CHARLOTTE — I was in Charlotte’s Spectrum Center on Friday, but I missed the tip-off between No. 16 UMBC and No. 1 Virginia.
The reason I wasn’t in my seat for the start of this contest was simple: I wanted ice cream.
Besides, I didn’t think the University of Maryland Baltimore County had even a snowball’s chance in Hell of beating Virginia, the best team in college basketball this season, according to pretty much every ranking and metric. I assumed that UMBC was going to get blown out, and that the least I could do was enjoy ice cream while watching Maryland’s lone representative bow out in the First Round.
By the time I returned to my seat with a cup of delicious chocolate ice cream — topped with caramel and nuts, of course — UMBC was leading Virginia, 9-7.
I was sitting with my girlfriend’s dad, Pat, and we both turned to each other and said something like, “Oh, this is cool. Maybe UMBC will make it a game.”
The score was tied 21-21 at half. We turned to each other again and agreed that Virginia looked gassed, and UMBC was killing the Cavaliers from three-point range, and it would be cool if UMBC continued to put up a fight.
Virginia’s pack-line defense makes it vulnerable to three-pointers, but surely, we figured, Tony Bennett would make adjustments. The Cavaliers wouldn’t allow the Retrievers to shoot 50 percent from behind the arc, right?
And then, at the TV timeout at the 11:39 mark in the second half, we began to consider what was once unthinkable: UMBC might be the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1. We might see history.
Other fans felt it too. Virginia fans sunk in their seats and grew quiet. Leftover Kansas State and North Carolina fans suddenly began to root for the underdogs.
The Retrievers led the Cavaliers by 16 points at that moment. But still, this was Virginia, of the ACC, going against Maryland Baltimore County, of the America East. Virginia had a run left in it, right?
This was the same UMBC team that had lost to Colgate, Army, Towson, Albany, and Stony Brook. This was the same Virginia team that had lost just two games all year, the team that won the ACC, and the team that held Clemson to 36 points earlier this season.
UMBC hadn’t beat a Power 5 team since 2008. The Retrievers were 184th in KenPom entering this game. Virginia was No. 1.
At the TV timeout at the 4:12 mark, UMBC was still leading by 12 points. I pulled my camera out from a plastic bag carrying souvenier shirts and cups and a half-eaten bag of peanuts and left my seats in the upper deck. If history was going to happen, I wanted to be as close as possible.
I was able to make my way down to the section right behind the Retrievers’ bench. I started snapping photos and shooting bad cellphone video. Still, I had my doubts that I might witness history.
Then, Jourdan Grant swished a three-pointer to put the Retrievers up by 20 points. Virginia fans began to file out, wondering how on earth they would sell their tickets for Sunday’s game.
I’m sure some folks from Catonsville would be very interested in those stubs.
The clock hit triple-zeros. Fans behind me tried to rush the court, and their efforts were stopped by security, but not before I stumbled behind the bench during the scrum.
(Thanks, rowdy fans, for giving me a better angle for photos.)
UMBC did the impossible, stunning top-seeded Virginia, 74-54, completing the greatest and most shocking upset in college basketball history.
Jairus Lyles scored 28 points and seemed unstoppable. K.J. Maura flew around on defense and shot imaginary arrows from an imaginary bow when he or his teammates made a three-pointer, which was often. The Retrievers played a brand of basketball that was incredibly fun.
Just two years ago, UMBC had just completed its seventh-straight season with 21 losses or more. Then Ryan Odom arrived and they’ve had back-to-back winning seasons, made the NCAA tournament and the Retrievers just wrote their names in the history book of college basketball with a Sharpie.
Odom and UMBC are reminders that the right coach and right players can turn a bad situation around in a hurry, and despite all the rankings and metrics and whatnot, the game still has to be played on the hardwood between 10 men, two hoops and a ball, and anything can happen — especially in March.
I still can’t believe I was there.
Oh, and the ice cream was good, but believe it or not, the game was far better. And we might not ever see anything like it again.