March 18, 2018
The awe of a watching a double-digit seed take down a blue blood program, the whirlwind of watching 32 games take place in two days, the thrill of witnessing a buzzer-beater. It’s madness, a state of frenzied pandemonium that’s hard to explain but easy to know.
The one thing that March Madness had yet to consume was the immaculate 135-0 record that #1 seeds had over #16 seeds in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That perfect record is no more, thanks to a game that took place in the Charlotte on Friday night.
As I entered the Spectrum Center for the evening session, my primary interest, like many who attended, was in the session’s first game, which pitted two teams from the Midwest against one another, Creighton and Kansas State. The Bluejays and Wildcats would put on a rather lethargic contest between teams that could never find an offensive rhythm. It was an underwhelming game, especially considering it was an #8 seed vs. #9 seed.
There was a stillness to the arena in the 26 minute period between games. Many seemed disappointed with the lackluster first game, and some decided to go home. After all, the second game was more of a formality than a contest. Virginia, the #1 team in the country, would surely defeat the UMBC Retrievers, a middling team that found its way to the tournament with a last second shot to win the America East conference tournament.
The only fans who were looking forward to the game were the patrons decked out in blue and orange, who were ready to watch their team, the 31-2 Virginia Cavaliers, take their first step in a march to the Final Four.
If anyone that attended the game says they believed that UMBC could win and proclaims they “called it,” they are incredibly deluded. UMBC was seen as a punchline to everyone, myself included. Not a single person before the game knew who their mascot was, which led to many sarcastic guesses. (On that note, a person a few rows behind me confused UMBC with St. Bonaventure and cheered wildly for “The Bonnies” for the duration of the game.) No one believed UMBC could give a competitive game, much less win.
Except the people seated in Section 113. The family of the players and guests of the school, which perhaps numbered 200, fervently and unwaveringly cheered and supported the Retrievers before tip-off, throughout the game, and after the final horn. They firmly believed the team they watched and supported all season was capable of winning.
During the game, more and more of the 17,300 people who were watching began to share that belief. It was a belief strengthened with every made shot, every rebound, and every minute that UMBC held the lead. The Creighton faithful and Kansas State supporters who stayed, the multitude of UNC and Duke fans that attended, every college hoops fan base that was represented in the Spectrum Center became momentarily unified in their belief that UMBC could actually win it. It was a belief driven by the desire to see something special, a desire to see the madness.
As the minutes waned, belief succumbed to surrealness.
They can do it…
They can do it….
They can do it….
Wait, they’re actually going to do this?
To try and explain how UMBC won would be an exercise in futility. Virginia airballing shots they had made all year, UMBC’s ridiculously efficient perimeter shooting, the Retrievers putting up 53 points in a half against a team that played 13 games in which they didn’t give up 53 points for the entire game… none of it can be explained.
While I lack an explanation, I do want to provide what I think the two most critical moments of the game were for UMBC. The first was very early on in the game, when Virginia had put a little distance between themselves and the Retrievers, and led 16-10. UVA had just made a trio of easy buckets, and were beginning to display their superiority on both sides of the floor. It mirrored the moments of the game where so many of the 135 #16 seeds that preceded UMBC had folded up, with their confidence shaken and their psyche rattled by the reality that they were playing a team that seemed to be on another level. But unlike the teams before them, UMBC remained determined, and hit a pair of quick threes to respond.
The axis of momentum also seemed to squarely shift towards Virginia at halftime, with the game tied at 21. Often in the tournament an underdog will go toe-to-toe with their opponent in the 1st half, only to get blown out in the 2nd. This was the case for Lipscomb, who played UNC earlier in the day in Charlotte. Lipscomb went strike for strike with the Tar Heels for 20 minutes, only for Roy Williams’ adjustments to completely halt their upset attempt in the latter 20. The break in action also allows teams like Lipscomb to feel the pressure of the moment, while teams like UNC, used to the big stages and bright lights, can loosen up and refocus.
On the first play of the second half, UMBC guard Joe Shelburne was able to drive the basketball and make a layup while getting fouled, and then made the free throw for the three point play. Their next possession, UMBC made a three pointer and established a six point advantage. In their first two possessions, UMBC not only sent a clear message they wouldn’t be victims of the second half slump, but also gave themselves a tidal wave of momentum, a wave they rode all the way to end of game, as the Retrievers never relinquished the lead they took in those first two possessions.
These two moments in the game were paramount to UMBC winning the game, because they were huge mental victories in situations where #16 seeds almost always have mental defeats. These plays changed the momentum of the game towards UMBC, and this momentum coupled with their raw confidence would be the recipe for a historic win.
After I witnessed the biggest upset in college basketball history, I couldn’t help but think of something the late Stuart Scott wrote after Appalachian State stunned the college football world by beating Michigan. He said, “How could they will themselves into win? Because they believed they could. They didn’t hope they would. They didn’t figure they could. They didn’t pray they could. They knew it. Fully believed, committed to it, and then…did it.”
UMBC knew they could. They knew they could come into the Queen City and become the first #16 seed to ever defeat a #1 seed…and they did it. It was inconceivable, it was unprecedented, but more than anything, it was madness.
Check out the remaining games in the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.