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The secret to beating UMBC? Don't be No. 1 Virginia

The secret to beating UMBC? Don't be No. 1 Virginia

The huge underdog Retrievers became the first No. 16 seed to win an NCAA Tournament game on Friday, two months after UAlbany beat them by 44
The secret to beating UMBC? Don't be No. 1 Virginia
On Jan. 21, the University at Albany destroyed UMBC, which on Friday as a 16-seed beat No. 1 Virginia.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

It’s St. Patrick’s Day weekend, so there are more than a few booming headaches around here.

UAlbany men’s basketball coach Will Brown has one of them.

But it has nothing to do with green beer.

“I’ve seen that tweet so many times now, I’m getting a headache,” he said with a chuckle on Saturday morning. “Thanks for the reminder.”

The tweets in question referred to the Great Danes’ 83-39 demolition of America East rival UMBC on Jan. 21. Those messages engaged in a fierce  duel with some variation of “What in the what does UMBC stand for?” for Twitter supremacy after the Retrievers crushed overall No. 1 seed Virginia in the NCAA first round late Friday night.

For one night, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County became the University of My Bracket Crushed; for eternity, UMBC will be the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 after 135 failed tries by other 16s since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

In January, Brown’s UAlbany team, which won 22 games this year but didn’t make it out of the America East tournament quarterfinals, crushed UMBC by 44 points.

Forty.

Four.

Brown is active on Twitter, and mentioned in a tweet after the Retrievers’ ridiculous win over Virginia that his phone was blowing up. Sure enough, the voicemail inbox on his cellphone was full at 10 a.m. on Saturday.

Something isn’t right about this picture:

Virginia had the stingiest defense in the country, having surrendered more than 60 points in a game just eight times in 33 games prior to Friday while amassing a 31-2 record and the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.

Then UMBC, which made it to the tournament by virtue of a huge upset at Vermont in the AE championship game, dropped 74 on the Cavaliers. UMBC scored 39, total, against UAlbany on Jan. 21, which now has become one of the many default points of reference that illustrate the improbability of the Retrievers’ victory.

So, naturally, now everyone wants to know from Brown the “secret” to beating UMBC.

For one thing, the Great Danes held UMBC to 2-for-20 from the 3-point line on Jan. 21. Jairus Lyles, who scored the game-winning 3 with 0.5 seconds left against Vermont to finish with 27 points, and scored 28 against Virginia, was a pedestrian 7-for-13 for 14 points against UAlbany at SEFCU Arena. (The Retrievers came back to beat the Great Danes 68-60 in Baltimore on Feb. 18.)

“At home, I felt like the game was over at halftime,” Brown said, of a 36-12 lead. “We wanted to do a good job on Lyles. That was our No. 1 priority, and a couple other players, we wanted to run them off the 3-point line. They’re dangerous with 3s in transition, so we were committed to [Joe] Sherburne, [Arkel] Lamar and [K.J.] Maura, running them off the 3-point line and daring them to get points at the rim.”

Some of that strategy was rooted in the fact that UMBC is one of the smaller teams in the country, something that Brown believed would be a significant factor against much bigger Virginia.

“I was surprised they beat Vermont, because they had to win up there [Burlington], then they draw Virginia, which, of all the No. 1s, I thought was the worst one to play, because of the way they play defense,” he said. “They’re just a meat grinder.”

UMBC was tied with Virginia at 21-21, then got the early lead in the second half, and, as many observers suspected, the defense-first Cavaliers weren’t built offensively for coming back and closing a deficit.

That’s a distinct difference from the No. 1 seeded Connecticut team that No. 16 UAlbany appeared to have on the ropes in 2006, leading by 12 with less than 12 minutes left in the second half.

UConn went on a tear and won going away 72-59.

“It’s funny, I’m getting asked about that a bunch, too,” Brown said. “We ran out of gas, but it was still tied with about five minutes to go. The difference was they had four or five future pros, at every position, and they were explosive on both sides of the ball. They literally wore us down.

“I knew we were in trouble with 12 minutes left when Jim Calhoun called timeout and started berating his team. They were poised and composed, and we got beat by an unbelievably talented team.”

UMBC’s victory will bring immeasurable benefit to that school, but it should also be a boon to the America East and its other member schools.

“One thing it’ll do is get people intrigued by the conference, especially recruits,” Brown said. “They’re getting all the attention, but also, you look at the America East, and they’re not even the best team in the league.”

So that should temper Brown’s headache.

That doesn’t mean his head -- and everyone else’s -- isn’t still swimming, though.

“Probably like the rest of America, I’m stunned,” he said. “That’s not a knock against UMBC, but just how good Virginia is. They lose one ACC game all year, they win the conference tournament, they’re the No. 1 seed with the best defense. I thought Virgnia would expose them with their size and on the glass.

“I was watching a show two days ago and thinking, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to see a 16 beat a 1 in my lifetime.

“48 hours later ...”

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 395-3148 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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