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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Just 24 hours after squandering a 14-point, second-half lead and suffering what he called perhaps the most devastating loss of his coaching career, Texas coach Shaka Smart said he’d found a lone reason to smile.
He took a moment on Saturday afternoon to appreciate one of his former VCU players, UMBC senior guard Jairus Lyles, emerging as a historic NCAA tournament hero. Lyles torched top-seeded Virginia for 28 points on just 11 shots, playing lead saboteur in what’s considered the greatest upset in college basketball history.
Lyles will forever be intertwined in tournament lore, as his name will be repeated on Selection Shows, trivia nights and Final Four barstools for decades.
“If someone told me five years ago that Jairus Lyles would score 28 points against Virginia in an NCAA tournament game, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Smart told Yahoo Sports on Saturday evening.
But the fairy-tale moment necessitated a complicated journey, as it took three transfers, four coaching staffs, a persistent mom, patient coach and an engaged president for Lyles to find simpatico and success at UMBC. The notion of Jairus Lyles lighting up the NCAA tournament isn’t stunning to anyone who saw him grow up playing in Washington D.C., dunking by eighth grade and playing at storied DeMatha Catholic High School. The real surprise came in the amount of twists and turns it took for him to arrive here.
“It was finding the right fit,” his mother, Carol Motley, told Yahoo Sports on Saturday. “And for him realizing that sometimes you have to take baby steps.”
Jairus Lyles is named after a biblical character, the father of a 12-year-old girl Jesus raised from the dead. Both his parents attended the University of Virginia, which made Friday’s moment both delicious and ironic. (Motley was getting texts from former UVA guard Ricky Stokes, who is an old college friend.) He’s the son of a former NFL player, Lester Lyles, who was a second-round pick in 1985 and played six seasons for the Jets, Cardinals and Chargers. (His parents are divorced and he was primarily raised by his mom and two older siblings. Motley says the crew was “The Four Musketeers.”)
Lyles’ baby steps through basketball started early, as he was so coveted as a junior high player that his former AAU teammate and best friend, Doug Nedab II, recalls DeMatha coach Mike Jones traveling to a grassroots tournament in Martinsburg, West Virginia, to recruit Lyles.
But everything didn’t go perfect in Lyles’ basketball journey. DeMatha went 14-17 his senior year, regarded as one of the worst seasons in school history. He had an offer from Oklahoma State and interest from high-major schools like Penn State, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech. Lyles chose Shaka Smart’s VCU program, but never clicked with the culture there, distracted at times by the off-court social life. Like many young players, Smart said, Lyles wasn’t “ready to be what we all know they can be in time.”
With no immediate gratification available at VCU, Lyles transferred. Smart lauded Motley, Lyles’ mom, for her work stewarding her son through his itinerant career. Calls about Lyles quickly turn into conversations about Motley. Team Takeover director Keith Stevens calls her an “unbelievable lady.” Smart calls her an “All-Star” mom he’d rank in his top five, which he points out is rare considering Lyles transferred. Jones spoke of his happiness for Motley as much as Lyles in the wake of the upset.
“When he left, I told Carol, ‘If Jairus had your makeup, he would be highly successful wherever he goes,” Smart said. “I think that’s what happened to him through humility and maturity and time. He’s grown up and become the young man his mom raised him to be.”
It took a bottoming out of sorts to get there. Lyles transferred to Robert Morris and spent only a few months there, never playing in a game and transferring after the fall semester. He resisted coaching and both sides decided it was best if he moved on. He struggled to find a school after that, as two transfers usually raise a host of red flags.
It took some prodding for the former UMBC staff to take Lyles, but his last chance turned the fortune of both player and school. In his first year eligible there in 2015-16, Lyles averaged 23 points per game. UMBC won just seven games that season, and coach Aki Thomas got fired.
In came Ryan Odom, now 43 and the sideline author of the historic upset. His best work came long before Friday night, as Odom immediately flipped a seven-win program to back-to-back 20-win seasons at a job long considered a coaching graveyard. Both clicked immediately, as Lyles’ statistics went down to 18.9 points per game but the win total, belief and buy-in skyrocketed.
Stevens complimented Odom and veteran assistant Eric Skeeters for getting in sync with Lyles. “I just think Jairus is the type of kid who needs freedom,” Stevens said. “You have to allow him to play through some stuff, and you’re going to get more plusses than minuses if you allow that.”
The answer Lyles gave about staying for his senior year at UMBC at the NCAA tournament news conference on Saturday afternoon is the one he should have given. When asked whether he was tempted to take a graduate transfer option and attend a fourth college and play for a fifth coaching staff in his final year of eligibility, Lyles answered by practically singing the UMBC fight song. “Wasn’t really a decision for me,” he said. “I knew I was going to stay there all along. I knew we could do things like that.”
But the reality is that his mentor and workout guru, Antoine Gaither, called it a “long process.” Stevens said his phone lit up with 15 to 20 coaches, including those from the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten letting him know a scholarship was available for Lyles. He never asked for his release, but he certainly pondered it and discussed it. Motley and Lyles went for a long meeting with Odom, which helped convince him staying put would help him create a long legacy at the school.
“He said, ‘Do you really want to go to another team and get to know a fifth coaching staff, and they have to get to know you?’ ” Motley said. “I’d never thought about it that way. It makes so much sense. He likes stability and comfort.”
Spending a day with UMBC president Freeman A. Hrabowski III helped seal the deal. Lyles shadowed him for six hours one day, ended up working for him this summer and along the way found a mentor.
“He decided this is where he wanted to be,” Motley said. “Those two men [Hrabowski and Odom] invested in him. And he’d invested in the school. He loves his team.”
No matter what happens against No. 9 Kansas State on Sunday, Lyles will be forever loved at UMBC. By sticking around, Lyles ended up finding a place in history as a jagged journey has left an indelible legacy.
More NCAA tournament coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Star player on his coach: ‘We’re not the same color, but he’s definitely my father’
• Did you bet UMBC? If so, congrats, you’re rich
• Report: Heckling pushes Duke star’s mom to tears
• Auburn uses cheap trick to fool refs, seal NCAA win