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UMBC’s Historic Win Over Virginia Didn’t Look Lucky

How did a true 16-seed outplay the best team in the country?

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Charlotte Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It had to happen eventually.

From an odds perspective, an upset in a 1-vs.-16 matchup was overdue. There had been 135 games between 16-seeds and 1-seeds since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, and the top seed had won all 135. That makes sense when we look at it — the top seeds are the best; they’re faster and taller and stronger and better than the bottom seeds, the teams that squeaked into the tournament by winning minor conference tournaments. But while 135–0 made sense, it had long pushed past what was probable. Even if we say that a 16-seed has a 1 percent chance of beating a 1-seed, you’d expect one in a hundred teams to pull off the upset. ESPN estimated the average 16-seed had a 1.8 percent chance of winning, meaning we should have expected to see two or three upsets by now.

And every once in a while, 16-seeds came close. UNC Asheville achieved minor fame for coming kiiiinda close against top-seeded Syracuse in 2012. Murray State took Michigan State to overtime in 1990. Everything was weird in 1989, when Oklahoma needed a late scoring flurry to beat East Tennessee State by one, and Alonzo Mourning needed two late blocks to seal Georgetown’s 50–49 win over Princeton. In the end, the team that was better on paper always won on the court, too. But these close calls were reminders that weird things could happen in a 40-minute game played by amateurs — and the fact that the better team on paper kept eking out wins seemed to be a trend that was unlikely to hold up forever. Most of the world viewed the 16–1 matchup as a formality, but I’d always viewed an upset as something that would happen someday — a rare and unlikely occurrence, but given enough time, inevitable. All we needed was the right set of teams.

Friday night, it happened. UMBC — University of Maryland–Baltimore County — did it. They played the game that will go down as the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history. And after finally seeing the scenario I considered inevitable actually play out, I find myself wondering: Was that really possible?

Of all the no. 1 seeds to potentially lose, I never would’ve expected Virginia to be the Goliath to fall. Most programs don’t notch nine wins against NCAA tournament teams in a regular season; the Cavaliers had eight double-digit wins against NCAA tournament teams. Virginia went 17–1 in the ACC, losing that one game by one point in overtime. Its largest deficit of the season was 13 points; 1-seeds Kansas and Xavier lost multiple games by more than 13 points. UVA suffocated opponents on defense, and scored better than opponents could score on them.

Virginia did not just win games; it made the best teams in the country look helpless. Being on a court with Virginia was not a situation for hope. The Cavaliers were efficient doom.

And UMBC was, to be honest, very much a 16-seed. They lost by 44 to Albany; they lost twice in the regular season to the best team in the America East, Vermont, by a combined 43 points; their only game against an NCAA tournament team was a 25-point loss to Arizona.

Their America East tournament win was improbable, a big upset that came via a buzzer-beating 3 over Vermont, which had won 23 straight games against UMBC.

That game against Vermont was a normal upset. An outmatched underdog stunning a better team with an improbable play. All the 16-vs.-1 close calls in history were one shot away from being normal upsets like that.

But what happened Friday night? This was not a normal upset. UMBC didn’t just win; it creamed Virginia. It won by 20, the new largest deficit faced by Virginia this season.

Jairus Lyles, who went 2-for-20 during his freshman season at VCU, shot 9-for-11 with 28 points.

K.J. Maura, a 5-foot-8 140-pounder, sprinted gleefully and easily through the most fearsome defense in college basketball.

The Retrievers scored 53 points in the second half against a Virginia team that held 16 opponents to 53 points or fewer for an entire game. (And yes, the most important thing here is that they are the Retrievers — specifically, Chesapeake Bay retrievers. I wrote about this a few days ago when I thought the most important thing about UMBC was its puppy mascot. I should have learned from Air Bud that the greatest underdogs ever would be great dogs.)

We will never forget the letters “UMBC.” If you don’t believe this, consider that all sports fans immediately know what we’re talking about when the word “Chaminade” is uttered, and that Chaminade’s famous upset over top-ranked Virginia came in an untelevised game in a meaningless early-season tournament 36 years ago. Friday night’s upset happened in the NCAA tournament, with TVs and Twitter, with Virginia trying to prove it was the best team in the country after a year that clearly showed that it was. This was bigger and more important and made less sense.

When I imagined a 16-seed beating a 1-seed, I pictured a slow-paced, messy game ending with a buzzer-beater rattling around the rim for 14 seconds and bouncing off the backboard before dropping. In my head, the 1-seed was a team we all secretly thought was overrated; the 16-seed had a star that the general public didn’t know about, but college basketball Twitter had anointed as a folk hero months ago. It made sense that this would happen at some point, and I figured that when it finally went down, everything about it would make sense.

Instead, these Retrievers came from nowhere and gleefully whupped the best team in basketball.

This had to happen eventually. But how did it happen like this?