CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A half-dozen florescent yellow UMBC jerseys, heavy with sweat, splayed sporadically across the gray locker room carpet. The team trainer brought a program and Sharpie to each player to sign for a final keepsake. The players tore their NCAA name tags off their cramped lockers, a final tangible memory from a historic weekend.
The end came swiftly and unaesthetically for No. 16 seed UMBC on Sunday night. The No. 16 Retrievers captured America on Friday by upsetting No. 1 Virginia to become the first team in NCAA tournament history to knock off a No. 1 seed in the first round.
In the aftermath of their 50-43 loss to No. 9 Kansas State, the players tiptoed around camera wires, grabbed boxed dinners and attempted to articulate the mix of pride and devastation that cascaded over them the prior 48 hours.
“These kids made history,” said Ryan Odom, the 43-year-old UMBC coach. “It’s unbelievable how they were able to capture the entire country and certainly our sport. The NCAA, NBA and then you go beyond. It’s just really, really special.”
Less than an hour after the game, in a dank hallway outside the UMBC locker room, Odom poignantly crafted the legacy of this team. The Retrievers will resonate as the consummate underdog inspiration, and Odom hopes their historic upset serves as an inspiration that transcends the playing field.
“Kids are being told, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ ” Odom said. “Whether it’s in sports or outside sports. What our kids were able to accomplish should be a lesson to everyone. You just have to put your mind to it, work hard and hopefully good things will happen for you.”
Good things nearly happened to UMBC again on Sunday night. The Retrievers ground the game to a screeching halt by clogging the passing lanes against Kansas State and nearly won the rock fight. At one point in the second half, they had seven consecutive possessions trailing by one point. They failed to take a lead, as they had offensive droughts long enough to be chronicled in “The Grapes of Wrath.”
On the UMBC sideline, veteran assistant Eric Skeeters kept telling the bench: “We’re going to win this game. We’re going to win this game.”
Kansas State pulled ahead by six on a tip dunk with just over three minutes remaining, and Skeeters summed up the futility pithily: “We picked a bad day to have a bad day.”
UMBC forward Joe Sherburne, who shot 0 for 9 on the day, had the clarity of mind to joke after the game that he hoped the added attention to the America East conference would prompt people to stop from putting “the N at the end of America, it’s America East.”
Forward Nolan Gerrity said he’d always remember asking Grant Hill about his cameo in a Nickelback video. Star guard Jairus Lyles said he’d treasure meeting the CBS announcing crew of Hill, Bill Raftery and Jim Nantz and getting pictures with them.
“Obviously, we made history the other day,” Lyles said. “Who knows when that will happen again? I want us to be remembered as a resilient group, a group that believed in one another and a group that was very connected.”
Make no mistake, the thrill of history didn’t stave off the devastation of defeat. Odom gathered himself in the locker room afterward and thanked the team’s three seniors – Lyles, Jourdan Grant and K.J. Maura – spending time individually with each one and letting them know what they’d meant to Odom and the program.
Soon after, the players were answering questions about Odom’s future. He’s been linked to the open jobs at UNC Charlotte and East Carolina. (If he waits until the next coaching cycle, he’ll be considered among the leading candidates, especially because of his father’s history as coach at East Carolina, Wake Forest and South Carolina).
But all that could wait on Sunday night as the new normal of the offseason settled in for the school. UMBC is no longer an alphabetical afterthought, it’s an established mid-major with a place firmly carved in history. The school just opened a new arena in February, and Skeeters knows it will be a challenge to get quality opponents there. “Think you can help us out,” he said to a reporter, “getting a home-and-home.”
UMBC couldn’t make history twice this weekend, and its new reality will settle in slowly.