CHARLOTTE — His face red from crying, Ty Jerome walked with fellow Virginia guard Kyle Guy and Coach Tony Bennett to the interview staging area at Spectrum Center on Friday shortly before midnight to address what had gone so horribly wrong.
The Cavaliers had become the first No. 1 seed in men’s NCAA tournament history to lose a No. 16 seed. And they hadn’t just lost to Maryland Baltimore County, they were blown out, 74-54. The disheartening reality that had just begun to set in for a group that less a than a week ago was celebrating a record run through the ACC by winning the conference tournament title and was anticipating a push toward the national championship.
“You know, it’s basketball. You’re not going . . .” Jerome said, his voice cracking and trailing off. “I mean, I don’t know why. I don’t know why, no. I guess we didn’t, maybe we didn’t come ready to play today. We didn’t shoot well. That definitely doesn’t help, but only to have five assists as a team is pretty bad, so I guess we didn’t move the ball well, didn’t shoot well.
“I don’t have the answers.”
The improbable outcome began to take shape by halftime, when the Retrievers went into the locker room tied at 21 with the top overall seed out of the South Region. The pace was suited to how the Cavaliers prefer to play, but their guard-heavy lineup had yet to get into a rhythm from three-point range.
Then UMBC scored the first six points of the second half, and inexplicably, it was as if the Cavaliers packed away the defensive principles that had allowed them to win 31 of their first 33 games and become the first program to win 17 games in the ACC and to go 9-0 on the road in conference play.
They failed to close out on three-point attempts. They didn’t box out consistently. They were unable to get hands on balls for deflections and steals as players typically had done all season.
The Retrievers (25-10), meanwhile, capitalized by making 12 of 24 three-point attempts for the game and shooting 68 percent from the field while scoring 53 points during the second half.
To put that staggering scoring spree into perspective, Virginia entered Friday allowing an average of 53.4 points per game.
“We talk about it all the time: the adulation, the praise, it comes, and we got a lot of that this year,” said Bennett, whose team has earned a No. 1 seed three times but has yet to advance to the Final Four under his watch. “Then on the other side, there’ll be blame. That can’t in the end define these guys and our team or us because it was a remarkable season, but we got thoroughly outplayed. That’s the reality of it.”
No amount of spin on Bennett’s part, however, will be able to blunt the sobering fact that Virginia’s collapse, which included going 4 for 22 from three-point range and yielding 11 fast-break points, will be etched in men’s college basketball lore as the first time in 136 meetings a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1.
Among other stunning breakdowns for Virginia was the performance on the boards, where the longer, more athletic Cavaliers grabbed just 22 rebounds to the Retrievers’ 33. UMBC point guard K.J. Maura, generously listed at 5 feet 8, had as many rebounds (three) as the 6-5 Jerome while committing just two turnovers in playing all 40 minutes.
Jerome had three turnovers, his most in more than six weeks and as many as he had over the previous three games combined. He also went 2 for 9 from three-point range and took 16 shots to reach 15 points.
“It’s a blur right now,” said Guy, voted the ACC tournament’s most outstanding player and first-team all-conference. “It’s really hard to answer these questions, as you guys know.”
In the final game of his college career, redshirt senior guard Devon Hall missed all six of his three-point attempts for his worst showing of the season from beyond the arc. Hall played only eight minutes in the first half because of foul trouble and finished with two points on 1-for-9 shooting.
The only game this season in which the Cavaliers’ highly respected locker-room leader had fewer points was in the ACC opener against visiting Boston College, when he scored one in a 59-58 win Dec. 30.
The ending was no less dispiriting for senior forward Isaiah Wilkins, the ACC defensive player of the year and team’s emotional barometer, who fouled out of his final game in a Virginia uniform with seven points in 24 minutes. He had not been disqualified from a game this season until Friday night.
“I hate for this team, the way they played to lose like this, but for Devon and Isaiah to go out like that,” Bennett said. “If you play this game, and you step into the arena, this stuff can happen, and those who haven’t been in the arena or in the competition, maybe they don’t understand that, but when you’re in the arena, stuff like this can happen, and all those who compete take that on, and so we’ll accept it.
“They played well, and we did not.”
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