Where were you when it finally happened? When No. 16 beat No. 1?
By Bill Roth
Where were you when it finally happened?
Where were you when a No. 16 team in the NCAA tournament finally beat a No. 1 seed?
This was one of those monumental moments in sports where you’ll not only recall the participants and the story itself, but where you witnessed it and experienced the fascinating drama that only live sports can deliver.
Perhaps, like some of my colleagues, you were in Charlotte watching the game in-person. Or maybe you were fighting late-night fatigue, watching history unfold through heavy eyelids on your couch.
I was with several close friends at The Cellar, aka “Greeks” in downtown Blacksburg, a historic beer hall where they’ve been pouring pints since 1929. It’s the oldest bar in Blacksburg so it was fitting to witness history in place that’s been around longer than the NCAA Tournament itself.
Most of us assumed that someday, eventually, a No. 16 would beat a No. 1, right? Princeton came close against Georgetown in 1989, and a year later top-seed Michigan State needed overtime to beat unheralded Murray State. North Carolina fans remember the 1997 Fairfield game.
When it happened, logic dictated, it would be a dramatic shot-at-the-buzzer, followed by a court storming and epic dog pile.
When it did happen, it was a woodshed whoopin’. UMBC beat Virginia 74-54 in a finish so anticlimactic, that by the end, Retriever’s coach Ryan Odom instructed his players to hold the ball and take an intentional shot clock violation as to not run up the score on UVA.
As its incredibly classy head coach Tony Bennet said following the game, Virginia had a historic season in the ACC. It won every conference road game it played. Yeah, it needed a miracle finish to win at Louisville, where the Cavaliers erased a four-point deficit in the final one-second. But in every gym and arena in which it played this season, the Cavaliers proved to be not only a good team, but one of the ACC’s greatest.
Virginia wins by playing incredible team basketball, dictating tempo, and by playing its famed defense. Most of all the Cavs get into the heads of their opponents. We saw that perhaps most vividly in January when UVA beat Clemson 61-36, holding a terrific Clemson team to just 13 second-half points.
Friday, it was fearless UMBC that turned-the-tables on UVA. It was the Retrievers who played with great confidence on defense and got stops. They drove the lane, knocked down big-threes, and got offensive rebounds when they missed. It was the Cavaliers who appeared uncomfortable, out-of-sorts, befuddled and despondent. UVA was experiencing what every other ACC team has felt this season. The power – and the beauty – of team basketball when played to perfection. Except on this night, it was UMBC that had the cohesion.
Virginia was totally outplayed in the second half, and with 10-minutes to play, the question was no longer “Could UMBC win?” it became, “Are they going to blow Virginia out?”
Unfortunately for some of my close friends who are UVA die-hards, the answer was yes.
There was no drama at the end. There was no countdown to the final seconds. The horn sounded and the UMBC players shook hands with the UVA kids as if were just another America East game from February.
Some national media types are suggesting that Friday’s result is further proof that Bennett’ s slower tempo, defense-first basketball philosophy doesn’t work in March. Some even suggest that Virginia’s style is some sort of gimmick, like some unique triple-option football team that wins as much by deception as it does execution.
Don’t blame anyone. Don’t blame the system. Celebrate the beauty of the tournament. What happened last night has nothing to do with Virginia’s style of play. Or its system.
Virginia is good enough to win the NCAA Championship. Bennett will win one eventually. But, last night, UMBC was good enough to beat ‘em.
“They run their offense so fast,” Bennett said in his post-game press conference. “That ball just pop, pop, pop and they do the dribble handoffs, keeping it and moving it. If you’re not really disciplined and really sound — and we worked as hard as we could preparing for it, but it’s like you can’t mimic that until you go against it.”
[Full disclosure: UMBC Coach Ryan Odom, his wife Lucia, and his parents are good friends. Ryan spent eight years here at Virginia Tech as an assistant and I’ve worked many broadcasts with his father, former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom. So, I’m naturally proud of Ryan and happy for him. But I’m also sympathetic to the sting my many good friends at UVA are feeling today. Just proud that everyone on both sides has handled this with such dignity]
It was going to happen someday, right?
One night some 16-seed would slow the game down and beat a more talented No. 1 team. But last night, UMBC did the opposite. Ryan actually sped the game up and moved the ball around which prevented Virginia from playing its game.
The Retrievers made shots and kept pushing the pace even as the lead grew to 12, then 14, and then 17. No matter how big the lead got, UMBC kept going fast. How many underdogs in NCAA tournament games start playing tentative in the final six minutes when they have a chance to pull an upset? Not UMBC. Not last night.
At the end, it wasn’t dramatic. It wasn’t just one-shining moment. It was 40-shining minutes for UMBC and its superstar head coach.
Where were you when it happened. I was drinking a pint at The Cellar, toasting my friend Ryan and his team that made history.