Few things in sports are more exciting than a big upset. An underdog taking down a team that is perceived to be better in every way is the embodiment of the spirit of competition. This is why viewers will always tune in to March Madness, the monicker given to the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament. No other organized sport creates an environment as conducive to upsets, like college basketball.
This is why it is so surprising that in the history of the tournament, a 16 seed team had never toppled a one seeded team. Coming in to this year, the favored team went 135-0 in this matchup. However, all of this changed when (16) UMBC defeated (1) Virginia 75-55. This feat was made all the more significant as Virginia finished the regular season atop the AP Top 25 polls, and was named the tournament’s number one overall team.
So, how did UMBC, or the University of Maryland Baltimore County, for those who haven’t had the chance to look up the abbreviation yet, pull off this David versus Goliath style victory? The quick summation is, they appeared to want the win more than Virginia, but what went down on the court is far more interesting than this explanation.
The first half was tightly contested, featuring three lead changes that led to a 21-21 halftime tie. The second half is where thing began to unravel for Virginia, and it is how quickly this occurred, that is so surprising.
By the time the first four minutes had ticked off the final frame, the Retrievers had jumped out to a 35-24 lead, riding a 14-3 run. What made the run even more magical was that it was engineered by a single player.
Joe Sherburne, a junior that played a hair under 30 minutes for the whole game, scored nine of his 14 points during this pivotal stretch for UMBC, and assisted on a 3-pointer by the team’s strongest scorer, Jairus Lyles.
After Sherburne’s work was done, Lyles took back the mantle of leading the team, scoring 20 points in the second half to finish the game leading all scorers with 28. Every time Virginia’s star player, Kyle Guy, would bring the score within 12, Lyles was always quick to answer. Despite Guy scoring 13 second half points, and 15 overall, the Cavaliers were never able to overcome the quick run that the Retrievers embarked on coming out of the locker room.
Delving deeper into the stats of this game, it comes as no surprise that Sherburne appears to be the catalyst that allowed for UMBC’s historic upset. He boasted the team’s second highest offensive and defensive ratings, scoring 128 points per 100 possessions, and allowed Virginia’s offense just 88 points per 100 possessions.
Lyles’ advanced stats speak to just how prolific a scorer he was during this match. His offensive rating of 145 points per 100 possessions, as well as his true shooting percentage of 94 percent, were both far and away the best numbers for the Retrievers.
These two had pivotal individual performances, but UMBC won with a complete team effort. They went 12-24 from 3-point range, easily topping Virginia’s 4-22 outing. The Retrievers also had a true shooting percentage of 68 percent to the Cavaliers’ 45 percent. In short, UMBC couldn’t miss. This is how they were able to put up 75 points on a Virginia team that was first in the country in points allowed, with an average of 54 points per game allotted to opponents.
Virginia’s stout defense covered for one of the nation’s weakest offenses. The team averaged just 67 points per game, good for 314th overall. The Retrievers’ defensive rating as a team was 87 points per 100 possessions, meaning the Cavaliers’ already less than stellar offense had even more obstacles to overcome. Pair that with UMBC’s hot shooting night, and it’s easy to understand how the game ended the way it did.
The final bits of information that explains how a 16 seed was able to beat a one seed in such a fantastic fashion, are rebounds and assists, in both of which, UMBC dominated Virginia. The Retrievers retrieved 31 rebounds to Cavaliers’ 21. UMBC also shared the ball with ease, notching 26 assists to Virginia’s five.
Aside from UMBC pulling the biggest upset in NCAA history, this rendition of March Madness has been fraught with surprising victories. There’s (11) Loyola-Chicago in the West Region that took down (6) Miami and (3) Tennessee, and has a date with (7) Nevada that has already taken out (2) Cincinnati. (11) Syracuse of the Midwest Region. And one of the last teams selected to the tournament stunned (3) Michigan State and will now play (2) Duke in the Sweet 16.
Although UMBC lost to Kansas State 50-43 in the second round, they ensured every bracket was busted before making their exit. They are now a team in the national spotlight, and with that comes new pressure the school has never felt before. If they respond well, there’s a good chance viewers will see them, come tourney time next year. For now, UMBC has made NCAA Men’s Basketball history in a game that will be talked about for years to come.