CHARLOTTE — It ended the way these stories tend to in March, with the wonderment wilting too soon after it sprouts. The thrill of Maryland Baltimore County — a basketball team that forced us to edit the list of greatest upsets — was fleeting. The most delightful things rarely last long enough.
The first men’s No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 in the NCAA tournament became the first of its kind to trail by just one point with six minutes remaining in the round of 32. But there would be no UMBC shocker this time. The Retrievers had to settle for close Sunday night. They had to settle for feeling the pain not of an underdog lucky to be here but of a legitimate competitor that had a real chance to win if a few more shots would have fallen or a few more turnovers had been avoided.
In the end, UMBC suffered a 50-43 loss to No. 9 seed Kansas State at Spectrum Center that felt as excruciating as the low score indicated. And so the South Region, the first in tournament history without a top four seed advancing to the Sweet 16, will move to Atlanta on Thursday with No. 5 Kentucky, No. 7 Nevada, No. 9 Kansas State and No. 11 Loyola Chicago vying for the Final Four. It will be the most unlikely regional ever, but it could have been wilder if UMBC had been able to pack that No. 16 seed for one more trip.
“Wasn’t meant to be,” UMBC Coach Ryan Odom said. “But, you know, this loss can’t take away what these kids . . . accomplished. Certainly in the NCAA tournament, just to be here is a blessing, for sure.”
In the locker room afterward, Odom wrote a single word on the whiteboard before he spoke to his team. “Proud,” it read. He didn’t need to say much after that.
It’s unfortunate that this tournament, for all its upsets and buzzer-beaters and introductions to compelling characters such as Sister Jean, is actually harsh once you start dreaming too much. It never tolerates Cinderella for long. Normally, the early shockers yield to convention. The deeper you dive into Madness, the more the big-conference schools and blue-blood programs take over.
On Sunday night, the transition to normalcy, to boredom, occurred with 1:39 left. Kansas State was clinging to a 44-41 lead, but UMBC guard Jairus Lyles stole the ball. On the ensuing possession, the Retrievers needed three dramatic saves to prevent a turnover, and then Lyles broke loose and charged to the basket with only one defender to beat. He used his best herky-jerky moves, elevated, switched the ball from right to left hand and aimed a layup high off the backboard. But Kansas State forward Makol Mawien blocked it.
And that was it, really. The dream was batted down with force. UMBC couldn’t close. It shot just 29.8 percent, missed 9 of 18 free throws and committed 16 turnovers. After making 12 of 24 three-pointers in the upset of Virginia, UMBC made just 6 of 22 attempts against Kansas State. Lyles, the gifted scoring guard, missed 11 of 15 field goals and managed only 12 points. Forward Joe Sherburne, a second-half hero Friday night, was 0 for 9.
When it ended, the UMBC players stood before their fan section and waved to loud applause. Many chanted “U-M! B-C!” repeatedly. The team’s encore wasn’t another improbable win; instead, it was a physical, defensive game that, while not full of highlights, verified the Virginia upset wasn’t merely a fluke. The Retrievers had improved and turned into a team that could compete with the big boys. They just can’t beat them all the time. Then again, even big boys don’t go undefeated against big boys.
“We put our name on the map,” said point guard K.J. Maura, who is 5 foot 8 and weighs 132 pounds. “We are giving hope to teams that come to the tournament with lower seeds. I think we’re giving hope to guys that are not even that tall like me. So people that feel like they are underdogs in their life, I think we’ve given them hope to do everything they want to do in life.”
Naturally, we wonder: What now? According to the only team that can relate to UMBC, it should prepare for extended basketball relevance.
Twenty years ago, Harvard was the first — and remains the only — No. 16 seed to win in the women’s tournament. The UMBC upset might stay in our sports consciousness longer because it happened in the more publicized men’s event, but the Crimson’s triumph could be considered more dramatic. At a time when parity was barely a hope in women’s basketball, Harvard took down superpower Stanford, 71-67, on Stanford’s home court. In 1998, legendary Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer was amid the best decade of her career. She had won national titles in 1990 and 1992 and guided the U.S. Olympic basketball team to a gold medal in 1996, a victory that helped create a passion to have professional women’s hoops in America and led to the launch of the ABL and WNBA.
Harvard Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith can provide a glimpse of what UMBC’s upset afterlife will be.
“It was very surreal,” said Delaney-Smith, who just completed her 36th season at Harvard. “I guess it was crazy. It turns your world upside down. A lot of interviews, a lot of curiosity for many years after that. My phone would not stop ringing. For the next 10 years, I talked to the coaches of almost every 16 seed, men or women, before the tournament. They wanted to know how to prepare players to do the unthinkable.
“I just think it’s going to be way crazier for UMBC. Back then, social media wasn’t what it is today. The men’s tournament gets so much more hype. Our experience of our aftermath might seem small compared to what’s going to happen to them.”
Delaney-Smith plans to send Odom a note soon. She doesn’t mind sharing the historic feat. She does mind those who ignore Harvard completely while praising UMBC, people who call it the first time a No. 16 beat a No. 1 without, at least, qualifying that they’re talking about the men’s tournament. She considers that to be “one of many subtle inequalities that do more damage than we’d admit.” But that won’t diminish her enthusiasm for Odom and the Retrievers.
“This is what it’s all about,” she said. “I can’t wait to send a note to him. It’s what dreams are made of. It’s a life lesson. You never say never. You never die. Sometimes we need those reminders to continue to strive and break barriers.
“I’m happy for UMBC. I think it takes the perfect storm. Everything has to be in place. But for your program, it’s also a work in progress. You don’t just do something like this out of the blue, even though it seems that way. It’s a culture that you build that takes a lot of time and hard work.”
Without question, UMBC showed it has established a winning culture. If it can keep Odom for a while, perhaps there will be many NCAA tournament appearances to come.
For now, the team should remember to record “One Shining Moment” in two weeks. And Odom had better prepare his advice for future No. 16 seeds. His phone will be ringing.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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