[Read more: UMBC became the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history on March 16 with a 74-54 defeat of Virginia in Charlotte. ]
CATONSVILLE, Md. — When Maryland Baltimore County men’s basketball Coach Ryan Odom was a boy growing up in Charlottesville, he occasionally would slip on a Virginia T-shirt and head across the street to University Hall to hang out with his father, Dave, then an assistant with the Cavaliers.
A memory from the elder Odom’s seven seasons on Terry Holland’s staff could serve Ryan Odom well as he prepares his Retrievers to face the No. 1 overall seed Cavaliers on Friday night in Charlotte in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The last time before this season that Virginia was ranked No. 1 was the week of Dec. 23, 1982, when it played Chaminade in a tournament in Hawaii. Chaminade, a Honolulu school with an enrollment of approximately 800 students at the time, beat the mighty Cavaliers, 77-72, in what remains among the most improbable upsets in college basketball history.
“That might come out,” Ryan Odom said with a chuckle when asked whether he might show footage of the Silverswords’ triumph for the ages, which took place some 15 years before his players were born.
Making the second NCAA tournament appearance in school history and first since 2008, America East Conference champion UMBC (24-10) is a prohibitive underdog to Virginia (31-2), which completed a record-setting foray through the ACC by going 17-1 in the regular season and claiming the conference tournament championship.
The Retrievers have played two other schools this season from power conferences, losing 103-78 on a neutral court to Arizona, the No. 4 seed in the South Region, and 66-45 at Maryland, which did not make the NCAA tournament.
“We know we can go out there and have fun and play hard, and we really don’t have anything to lose, so it’ll be we go out there and play loose,” said junior guard-forward Joe Sherburne, who this season became the first player in America East and UMBC history selected Division I first-team academic all-American. “I mean, we’re not saying we don’t have a chance. We’re going there playing to win.”
No. 16 seeds are winless in 132 games against No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, but that reality has done little to diminish enthusiasm on campus and throughout the alumni base on the heels of the Retrievers’ run.
The most recent of their program-record-tying 24 victories came in the America East tournament championship game over top-seeded Vermont, 65-62. The Retrievers had lost 23 in a row to Vermont entering Saturday’s showdown in Burlington, Vt., where thousands of Catamounts fans had filled the stands anticipating a second straight America East tournament title.
Instead, the hundreds of UMBC supporters who made the trip joined in a jubilant celebration when Retrievers guard Jairus Lyles, a graduate student and the team’s leading scorer at 20.2 points per game, made the winning three-pointer with 0.6 seconds left to secure an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
“I think it’s a real big experience for the program, having a team going to the tournament not since 2008,” said Lyles, a major contributor to a turnaround that started last season when UMBC went 21-13 after winning a total of 41 games over the previous seven campaigns. “For us, it’s a great experience, a surreal moment. It’s very exciting, but we’ve got to stay levelheaded, stay focused, so we can handle the task at hand.”
Among the most ardent supporters of the team recently has been school President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, a self-professed mathematics nerd as a child who became a civil rights activist at age 12, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.
Hrabowski had not necessarily been a die-hard basketball fan until Lyles made the shot that has given the school, according to university officials, unprecedented national exposure. He has even been explaining the details of Lyles’s basket to colleagues and friends, courtesy of replays on his cellphone.
As to whether Hrabowski will be able to attend the NCAA tournament game, one of his aides indicated he is trying to adjust a conflict in his schedule that has him speaking at the University of California.
“It’s huge for the program, huge for the university,” Ryan Odom said. “It kind of gives a snapshot nationally of our university. What do I think about it? First and foremost I’m excited for these kids. I’m excited for our players, our staff. They’re playing on the biggest stage in college basketball, and they’ve worked really hard for it.
“We have a saying in our locker room that’s posted up that says, ‘The work you do in the dark will reveal itself in the light,’ and we’re getting ready to go into the light. The big lights.”
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