The greatest upset in the history of the NCAA Tournament happened on March 16, 2018, and I was lucky enough to be in the building, at the Spectrum Center in uptown Charlotte. The impossible unfolded in front of my spot courtside on press row, as a 16 seed upended a 1 seed for the first time ever.
And it wasn’t that UMBC (that’s University of Maryland-Baltimore County) upset Virginia, it was how they pulled off the stunning win. The game was tied at halftime, and the upstart Retrievers smoked the Cavaliers — who were 31-2 on the year and had a 17-1 record in an ACC that had five teams ranked in the final AP poll and nine teams in the NCAA Tournament — in the second half, rolling to a jaw-dropping 74-54 victory.
I wasn’t alone covering the day’s events for Sporting News. Gabe Fernandez was an intern at SN, and he was there that day, too (who can forget UMBC's amazing Twitter feed?). He’s an exceptionally talented writer who has carved out a great career in journalism; he covers Bay Area sports for SFGate.com. I asked him to help out with this project, this look-back at our experiences and memories from that day.
Hope you enjoy.
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A growing sense of history
FERNANDEZ: I had recently graduated from journalism school, so the mantra of “no cheering in the press box” from professors was still ringing around in my head by the time the national tournament came around to Charlotte. At some point, people need to recognize that emotions are natural for humans and even purportedly impartial observers are allowed to have them every now and then. This is all to say that the reactions from press row as this upset progressed really stood out to me.
The designated area for those covering the game was lined with veteran sportswriters who likely all thought they would have their copy ready by halftime. UMBC had shown resilience in the first half, but in a way where UVA still looked in control since a low-scoring and fundamentally-sound period was the Cavaliers’ game.
Then the runs came. It first started as an occasional side-eye from one writer to the next, and sometimes included a patronizing chuckle when the Chesapeake Retrievers would break through and score. But as the lead built up and many of us began to realize that UVA’s score hadn’t moved a whole lot, the side-eyes became full neck turns which then became audible versions of “oh my god, is this really happening?”
When it became clear to some that the greatest upset in tournament history was going to happen — probably when Arkel Lamar’s three put UMBC up 16 with 3:37 left in the game — the furious pitter-patter of keyboards around me began as it became clear that, like Virginia, whatever narrative was expected had completely crumbled. Yet even among the frenzy, once the final buzzer went off, many took in the surroundings.
This kind of story had never happened before, and thus everything that happened on the court and in the stands had never happened before either. Most of the people might not have been explicitly cheering for UMBC to win that night, but it was clear that many were caught up in the excitement of the win.
(Editor's note: Here's Gabe, right behind Bill Raftery!)
Bernie also saw No. 1 seed Virginia lose to No. 16 UMBC (h/t @_PRYORities) pic.twitter.com/SrAsQKU4Fj— Gabe Fernandez (@thelatinochild) January 21, 2021
A hero emerges
FAGAN: I’ve been lucky to personally witness more incredible individual performances in NCAA Tournament games than I can count, and Jairus Lyles put himself on my Mount Rushmore. The senior was just incredible in the second half, scoring 23 of his 28 and treating the vaunted Virginia defense like a bunch of stragglers who were late for their pick-up game at the YMCA and didn't have time to stretch.
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With 2:20 left in the game and UMBC up by 17, Virginia’s Devon Hall missed a contested look from 3-point range. Retrievers big man Arkel Lamar came down with the rebound, then turned up court to push the ball. As he was fouled by Isaiah Wilkins and the whistle blew, Lamar shoveled the ball ahead to Lyles, who took a step and, with one hand, lofted the ball high up in the air toward the basket.
It, of course swished through the net without even thinking about touching the rim.
“How about that going in, by the way?!?” CBS play-by-play legend Jim Nantz exclaimed. “Everything he puts up goes in! Even after the whistle!”
They even showed a replay; the basket didn’t count, but it was the symbolic nail in Virginia’s tournament coffin.
— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) March 17, 2018
Think about this ... Virginia scored 54 points in the game.
UMBC scored 53 ... IN THE SECOND HALF! pic.twitter.com/jGYOWck0Wu
Lyles scored his 28 points on just 11 shots, going 9-for-11 from the field (3-for-4 from deep) and 7-for-9 from the free-throw line.
"It was an incredible night," he said, slowly shaking his head. "Incredible atmosphere. I was feeding off the energy."
KJ The Play Maker
FERNANDEZ: If Jairus Lyles turned this game into history, then KJ Maura helped turn it into an absolute spectacle. There are few cooler things than seeing a short-by-basketball-standards player just going out there and being one of the best players on the court. The 5-foot-8 guard had everything you could possibly want from a player on an endearing underdog.
He had a personal celebration (a bow and arrow he’d fire at the bench or at his dad in the crowd), played hard nosed defense (he ended up with two steals) and, most notably, played all 40 minutes.
Lyles is rightfully canonized as the hero of this game, but even he didn’t hit the full 40 minutes that Maura did. It was also clear how much of a fan favorite he was as every time the guy did anything, the UMBC section would pop louder than anyone else in the arena. On the opposite end, I distinctly remember the most anger from that part of the crowd coming after Maura was fouled.
The icing on top was how his entire family wore custom t shirts that read “KJ The Play Maker” on the front and “#WhyNotUs” on the back, and brought a blown-up poster of K.J.’s head and a Puerto Rican flag along with them.
The Albany factor
FAGAN: At some point during the game, as it became apparent Virginia was in a lot of trouble, pretty much every college hoops media member in America starting looking for nuggets about this UMBC squad. And one clump of factoid gold was sitting there in the schedule: The Retrievers had lost a game by 44 points, in a game they only scored 39 points.
I remember seeing that 44-point loss stat flash through my Twitter feed and almost dismissing it out of hand because there was no way this team I was watching with my own eyes playing brilliant basketball against the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament had lost a game by 44 points this season. No way.
But it was that season. I needed to know more.
It had to be against a buy game, right? One of those setups where a little school like UMBC gets paid a lot of money to play on the road against a Top 25-type team to help fill out the school’s athletic budget and was just completely overmatched?
Nope, it was against fellow America East team Albany.
OK, so it must have been early in the season, right? Back in November or December when the team was trying to figure out how to play together.
Nope, it was Jan. 21, UMBC’s 21st game of the season. And Albany had been just 3-3 in conference play heading into the game.
Well then key players had to have been hurt, right? So much of what the Retrievers were doing against Virginia was based on the success of guys like scorer Jarius Lyles and point guard K.J. Maura. Without them, yeah, I could see how they might have been lost.
Nope, both Lyles and Maura started, playing 27 and 34 minutes, respectively. In fact, the five that started against Virginia started that game against Albany.
Yeah, I had to know more. The next day, I asked the players about that one.
"It was just a bad game, man," Joe Sherburne told me. "We just couldn't do anything right. They were really pumped to play us, and we didn't match their energy. Once they got on a roll, we couldn't stop them. After the game, we knew it was an anomaly."
Here’s what I wrote, including this quote from Arkel Lamar, who went 0-for-5 with one rebound vs. Albany but had 12 points and 10 rebounds against Virginia.
"The Albany game? I don't think we prepped that well," Arkel Lamar told me with a grimace. "And to be honest, I don't have too many words for that Albany game. That was a tough one. I don't like to talk about it too much."
For what I'm sure was the first time since that monumental upset happened on Friday night, Lamar had stopped smiling, for just a moment. And then, the big grin reappeared.
"But we made history last night," he said, "and that's all that matters."
The other side of an upset
FERNANDEZ: Emotions from players after a March Madness game aren’t anything new, but rarely do we see the kind of sadness the players from Virginia showed. It wasn’t only devastation, there was a strong touch of shame as well. It was going to be a tough postgame presser to witness.
I mean, nothing prepares college kids for being on the wrong end of sports history and then having to answer questions from national media members. This, of course, meant that the potential for unintended hilarity was at an all-time high, and that happened when some reporter decided to ask UVA’s Ty Jerome if he knew a No. 16 seed had never beaten a No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament history.
"I think everyone is aware of that,” he said. "Thanks for bringing that up again, but I was aware of it.”
That whole exchange blew my mind with the absurdity of the question, and bluntness of the response, which combined to make a very funny moment. There was just no need to rub salt in that insanely fresh wound and it happened anyway.
The good news for Jerome is that he was on the title-winning team the next year, and is now a professional basketball player, so maybe he’s over it.
The #FaganJinx is real
FAGAN: Not to make this all about me to wrap this up, but, well, let’s make it all about me.
I’ve written about the #FaganJinx a couple of times. What’s that? Let’s just put it this way: Crazy things tend to happen when I’m in the building for NCAA Tournament games (I used to cover college hoops extensively for Sporting News). There have only been nine 15-over-2 upsets in men’s tournament history, and I’ve seen two of them live and in person (Lehigh over Duke and Middle Tennessee over Michigan State). And that’s not all. A quick recap …
In addition to the two 15-over-2 upsets, I’ve seen one 14-over-3, three 13-over-4, two 12-over-5 and three 11-over-6. It got to the point where my friends and family would ask me where I would be before filling out their brackets because they wanted to know which first-round upsets to pick. And more often than not, it worked! Remember the Upset City day in Tampa in 2010, when all four double-digit seeds won? Yep, I was there.
The first column I wrote about the #FaganJinx published on March 14, 2018. Yep, two days before the impossible happened. And, not to say I called the upset but … I’ll just let you read what I wrote in that #FaganJinx breakdown.
As much as I hate to say it, my presence probably doesn't bode well for the top overall seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, Virginia. It's not just that No. 1 seeds haven't fared well when I'm there, it's that the Cavaliers, particularly, have had their poorly timed hiccup games when I'm in the house. I have seen Virginia live twice during the opening weekend and once during the second weekend. They have yet to advance past the Fagan Jinx weekend.
2014 Sweet 16: 4 Michigan State over 1 Virginia, 61-59
2015 Second round: 7 Michigan State over 2 Virginia, 60-54
2017 Second round: 4 Florida over 5 Virginia, 65-39
I don't wish ill on the Cavaliers, I promise. I love what Tony Bennett has done with his program. There might not be a finer coach in all of college hoops, and I'm in awe of the way his players compete and execute a game plan. I expected that 2015 Cavaliers team, with Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, London Perrantes, Anthony Gill and Darion Atkins, to get all the way to the title game that year. I believed in that group, but I forgot about the jinx.
On Tuesday, the Cavaliers announced that De'Andre Hunter, who won the ACC's Sixth Man of the Year award, will miss the entire NCAA Tournament with a broken wrist he suffered during the ACC Tournament. Losing Hunter, a 6-7 freshman averaging close to 20 minutes and 10 points a game, is a huge blow for Virginia. At this point, I'm almost afraid of what I'm inevitably going to see this weekend.
Yeah. Crazy, right? I was happy when the Cavaliers, with largely the same group of players, won the whole darn NCAA Tournament the next year.
btw … I’m not covering the tournament from a site this year, so I can’t help you pick upsets. Sorry about that.