CHARLOTTE — It is very rare to see college basketball fans donning light blue and dark blue cheering for the same team together, but that was the unusual scene late into the night on Friday inside the Spectrum Center.
Almost as rare as the sight of UNC and Duke fans cheering on the same cause, was what was happening on the arena floor in the final game of the NCAA tournament first round games in Charlotte as UMBC became the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in Virginia. After 136 chances all-time, David finally triumphed over Goliath.
It wasn’t just a triumph, but a 74-54 massacre that no one saw coming before tip-off, except for maybe the 21 members of the UMBC roster and staff, and about two packed sections of the Spectrum center clad in black and gold. Even for some of those a 20-point defeat over the No. 1 team in the nation seemed a fantasy, given a tied halftime score.
Coaching staffs attempt to build up hope for No. 16 seeds heading into their meetings with college basketball powers each year, but the Retrievers bought in to it, more so than the other 135 teams that tried. Or at least that’s what Max Portmann believes.
“We knew we could do it. I know some schools talk like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to win,’ but they don’t buy into it,” he said. “I think we really bought into what the coaches were saying. That was really the key for us, buying into it.”
The junior forward didn’t log any playing time, but had the best seat in the house to witness the historic upset on the UMBC bench, and witnessed a large portion of the crowd go from indifferent to Retriever diehards as the second half went on.
“I looked over and we had UNC and K(ansas) State fans on the other side all cheering for us,” Portmann said. “It’s great to see fans that normally go at each other all come together.”
It was a cruel taste of the Cavaliers’ own medicine as UMBC’s defense locked down not just a No. 1 seed, but the undisputed No. 1 overall seed. With a defense that held Virginia to an abysmal 4-of-22 shooting from behind the arc, and then came down to post the highest point total against the nation’s best defense, everything went right for the underdog.
The ACC’s defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Wilkins looked pedestrian with one defensive rebound and a steal, but the shooting from deep from UMBC helped limit his touch on the game. But the biggest letdown for the Cavs were its guards that missed 22 shots on 36 attempts.
Another March hero was born in the final 20 minutes as Jarius Lyles’ second half slowly, but surely, changed the tides of the game and some of the non-affiliated fans in attendance. Lyles scored 23 of the 53 points in the second half for the No. 16 seed, and had as many points as Virginia did in the final half with 7 1/2 minutes left.
At that point, the game was virtually locked in with a 15-point margin. And fans of opposing teams caught themselves high-fiving following big 3 after big 3 that came from the hands of the UMBC players that turned golden, just missing nine shots in the second half against the defensive juggernaut.
Maybe for one of the few times in history, rival fans were together, cheering the 16th-seeded Retrievers as much as they were for history.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.