The No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers lost in memorable manner last night, falling to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County by a final score of 74-54. It was the first time in the history of the NCAA Tournament that a No. 16 seed had beaten a No. 1 seed, and the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed got spanked.
UMBC wasn’t supposed to be in the tournament, much less actually competing. They needed a buzzer-beater in the American East conference tournament to upset Vermont and secure the automatic bid. They lost to Albany on January 21st by 44 points. Their best player almost left as a graduate transfer, and their point guard, at 132 pounds, is the lightest player in college basketball. Vegas had the Retrievers as 20.5 point underdogs, and only 3.2% of ESPN tournament brackets had them beating Virginia.
Yet they did, and they did so in convincing fashion. UMBC finished the night 12-24 from beyond the 3-pt line, and Jarius Lyles had 28 points on 9-11 shooting. But in an ironic twist for Virginia, it was their defense that won them the game. The Cavaliers shot just 41% from the field, including 4-22 from 3-pt, and never looked comfortable. Devon Hall, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy weren’t able to get open looks off screens. Jack Salt and Isaiah Wilkins, despite a significant size advantage, couldn’t get things going in the low post. Virginia look disjointed and out of rhythm, and it affected their defense – UMBC was able to clean the glass and push the pace, and it lead to a number of easy looks in transition. The Cavaliers’ vaunted pack-line defense was uncharacteristically porous in the second half, allowing relatively easy lay-ups that prevented any serious comeback attempt.
Last night’s game was a historic loss for Virginia. But historic events, rather obviously, allow for the contemplation of history, and history is often complicated. So, too, is this season’s legacy. It was an unbelievable year: 31 wins, 17-1 in conference games, the ACC regular season title (by four full games), an ACC tournament title, five weeks as the No. 1 team in the AP Poll, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, and numerous postseason awards for the team and Tony Bennett.
Devon Hall and De’Andre Hunter emerged as all-around stars and legitimate NBA prospects, Isaiah Wilkins bravely tackled illnesses both physical and mental on his way to becoming one of the nation’s best defenders, and Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy combined to form one of the sweetest-shooting backcourts in the ACC. There was the “Jay Huff Game” against Austin Peay, Marco Anthony’s 10 point breakout performance against Louisville, and Tony Bennett’s 200th Virginia win against Boston College. College GameDay visited Charlottesville once again, and the national basketball world watched in awe as a team that started the year unranked slowly but surely began to rise up the polls as they dominated the rest of the country.
It was, quite simply, the best season in Virginia basketball history for four months and 33 games. Until it wasn’t. In a little over two hours, a scrappy group of kids from outside Baltimore pulled off the biggest upset in sports history and forever changed Virginia and college basketball history.
Two awful hours shouldn’t overshadow four months of brilliance, nor will they. As Tracy Lawerence famously sang: “Time marches on, time marches on. The only thing that stays the same is everything changes….time marches on.” Time will march on. Some things will change:Hall and Wilkins will graduate as two of the most successful players in program history, and they’ll leave behind massive shoes to fill. Other things will stay the same. Another unheralded recruiting class will arrive on Grounds this summer and begin learning how to pack the paint, double the post, and surpass the expectations of everyone outside of Charlottesville. Jerome and Guy will rain fire from outside, Salt will set crushing screens, and Hunter will dominate both ends of the court on his way to first round of the NBA Draft.
More importantly, Coach Bennett and his staff will continue to recruit and play young men of impeccable class and character. After the game, Bennett, Jerome, and Guy sat and answered questions from reporters with the type of maturity and honesty that is not found often in today’s world, much less in college basketball. They spoke about life lessons and resiliency, and Coach Bennett emphasized the importance of carrying on through the good times and the bad. It was an impressively composed and gracious 15 minutes.
Virginia basketball is often criticized for being different. At a time when basketball is getting smaller and faster, the Cavaliers continue to play two traditional big men. While blue-blood programs like Kentucky, Duke, and Michigan State have embraced the one-and-done style of recruiting, Virginia focuses on fit and talent development. Many folks think Virginia basketball is boring and that Tony Bennett will never be able to win in the tournament, and they use last night’s collapse as the ultimate piece of proof.
Can this style of play ever make it to a Final Four or win a national championship? Only time will tell. But Virginia basketball will continue to be everything that is right about college athletics. Tony Bennett will teach defense and preach life lessons to young men that are hungry to work, learn, and improve. Together, they will continue to surpass expectations, just as they did all season and for the past nine years.
Last night showed that Virginia basketball is indeed different. Vince Lombardi once said: “Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” In the midst of a heartbreaking defeat, Virginia basketball’s true character was revealed. It’s different, but in the best way.
That’s the legacy of this season. Through unimaginable highs and devastating lows, Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers conducted themselves with the utmost humility and class. And for that, Virginia fans should be exceedingly proud.