When the UMBC Retrievers walked into the locker room after their loss to Kansas State, there was only one word written on the whiteboard: Proud.
University of Maryland, Baltimore County coach Ryan Odom felt that was the only message his team needed.
“Just very proud of these kids and what they've been able to do as the representatives that they are for our university,” Odom said. “[They] just captured our country and beyond.”
UMBC’s Cinderella-story ended Sunday night when Kansas State ended the Retrievers’ season in the second round of the NCAA tournament, 50–43.
UMBC had dismantled top-seeded Virginia on Friday, winning 74–54 to become the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 in NCAA men’s tournament history. For the record, the small school in Baltimore is better known for its academics and chess team, but basketball made it a national sensation overnight.
UMBC’s Twitter account gained 45,000 followers overnight, the school’s website crashed, and athletes around the country acknowledged the biggest underdog in the field. Stephen Curry even sent his unreleased Under Armour shoes to the team to wear on Sunday.
Odom told his players how their story had reached corners all around the world. “He told us how proud he was of us, told us about how he had a friend in Rome who was at dinner, and all the couple next to him could talk about was UMBC,” said junior forward Joe Sherburne.
The talk about UMBC will fade now that the team has been eliminated, but the spot in history the Retrievers earned can never be taken from them. This squad was the most successful in program history, and their community has made their appreciation known.
“Our fans traveled a long way these past few days to come support us. We've had a tremendous support from our fans all year,” said Jairus Lyles, who had 28 points in the win over Virginia. “I expect them to be very happy with us when we get back, proud of us. But, you know, of course we wanted to go into the next round. It didn't happen that way.”
In the second half against Kansas State, UMBC made a hustle play for the ages.
Max Curran fought for a rebound on the ground, and threw the ball out to Sherburne, who chased it over the midcourt line. To keep it in play, he threw it to his fearless leader, K.J. Maura, who again had to dive over the midcourt line to save the play.
Throughout both games, UMBC never rested. The Retrievers took risks, made plays, and showed true grit.
“They set out to win it and they got it done and they did it through hard work,” Odom said. “They did it through loving one another. They did it through unselfishness and believing in one another.”
No matter the final score, the players will never forget the history they made in this tournament. The hard part was enjoying the fame they had won, and living in the moment.
“It was really cool, more than ever, just looking at our fans. When we were up 16 in the second half, I would just keep looking up at our fans, to make sure I was soaking it in. It was really really really cool,” said Sherburne of the Virginia victory.
Maura, despite being just 5’7”, 140 pound, led the Retrievers through their games, playing all but two minutes, insuring that fans who may not have known the Retrievers when the tournament began won’t forget the team now.
“We put our name on the map. We’re giving hope to teams that come to the tournament with lower seeds.” said Maura. “I think we're giving hope to guys that are not even that tall like me. So, people that feel like they underdogs in their life, I think we have given them hope to everything they want to do in life.”
Photograph by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images