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How UMBC captured our hearts in a brief Cinderella run for the ages

The Retrievers were the perfect tournament sweethearts for this moment.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Kansas State vs UMBC Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The UMBC Retrievers will not win college basketball’s national title in 2018, but they gave us more in one NCAA tournament weekend than most programs will in a lifetime.

The unusual flicker of hope that they might make a run was extinguished Sunday when they lost, 50-43, in the tourney’s round of 32. But short of the team that cuts down the nets in San Antonio at the end of the Final Four, it’s unlikely anyone will have won more this tournament than UMBC. The Retrievers didn’t just become the answer to a trivia question this weekend. They became something meaningful for many thousands of people.

UMBC did something that doesn’t happen.

There are two ways to think about a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. The first is to assume one will never win, because, in isolation, none ever should. Every one of them is so badly outmatched, and every tournament game is so pivotal, that it should never happen. When UMBC took the court on Friday night against Virginia, the 16s’ all-time record against the 1s was 0-135. The average margin was 24.7 points. In 1989, two 16s lost by just one point, but they were exceptional. Just 15 of 135 had kept it within single digits.

UMBC wasn’t the first to prove Goliaths could fall in the round of 64. The Harvard women’s team showed that when it trucked No. 1 Stanford in 1998. I don’t think most people thought it was impossible, but lots of us didn’t think we’d see it in our lifetimes, either again or for the first time. A No. 1 falling in the first round of the men’s tournament was the last unconquered frontier of major American sports upsets until UMBC beat down the door.

The score was 74-54. The margin of victory added to the shock, but so did the manner of it all. Tony Bennett’s Virginia is the best defensive program in this era of college basketball. Bennett’s pack-line scheme, where five players form a sort of elastic netting around the rim and one of them always chases the ball, has flummoxed elite opponent after elite opponent. The Retrievers had by far the best shooting game any team had against it all season, and they also scored the most points — six more than the next-closest team.

The Retrievers were the first No. 16 to beat a No. 1. They won’t be the last, but nobody will ever deliver such a comprehensive destruction in that situation ever again.

UMBC was a Cinderella for the digital age.

The Retrievers’ athletic department Twitter account had something like 5,000 followers at lunchtime on Friday. It had nearly 110,000 at midnight after Sunday. The sports internet is a vast expanse, and UMBC had 48 hours of unparalleled fame that we’ll never forget. (By “we,” I’m talking about all of us, because if you’re reading this, you’re on the sports internet.)

UMBC’s Twitter account is good. Every college team of every size has one, but UMBC’s was edgy without being annoying, personable without being petty, and snarky without being mean. The internet is now the public square where people enjoy sports together, and it’s never more bustling than during big events like the Super Bowl and the tournament.

UMBC owned it during the Virginia upset, with hits like this:

And this:

And this:

One of the coolest things about UMBC’s internet fame during this run was that it wasn’t the result of hours and hours of high-level planning. It happened because one guy, a UMBC alum who now does media work for the school, thought it would be fun.

“I didn’t really have a plan,” the Twitter account’s manager that night, Zach Seidel, told SB Nation in an interview after the game.

“I oversee social media, but I’m always doing something. For home games, we do ESPN3 broadcasts. I’m usually in the truck running the replay, or the broadcast stuff. But if I’m around, I’ll help. My boss yesterday, he said, ‘Hey, can you run social media? There’s going to be a lot of media requests today.’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll do it.’”

Thanks to Twitter, people didn’t need cable TV to meet the Retrievers during their biggest moment. UMBC is a small school, and maybe you hadn’t heard of it until the weekend. But the school’s people were as excited to meet us as we were to meet them. The famed account sent tweets urging regular, non-basketball-playing high school students to apply to college there, and some surely will. UMBC will get more than some old-fashioned internet fun out of this weekend. It will probably get a few newly bred Retrievers.

UMBC was whatever you wanted it to be.

At their best, sports help people make connections. Few people actually play on teams or work for them, but our lives get better when we feel an attachment to something special, and if that happens on a court or a field, then all the better. UMBC was special because it did the undoable and made all of us feel like we were a part of it.

I went to the University of Maryland — not Baltimore County, just the regular UMD, as people called it. While I watched UMBC shatter Virginia into a million pieces, I spent more time than I should admit here considering how plausible it would be for me to claim some kind of affiliation with UMBC, because I went to school in the same university system. My friend whose last name is Lyles half-jokingly wanted to claim UMBC guard Jairus Lyles as a cousin, because it filled him with pride watching Jairus drop 28 on Virginia.

Maybe you didn’t have an angle that specific. Maybe you went to a branch campus of some bigger, more famous school and thought it was cool to see a lesser-known acronym make it on college basketball’s biggest stage. Maybe you just identify with the underdog. Maybe you think retrievers are cute dogs. Maybe you’re a longtime UMBC fan, though the odds of that aren’t great in this public forum. Maybe you were at a bar watching the game and used UMBC’s incredible second half to have more fun with your friends.

No matter your story, you could have fun with UMBC. If you wanted to, you could take inspiration and joy in the wild feat they pulled off. You could get behind them.

In 15 years, if you want to know who won the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, you’ll have to Google it. But everyone who watched it will remember UMBC forever.