It was championship Saturday in Vermont, and the UMBC cheerleaders, dance team, and Down n’ Dirty Dawg Band crowded the lobby of the Green Mountain Suites in downtown Burlington. As the players processed down the staircase, the UMBC fight song filled the halls of the spectacular hotel the cheerleaders and dance team surrounded the players.
The pomp and circumstance did not phase the team, as they exited the hotel and boarded their bus to head to Patrick Gymnasium at the University of Vermont. Their serious demenour exemplified the extreme focus on the goal in front of them, to beat the UVM Catamounts for the first time in a decade, and capture an America East title.
The old gym feels hauntingly similar to the RAC due to its age, but is much larger. The wooden bleachers slope steeply upwards on both sides of the court, and the UVM fans packed the stadium hoping to watch their Catamounts capture their second consecutive America East title.
The intimate venue holds 3,266 people, all stacked on top of each other, which made for a deafening roar every time the Catamounts made a shot, or had a key defensive play. The first half was full of these outbursts, as the Catamounts shot 55 percent from the field.
The first outcry of cheers came in the opening minutes, as Vermont scored first. But, the building would fall silent as with 16:15 left in the half, two Catamount players collided with each other, and had to be attended to by the training staff. The two would walk off of the court on their own power, bringing the building back to life.
UMBC would struggle to keep pace with the Catamounts for much of the first half, trailing by as many as nine points. But, graduate-guard Jairus Lyles was determined to keep the Retrievers in the game, shooting 4-6 over the first ten minutes of the game. But, that would not be enough, as UMBC would trail 30-21 with five minutes left in the first half.
But, in the closing two minutes, the Retrievers would initiate an onslaught, capitalizing on crisp ball movement to create space for their two best shooters to perform. Senior-guard and sociology major KJ Maura and Lyles would combine for three straight 3-pointers at the end of the half, finishing off a 16-5 run to give UMBC a 37-35 lead heading into the final 20 minutes of the America East season.
The second half started with a UMBC block, before the Catamounts regained the lead on three foul shots. After the Catamounts began to pull away from the Retrievers, UMBC faced a tough challenge as Maura picked up his fourth foul, and went to the bench with 15 minutes to go in the game. By the time Maura reentered the game, the Retrievers had dug themselves a deep hole, trailing 9 points with nine minutes to go.
But the Retrievers would not give up. First, Lyles drew a foul from behind the arch, sinking two out of three foul shots to bring the Retrievers within 7 points. Then, with eight minutes left, Junior-forward and financial economics major Joe Sherburne hit a 3-pointer to briefly cut the deficit before Vermont answered with 2 points, bringing the deficit to 6 with 8:05 left.
With around 6 minutes left, Lyles got a steal, and passed to senior media and communications major Jourdon Grant who subsequently drew a foul while driving up the court. Grant would sink the two free throws, cutting the deficit to 4. After a UMBC foul shot, the Retrievers trailed by only 3 points, and Maura converted an NBA range 3-pointer to tie the game with 5:00 left to go.
After Vermont scored 2 points, sophomore Max Curran was in great position in the paint, driving to the rim and tying the game on a monster dunk to make the score 60-60 with 2:46 left in the game. Then, after Vermont scored yet again, the Retrievers had an opportunity to take the lead on a wide open Grant 3-attempt, but Grant failed to convert the opportunity. As the ball headed out of bounds, a slew of bodies went after it, and the ball was ruled to be out on UMBC giving Vermont possession.
But, after a video review, referees determined that the ball was out on Vermont, giving UMBC the ball back with 50 seconds left on the clock. Lyles would subsequently drive into the lane, and make a layup to tie the game at 62-62. As Vermont tried to drive up the court and defend their 2017 America East title with a late-game basket, the shot attempt was blocked by Curran.
Lyles moved up the court and hovered around the half court line as time began to die down. Coach Ryan Odom tried to signal Lyles to call a timeout, but Lyles was insistent on running his own play. With three seconds left, Vermont-guard Trae Bell-Haynes gave Lyles a bit of space, expecting him to drive to the lane. But instead, with three seconds left on the clock Lyles pulled up from behind the arch, draining the attempt that will forever be known in UMBC history as “The Shot.”
Madness ensued, players ran into the court to congratulate Lyles, but the game wasn’t over quite yet. Vermont inbounded the ball with 0.5 seconds left on the clock, and Lyles deflected the inbound as time had expired. The game was over, and the Retrievers were champions.
UMBC fans, spirit teams, and members from the Retriever stormed the court to celebrate the historic moment. Players were given hats, and shirts as the party lasted for what seemed like hours.
At the end of the madness, players took turns cutting down the net that Lyles had put that shot through just moments before. Fans still couldn’t believe what happened, and neither could the players.
Even over an hour after the win, the hysteria had not worn off for the UMBC spirit teams, clapping inside of the Vermont restaurant they attended after the game as the highlight of Lyles’ shot played on ESPN. But one thing was for sure, UMBC was going dancing.
After a day of waiting and celebrating the Retrievers would ultimately learn their fate. As the Sunday selection show began on TBS, the players looked on eagerly waiting to find out where they would be heading for their first NCAA tournament in a decade. First, the show began by presenting the at-large bids, and “first four” participants, as the anticipation grew inside the Commons Sports Zone. As the announcers transitioned to the matchups, the room became glued to the projector screen, as they waited for the news.
They would not wait long, as the first game to officially be announced would be the game that UMBC had fought so hard to participate in. The Retrievers will be heading to Charlotte, North Carolina to take on the #1 team in the nation, the Virginia Cavaliers.
The excitement around the university was at an all-time high. “I was beyond ecstatic. It is the best experience that we’ve had in the athletic program in 50 years. I mean the way they played so well together, the excitement of the students both on campus and [in Vermont]. I was getting calls from all over the country. It was hard for me to watch because it was so close and my heart was pumping” said university president, Freeman Hrabowski.
“When that ball went in it was layers of meaning because it’s taken years to build a foundation, and this great coach [Ryan Odom], great AD [Tim Hall] and people who help them out, these amazing students, it was almost inexplicable. It was hard to explain how deeply people felt it. I got probably 50 text messages within three minutes [of the games conclusion]. My family was popping in all night long, from all over the country and even from heads of professional teams saying Freeman, great job, great job,” he continued.
Not only was the event huge in the context of athletics, but the school will be looking forward to even greater benefits according to Hrabowski. “The visibility is worth millions of dollars in terms of people knowing who we are, because once the light shines on the campus and they see what a great place we are academically, it just means people are more excited about UMBC.”
The Retrievers will not be content to just go to March Madness, as UMBC is determined to shock the nation and be the first 16 seed in the tournament to beat a number 1 seed. “All my life I’ve played the toughest and top talent that this country has to offer from AAU to Prep School and one thing I have realized is that they put their uniforms and sneakers on just like we do. I respect everything that they have done this year but now our records are 0-0 and nothing else matters but making sure we have one more point than they do when the clock hits 0,” said sophomore-forward Arkel Lamar.
It will be a tough battle for the Retrievers, with some people projecting them to have only a 2 percent chance to pull off the win. But, as they proved in Vermont (8 percent chance to win according to ESPN), any percent of a chance is enough of a chance for this team.