UMBC's historic NCAA tournament run ends, but won't be forgotten

CHARLOTTE – UMBC arrived on this fateful Sunday already having captured a generational moment. They’ll always be first, the way the Wright Brothers, Neil Armstrong and George Washington are remembered as first. No matter who wins this NCAA tournament in two weeks, the 2018 tournament will forever be defined by No. 16 UMBC’s first-ever upset of a No. 1 seed, hapless Virginia, on the tournament’s first Friday. Its place in sporting lore is safe, resting aside the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, Buster Douglas and the 2004 Red Sox for the sheer unlikelihood of their upsets.

UMBC didn’t just create its moment, it basked in it. With genteel coach Ryan Odom, the son of long-time coach Dave Odom, 5-foot-nothing point guard K.J. Maura and crafty point off-guard Jairus Lyles, the Retrievers proved an ensemble underdog cast. Even its social media curator, snarky staffer Zach Seidel, carved a few shining moments of celebrity.

Its place in history secure, UMBC couldn’t muster the mojo to further its march into March lore. The Retrievers fell to Kansas State, 50-43, in a garish game they kept close for the entire second half. The realities of its lot as a No. 16 seed – a few inches too short, a few pounds too light and a thin bench – couldn’t be obscured by pluck and scheme.

The season-ending loss took some wind out of their sails, but the historic win over Virginia will be remembered as one of the NCAA tournament’s best moments ever, and that certainly isn’t lost on the team.

“These kids made history [on Friday against Virginia],” Odom said after the loss to Kansas State. “It’s unbelievable how they were able to capture the entire country and certainly our sport. The NCAA, NBA and then you go beyond. It’s just really, really special.”

UMBC’s Jairus Lyles and K.J. Maura will forever be remembered for their March heroics. (Getty)
UMBC’s Jairus Lyles and K.J. Maura will forever be remembered for their March heroics. (Getty)

It was a different story Sunday though. UMBC took the lead 7-0, held Kansas State scoreless for the game’s first six minutes and kept things naggingly close throughout the entire ugly second half. It was a sign of carryover, as opposed to the hangover from Friday, when the school went from an anonymous cluster of letters to the touchstone for historic basketball upsets.

But UMBC couldn’t break through in the second half, in one stunning fit of futility failing to score on seven consecutive possessions while trailing by one point. (Those ended with five turnovers and a pair of missed 3-pointers.) UMBC clanged free throws, failed to care for the ball and generally played as if its Under Armours were covered in mud.

UMBC’s run will be stored in the Smithsonian. But this game film should be burned in a basement immediately and never viewed again, as the teams shot a combined 35 percent. Credit UMBC for hanging in. Just don’t ask Odom to show any clips at clinics.

With just over three minutes left, Kansas State built a virtually insurmountable six-point lead with a play that epitomized the athletic mismatch that was on display all night. After a missed jumper by Barry Brown, Kansas State’s Xavier Sneed skied above the rim and hammered home a rebound dunk that bumped the lead to 44-38 with 3:03 remaining.

UMBC had one last chance to tie, trailing by three just inside two minutes when Lyles stole the ball and rushed down the court. The flurry ended with a wild possession that included two saves in order to avoid a backcourt violation. That came after Lyles slowed in the lane and one of his teammates ran into him from behind, forcing the loose ball. The possession ended up with UMBC getting the ball back, Lyles knifing into the paint and massive Kansas State center Makol Mawien blocking Lyles’ shot.

Too much size, too much athleticism. Just as the seeds dictated.

UMBC knew the breadth of its accomplishment, even in defeat. The entire team went over to the UMBC cheering section after the game and gave their fans a reverse salute. The Retrievers were right in the game for 39 minutes and couldn’t get the bucket, stop or call to flip the momentum and re-ignite the March magic. UMBC scored 53 points in its near-perfect second half against Virginia on Friday night. It only mustered 43 in the whole game tonight.

Kansas State entered the game with a plan that would most simply be summed up by calling it the complete opposite of what Virginia did. Virginia sat behind its vaunted pack-line defense and didn’t pressure or rattle UMBC. When the Retrievers kept hitting shots, coach Tony Bennett never adjusted – a theme for him in NCAA tournament meltdowns – and UMBC’s offensive success snowballed until it avalanched Virginia’s season. And with it, NCAA history.

In that game, star guard Jairus Lyles scored 28 points on just 11 shots, an astounding statistic that will get told and retold over time, the sheer absurdity of it seemingly only embellishing the tale.

“Obviously we made history the other day,” Lyles said. “Who knows when that will happen again? I want us to be remembered as a resilient group, a group that believed in one another and a group that was very connected.”

When Lyles’ mother greeted him in the hotel in the wee hours of Saturday morning for a quick celebration, she told him: “You don’t even realize this. But when we sit and watch the 30-for-30s, this is going to be one of the things they keep showing.”

But they won’t make any documentaries about Lyles’ performance against Kansas State. He started off the game 2 for 8 from the field and finished 4 for 15 with 12 points. Wildcat guard Barry Brown Jr. guarded him with an furious abandon. Lyles couldn’t shake Brown, as his dives to the lane ended in Brown’s sternum. The crafty moves that befuddled Virginia and unlocked the crucible of the Cavaliers’ pack-line defense proved impotent on Sunday night.

On the final play for the first half, Lyles held the ball for the last shot, drove at Brown and flipped a line drive brick off the backboard.

That summed up UMBC’s offensive ineptitude in the first half, as the Retrievers shot 7 for 24 from the field and looked like, well, an America East team playing a Big 12 team.

Kansas State again played without its best player, injured 6-foot-10 forward Dean Wade. He suffered a foot injury in the Big 12 tournament, although there’s a chance he could return next week. Kansas State will play Kentucky in the South regional.

Kansas State did just enough to win. And the Retrievers earned their little slice of history. The Wildcats will be remembered as the team that beat the team that pulled off history. View the game film with caution.

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