden power school teams. George Mason, Butler, VCU and Loyola Chicago have all made the Final Four and Butler the national championship game twice. But for UMBC, a school playing in the NCAA tournament for the second time, the Virginia win wasn’t just historic, it was like getting to the Final Four — at least.
“I woke up the next morning,” UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski said, “and thought to myself, ‘Did that really happen?’” It had. Now it was eight months later, and Ryan Odom felt he had one mission for his 2018-19 team: “No looking in the rearview mirror,” he said. “Eyes on the road ahead.”
That would be easier said than done.