In 1985, the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams, thereby creating the structure for the most impossible upset in a sport driven by the improbable: A 16-seed beating a 1-seed in a first-round matchup. For 33 years, countless close calls came and went. In 135 matchups on the men’s side, the favorite won 135 times.
It took a team known by four letters, whose place in this tournament was not earned by a stellar record, but rather via a 3-point win in the American East Conference’s title game. It took a program that was a 20.5-point underdog and whose only Power Five conference win ever was in 2008 against Nebraska to make history. The UMBC Retrievers took down the no. 1 overall seed Virginia Cavaliers in a stunning 20-point blowout Friday night to make history and abruptly ended the run of one the most efficient teams in college basketball.
UMBC’s win was shocking, and the Retrievers’ control of both the game’s tempo and style was jarring. UMBC outrebounded Virginia 33-24. They made their living off second-chance points and incendiary long-range shot-making, draining 54.2 percent of their shots from the field and 50 percent of their tries from deep. The Cavaliers allowed 53 points per game this season. UMBC had 53 in the second half.
You may not know who Jairus Lyles is right now, but his name will become familiar for college basketball fans over the next few days. The Retrievers’ senior guard tallied a game-high 28 points, made three 3s, and added four rebounds and three assists. It didn’t matter that he was facing the best defense in the country; nothing they threw at Lyles worked. By the time the game was done, Lyles and Co. hadn’t just made history, they’d enjoyed a victory lap against the best team in the country.
The Cavaliers are known for their grind-it-out aesthetic and defense-first style. They don’t know how to thrive on offense because they’ve never needed to: They’re almost always in the lead. Once they found themselves out of their comfort zone, there was no rhythm to their game while the Retrievers sped around them. In a typical 1-seed vs. 16-seed matchup, any lead snagged by the underdog is watched with caution; viewers watch the clock and wait for order to be inevitably restored. But how could Virginia restore order when they never had a grasp on it in the first place?
“We got our butts whupped,” head coach Tony Bennett said postgame.
Virginia was the title favorite aiming to bring its school its first championship ever. This was the season that was supposed to give the ultimate badge of validation to a program thought to be a notch below the blue bloods of Duke, North Carolina, and Kansas. Instead, in a span of 40 minutes, they unraveled, imprinting themselves onto college basketball lore with an entirely different story.
After 33 years, Goliath finally fell at the hands of a little team from Baltimore County. The scenes that came after the final buzzer will be seen in March montages for decades to come. No one ever sees an upset coming, much less one of this magnitude, but on Friday night, UMBC played like they knew they were better than the country’s best. And, somehow, they were.