MARLBORO, NY – It’s often said if you live long enough you’ll witness everything there is to see; and that includes sports. All that was missing for my late 1960’s born brethren until Friday night was a #16 versus #1 NCAA Basketball Tournament upset. UMBC (University of Maryland-Baltimore County) may as well stand for Utterly Mind Blowing Contest after beating the daylights out of the #1 overall team in the tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers.
For those of you who care about such things, Virginia opened up as a 23-point favorite with the point spread dipping to 20.5 at tip-off. So what equates to man first walking on the moon in July of 1969, the result of this game is certainly one for the ages. As I sat at the bar, I couldn’t believe the scoreboard in the upper part of the screen. I was only slowly sipping on two Sam Adams draughts and not the normal bourbon, so I knew I wasn’t seeing things: UMBC 74, Virginia 54! They won by TWENTY FROGGING POINTS!!! As a guy who was once a degenerate gambler and could name just about every college’s nickname, I was as dumbfounded as anybody else except the UMBC’s alumnae to the team name but not anymore after this epic improbability… it’s the Retrievers.
Where does this upset list on sports underdog’s greatest hits? I don’t know but the word upset originates from a 1919 thoroughbred race that saw Man o’ War lose his only race at the hands of an equine named Upset. In boxing, where all it takes is one good punch, the sport has produced some grand underdog stories like Leon Spinks/Ali, Douglas/Tyson, and Foreman/Moorer. Then there’s the average Joes versus Pros in 1980, when the United States college kids beat the USSR on the way to winning the Olympic Gold Medal. There has been a surprising amount of double-digit favorites in Super Bowls that have succumbed to Cinderella and I have seen mostly all. Even the Yankees once lost a World Series to an inferior Pittsburgh Pirates team in 1960, so I’m told.
On the flip side, there are a few things nobody ever saw: Rocky Marciano or Floyd Mayweather get beaten in the ring; there have been seven undefeated NCAA Basketball Champions while college football has had many more; Secretariat lose; or the 1972 Miami Dolphins fall to an opponent. One more thing rarely seen was the post-game presser and the humility shown by Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who expounded and praised what the opponent did correctly rather than look for blame on his side. The NCAA Tournament opening round is more like a prizefight when David plays Goliath–we’ve seen it time and again where the underdog is usually over-matched midway through the second half and collapses from thinner talent. What we saw for the first time ever was a perfect storm that allowed the mighty to be felled with one stone thrown by a#16.
Asking UMBC to repeat the script five more times to win the NCAA Championship is like me winning Powerball but hey, you never know because if you live long enough you’ll see it happen.