UMBC’s NCAA fairytale ends but memories will last forever
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — UMBC’s improbable run through the NCAA Tournament was brief. The statement the Retrievers made and their place in history is forever.
For one weekend in March, the tiny commuter school from Baltimore known for its academics and championship-winning chess team captured the hearts of the college basketball world and beyond. UMBC became the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 in March Madness, a victory over Virginia that made the Retrievers the ultimate Cinderella.
The fairytale came to an end Sunday night in a 50-43 loss to No. 9 Kansas State — heartbreaking because it was a game UMBC could have won, but still satisfying because the Retrievers touched so many people by accomplishing what many thought was impossible.
“We put our name on the map. We gave hope to teams that come to the tournament with lower seeds,” said senior guard K.J. Maura. “I think we gave hope to guys that are not even that tall like me. People that feel like they are underdogs in their life, I think we gave hope to everything they want to do in life.”
Stephen Curry noticed the team and sent UMBC the sneakers the team wore against Kansas State. The Golden State Warriors had his Curry 5s, which are in limited release, and other swag sent to the team. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams declared the Retrievers “Surgeon General approved” and posted a photo of himself on Facebook wearing a sweatshirt from his alma mater.
NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers tweeted to UMBC guard Joe Sherburne, who claims to be Rodgers’ biggest fan. And for a team addicted to the video game “Fortnite,” their dreams were made when Ninja, a popular gamer who recently played against rapper Drake and JuJu Smith-Schuster of the Pittsburgh Steelers, FaceTimed with the team early Sunday.
“They play with passion, they play with heart, they play together,” coach Ryan Odom said. “We do things together for one another, and obviously when you have a big win like that (over Virginia) and it’s so shocking, you know, people love to see that. They love to see the upset.
“And our guys handled it with grace and understood the circumstances. They weren’t pounding their chests or anything. They expected to be here and expected to compete.”
When UMBC returned to the locker room following its ouster, Odom had written just one word on the whiteboard. The Retrievers needed a buzzer-beating 3 against Vermont to win their conference title and make the NCAA Tournament, but they showed up believing they could beat Virginia, and the same about Kansas State.
So Odom simply penned “Proud” on the board for his players.
“Just very proud of these kids and what they’ve been able to do as the representatives that they are for our university,” Odom said. “Just captured our country and beyond, to be honest, from a sporting perspective and it’s really, really neat to see.”
Sherburne said Odom relayed stories from friends who had texted or called from outside the country to rave about UMBC. Near tears after an 0-for-9 shooting night, Sherburne found consolation in the joy UMBC brought to so many.
“From when we beat Vermont until the last two hours were the greatest time of my life,” Sherburne said. “What we did, everyone in here, it’s the greatest time of our lives.”
Odom arrived at UMBC two years ago and inherited a team accustomed to losing. He told them he was going to get them to .500 that first year; they thought he was joking. But slowly the culture changed and the Retrievers did everything Odom told them they could accomplish.
And then some.
“When I got here, first we were a four-win team that year, and then the next year we went on to win seven games,” said graduate student Jairus Lyles. “Then Coach Odom and his staff came in, we won 21 games and this year we had a tremendous season.”
Odom doesn’t know how far the UMBC program can grow. Those four letters are now synonymous with the biggest upset in college basketball history, but it’s a long way from becoming a basketball school.
“UMBC is a unique place — lot of high achieving kids on campus,” Odom said. “We want guys that want to be great from a basketball perspective and want to play after college. But, at the same time, we want folks that are highly motivated academically that want to do great things past basketball. Because the air goes out of the ball at some point for everybody.”