March 17, 2018
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Time and time again this season, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team made history. En route to the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles, the Cavaliers won a school-record 31 games, ascended to the top of the national polls, and earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
“I think this team maxed out as much as any team that I’ve had,” head coach Tony Bennett said at Spectrum Center.
In the Wahoos’ ninth season under Bennett, however, they made history “both ways,” as guard Devon Hall put it in their somber locker room early Saturday morning.
In a South Region first-round game late Friday night, Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tourney. UMBC took the lead for good on the first possession of the second half and won going away, 74-54.
“Unbelievable,” said Ryan Odom, the Retrievers’ second-year head coach, who spent part of his childhood in Charlottesville, where his father, Dave, was a Virginia assistant under Terry Holland.
For the Cavaliers (31-3), their first loss since Feb. 10 brought a magical season to a stunning conclusion. It marked the final college game for UVA’s three seniors: Hall, forward Isaiah Wilkins, and guard Nigel Johnson, a graduate transfer who joined the program last season.
“You can’t even imagine anything like that, but we got outplayed,” Wilkins said. “Nothing’s guaranteed in March.”
The `Hoos, alas, have learned that lesson well.
In 2016, on the verge of clinching a trip to the Final Four, they collapsed in the second half against Syracuse and lost in the NCAA quarterfinals.
In 2017, the Cavaliers bowed out in the tournament’s second round, in part because an illness slowed Wilkins in the postseason, but they appeared capable of making an extended run in the NCAAs this year.
Instead, as UMBC (25-10) prepared to meet No. 9 seed Kansas State (23-11) in the second round Sunday, the `Hoos headed home, grasping for answers.
In the locker room after the game, Bennett tried his best to put the season and the loss in perspective for his players, “but there’s not really a whole lot that can prepare you for this kind of feeling,” sophomore guard Kyle Guy said.
UVA’s program is full of high-character players whose strength has been their resilience, Bennett said. “Now it will be tested in a way I don’t think they thought it would be tested.”
The loss, which immediately became part of March Madness lore, will sting for years to come.
“Maybe a 1-seed will get beat again, maybe not,” Bennett said. “Maybe we’ll be the only No. 1 seed to ever lose. It’s life. It goes on. We’ll have to get past that. For some reason this is what we’ve got to deal with, and my job now will be to say, `Hey, how do we bounce back?’ ”
On the eve of the Cavaliers’ fifth straight trip to the NCAAs, they suffered a major blow when redshirt freshman forward De’Andre Hunter, the ACC Sixth Man of the Year, was ruled out of the tournament with a broken left wrist.
Still, Virginia figured to have too much talent and too much postseason experience for the Retrievers, who were in the NCAA tourney for the first time in 10 years. But UMBC, led by graduate student Jairus Lyles, never looked intimidated Friday night. The Retrievers spread the floor with 3-point shooters and carved up Virginia’s renowned Pack Line defense.
UMBC scored 53 points in the second half. Fourteen times this season, UVA held its opponent to fewer than 53 points for the game.
“They thoroughly outplayed us and they did a heck of a job,” Bennett said of the Retrievers.
At the break, the game was tied. In the second half, UMBC had its way against the nation’s No. 1 defense. Lyles, whose parents are UVA alumni, scored 23 of his game-high 28 points after intermission. Overall, UMBC shot 67.9 percent from the floor — 58.3 percent from 3-point range — in the final 20 minutes.
For the game, UMBC hit 12 treys, the most ever allowed by Virginia in an NCAA tournament game. The Retrievers, who made 26 field goals, totaled 16 assists.
“They spread the floor, they made shots,” said sophomore guard Ty Jerome, who like Guy scored 15 points. “I don’t think we defended well. We didn’t pass the ball well. We didn’t come off screens well. We didn’t do anything well tonight, to be honest. And give credit to them, too, because they played well.”
Lyles, whose father is former UVA football star Lester Lyles, made 9 of 11 shots from the floor, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc. Such heroics are nothing new for Lyles, whose last-second 3-pointer lifted the Retrievers to victory over top-seeded Vermont in the America East championship game.
His tour de force Friday night came on a bigger stage against a more formidable opponent, but Lyles wasn’t fazed by the prospect of facing the `Hoos. Neither were his teammates, including 5-8, 140-pound point guard K.J. Maura.
“I think we had the confidence coming into the game,” said Lyles, who began his college career at VCU. “I don’t think there was any point in the game that we thought we couldn’t play with them.”
The Retrievers, Lyles said, understood the magnitude of their challenge — and their achievement.
“We were talking about it before the game, just trying to go out here and make history, doing it for our program, our teammates, our coaching staff,” Lyles said. “We just wanted to make history today.”
With the score 21-21, the Retrievers sprinted to their locker room at the end of the first half, their confidence growing. The 21 points were the fewest UVA had scored in a half all season. The ‘Hoos have overcome other slow starts, but this time was different. They unraveled in the second half, giving up uncontested 3-pointers and layups at one end and rushing (and missing) shots at the other.
“We lost our way,” Bennett said. “I’m sure I’ll look at the tape and [see] I probably made a lot of poor adjustments, and that’s part of it. I’ll grow from it as a coach, but our young men tried. They battled. It wasn’t a lack of effort, but [UMBC] was a hard team for us once they got ahead of us.”
Hall, a 6-5 fifth-year senior, was a second-team All-ACC selection, and the Cavaliers have come to count on his production.
Against UMBC, Hall didn’t score until the 1:59 mark of the second half. He finished with two points. On a night when Virginia was 4 for 22 from beyond the arc, Hall was 0 for 6 and Jerome, a third-team All-ACC pick, was 2 for 9. Guy, a first-team All-ACC selection and one of the country’s top shooters, was 0 for 2.
The Cavaliers finished with only five assists on their 23 field goals.
“It just shows you that really anybody can beat anybody,” Jerome said, “and if you don’t come to play you’re going to get beat. It’s basketball.”
For most of the season, Bennett went with an eight-man rotation. He used seven players against UMBC, as the 6-7 Hunter, a matchup nightmare for opponents, watched helplessly from the bench.
“It was really frustrating,” Hunter said. “I felt like I could have helped a lot, and just not being able to play with Devon and Zay and Nigel anymore hurts.”
Guy echoed those comments. “I just feel so bad for Isaiah and Devon and Nigel,” he said, “because it’s not how we wanted to send them out.”
As painful as such setbacks can be, they’re part of competitive sports, Bennett noted.
“If you play this game and you step into the arena, this stuff can happen,” he said. “And those who haven’t been in the arena or in the competition, maybe they don’t understand that. There’s chances for wonderful things to happen, but when you’re in the arena, stuff like this can happen and all those who compete take that on. And so we’ll accept it.”
Bennett played for his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay, one of “the hyphenated schools,” he said with a rueful smile early Saturday. Bennett knows well how good such programs can be.
“Good basketball knows no divisions or limits or qualities,” he said. “All that matters is who plays the best. They earned their right to play in this tournament, and so did we. They earned the right to move on. It’s who played the best for 40 minutes, and they absolutely did.”
Hunter said: “We had a great run. It didn’t end the way we wanted, but we did a lot of great things, and hopefully we can carry that on to next year, and hopefully it doesn’t end the same way.”