UMBC's Historic Run Was Short-Lived, but the Retrievers Won't Ever Be Forgotten

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2018

Despite losing, the 2018 UMBC Retrievers won't ever be forgotten.
Despite losing, the 2018 UMBC Retrievers won't ever be forgotten.Associated Press

Take heart, UMBC. Even the real Cinderella lost a shoe and saw her carriage revert to a pumpkin as time ran out on her fairy tale night.

But just as Cinderella went on to find her Prince Charming, so too will UMBC forever remain part of college basketball royalty.

The team with the hard-to-remember name made an unforgettable trip to the NCAA tournament. Not only did the University of Maryland-Baltimore County become the first men's No. 16 seed to win a game, but it also nearly doubled down on its lucky number and became the first one to reach the Sweet 16.

Alas, no. But Sunday's 50-43 loss was still a one-possession game until Kansas State's Xavier Sneed beat the shot clock by a fraction and pushed his team ahead by five points with 1:11 left.

Yeah, with just a little luck, the impossible dream that started with UMBC's knocking off No. 1 overall seed Virginia could have had a sequel.

UMBC hung around and made K-State's Wildcats earn it despite getting only 12 points from Jairus Lyles, the senior whose 28-point night led the way against Virginia. Fighting cramps, Lyles soldiered through the final minutes against Virginia by licking salt from a cracker and drinking vinegar, but he couldn't find a magic elixir to fix his 4-of-15 shooting Sunday.

The Retrievers also kept hounding Kansas State despite not getting a single point from Joe Sherburne, who had 14 against Virginia but was 0-of-9 this time. There were other UMBC obstacles too, such as shooting a dreadful 29.8 percent from the field, missing half its free-throw attempts and giving up 13 steals to Kansas State's pickpockets.

All those negatives, and the Retrievers were still in it to the end. How?

Maybe CBS' Bill Raftery said it best when discussing the height and weight of K.J. Maura, UMBC's point guard from Puerto Rico. Maura has acknowledged that no matter what the various programs and rosters say, he's only 5'7" "on a good day" and about 132 pounds.

Raftery said it's more like, "110 pounds, and the rest is all heart."

Maura buried two threes early in the second half, but, more impressively, he stayed in the game after he took a charge that would have sent most guys his size to the bench. He and his gigantic heart personified a team that played gutsy defense throughout and managed not to get starry-eyed after a day of adoration from the national media.

But coming up short the second time doesn't change UMBC's story. The Retrievers are still top dogs of this NCAA tourney, even if they were undone by K-State's Cats.

Kansas State coach Bruce Weber understood the magnitude of what UMBC accomplished against Virginia. After the Retrievers' victory, he addressed his players at their hotel. 

"I wanted to make sure they understood the task they had and how good they were," Weber said, per George Willis of the New York Post. "We've got to be ready for them."

UMBC's story gives hope not only to future No. 16 seeds but also to every smallish sports program. As ESPN's Darren Rovell pointed out, Kansas State's athletic budget is $73.4 million, and UMBC's is only $13 million.

UMBC's visit to hoops heaven lasted only about 48 hours before the clock struck midnight, but it delivered millions in publicity and awareness for a university whose previous best claim to celebrity fame was alum/actress Kathleen Turner.

As the Baltimore Sun reported, the school's bookstore received more than 3,000 orders for merchandise the day after the Virginia upset, which more than doubled sales from all of last year.

And with UMBC guaranteed a permanent place in March Madness lore, the school realized it better take full possession of its chapter of basketball history, which is certain to be revisited for decades to come.

Lawyers got busy, per Rovell, and filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to trademark "16 over 1." Also protected were "Retrievers" and "Retriever Nation."

"With all the attention, it made sense for us to take care of it right away," said UMBC athletic director Tim Hall.

Even dog lovers celebrated the stunning rise of the Retrievers, with some telling ABC News that the breed was long overdue for some attention. Take note, Huskies and Bulldogs.

And speaking of pedigree, a salute also is in order for UMBC coach Ryan Odom, son of Dave Odom, who coached Tim Duncan at Wake Forest and also had a stellar run at South Carolina. Ryan's accomplishment is one more reason I hate giving out Coach of the Year awards before the NCAA tournament. No matter what happens on the rest of the road to the Final Four, Ryan Odom should get a nod for breaking the 135-game losing streak by No. 16 seeds. Nothing else that happens in this tournament will compare to it. Period.

So even though the Retrievers leave without championship rings, they will be remembered forever. Maybe not the way Texas Western and Loyola-Chicago are remembered—as small schools that won it all—but still as giant killers who did what was beginning to seem impossible.

For that, one of the shoe companies needs to send them some glass slippers.

    

Tom Weir covered 15 Final Fours as a columnist for USA Today.

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