Yes, Virginia, There Is a Cinderella

How No. 16 seed UMBC pulled off the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history.

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 16:  Jairus Lyles #10 of the UMBC Retrievers reacts after a score against the Virginia Cavaliers during the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Jairus Lyles #10 of the UMBC Retrievers reacts after a score against the Virginia Cavaliers during the first round of the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Spectrum Center on March 16, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It happened. It actually happened. At the 136th time of asking, a No. 16 seed finally beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And it wasn’t even close. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County Retrievers absolutely pantsed the top-ranked Virginia Cavaliers, 74-54.

How did this happen? Forgive me for getting technical, but the Retrievers kicked Virginia’s butt.

Virginia plays slow. No one in the country plays at a slower tempo. Given the environmental predicament in which we currently find ourselves, calling them “glacial” would be woefully inappropriate. They operate on a cosmic timeline. They grind you into dust with defense and wait for that dust to evaporate. But the Retrievers were impatient. They were having none of Virginia’s slow-cooked nonsense.

Teensy Retrievers point guard K.J. Maura kept pushing the pace and setting up his teammates in rhythm for three-pointers. Against Virginia’s all-universe defense, UMBC went 12 for 24 from behind the arc.

There was no shortage of great individual performances. Forward Arkel Lamar scored 12 points and pulled down 10 rebounds. Joe Sherburne added 14.

And then there’s Jairus Lyles. The senior guard was nothing short of heroic. He went 9 for 11 from the field, drove at will, and finished a variety of circus shots at the rim. Lyles played through cramps throughout the second half, but he still finished with 28 points. All that’s left is to figure out who will play him in the movie.

I mean, just look at this guy.

The game was tied at halftime, 21-21, but it only took four minutes for the Retrievers to burst to a 14-point lead in the second half. It was the biggest deficit Virginia had faced all season. That deficit would get bigger. The Cavaliers are supposed to be the boa constrictor, not the hare—forgive me, Aesop—and they had no clue how to catch up. UMBC was relentless, and it was a joy to watch.

Sure, Virginia played without the injured De’Andre Hunter, the Cavaliers’ most versatile defender, but cutting them any slack would be needlessly charitable. They came in as the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, yet you’d struggle to pick a single moment from Friday night in which the Cavaliers looked to be worthy of sharing the floor with the mighty Retrievers, who needed a last-second shot against Vermont to even make it to the NCAA Tournament. In the end, the Cavs were lucky to only lose by 20.

After the game, Virginia coach Tony Bennett said his team, which finished the year 31-3, had a “historic season.” If there’s a bright side for Virginia, it might be that the Cavaliers had already suffered what’s widely considered the biggest upset in college basketball history, losing to tiny Chaminade as the nation’s top-ranked team in 1982. Naturally, a storied institution like Virginia will take pride in honoring such a cherished tradition.

With its win on Friday night, UMBC improved to 25-10, and they’ll have a chance to make the Sweet 16 with a win over Kansas State on Sunday. Going into the tournament, you would’ve been hard pressed to pick the Retrievers’ best games of the season. Yes, that three-point win over Vermont in the America East title game was nice. But what else? That squeaker against Northern Kentucky in December? Their well-rounded effort against Coppin State?

Now, UMBC can claim the most amazing performance in NCAA Tournament history. But even that’s not going far enough. After the game, TNT’s Kenny Smith compared UMBC over Virginia to Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson and the Miracle on Ice. That’s not hyperbole. The Retrievers just made the Mount Rushmore of sports upsets. Hell, let’s put them on there twice.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

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