CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There it was. A buzzer-beating shot from a UMBC player. It perfectly imperfectly rolled and bounced around the rim and finally fell through just as the backboard behind it lit up bright red. The final points of the game coming from the most unlikely possible source. It was a moment perfectly befitting of the team and the uniform of the kid who knocked it down.
But it was meaningless. At least, it was to the rest of us. So many people in so many corners of the world wanted that shot to be for the win. They wanted the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the school they had to Google when the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament started four days earlier, the first 16-seed to defeat a 1-seed, the one with the friendliest possible mascot, a gosh darn Retriever -- they all wanted that team to keep playing.
To this team, however, it wasn't a wasted basket. Even if all it did was cut the final margin of loss to seven points, 50-43. Even if it was the final field goal scored of a magical season that had suddenly ended Sunday, a loss to Kansas State that prevented this March's most scintillating Cinderella from reaching the Sweet 16.
"Rogers, we all saw that Rogers. Bring it in," his teammates said.
Amid the devastatingly quiet of UMBC's locker room, the kind of silence that only comes after tournament-terminating defeats, the Retrievers visited the locker of the man who'd made that meaningless shot, one by one. Isaiah Rogers had just scored the first and likely last two points of his collegiate career. One year ago, back when so few living outside of Baltimore knew what a UMBC was, Rogers was the team manager. This season he made the roster, but never played.
He dutifully sat at the end of the bench for all the moments, good and bad, all season long. From the 83-39 loss at Albany on Jan. 21 all the way through his team's Friday night victory over Virginia, the nation's No. 1 team, in a beatdown that often felt as out of hand as the Albany game.
"That's the mark of a great team, a real team," that team's leader, head coach Ryan Odom, said when told of the whispered congrats. "Before everything these guys do, we put our hands into the circle and we say the same thing. 'We do things together, for one another.' That's how this group does everything. Even when it loses. Especially when it loses. I expect nothing less from those guys."
No one knew what to expect when the Retrievers arrived in Charlotte last week, earning their trip to the NCAA tournament by way of a real buzzer-beater to snap a 23-game losing streak against America East rival Vermont in the America East conference title game. After they crushed the Cavaliers in their tourney opener, it was Odom and his team that didn't know what to expect.
They became Twitter darlings. They spent Saturday fulfilling an endless list of media requests. They even had fellow Under Armour client Steph Curry release a special shoe for them to wear in their matchup with K-State, a game that Turner Sports and the NCAA selected to air nationally in prime time. Retrievers gear sold out and the university website was crashed under the weight of all the traffic suddenly pouring into its servers.
"You go from the Vermont game to coming here for the NCAAs to becoming the first 16-seed to win to celebrities tagging you in posts, all in like 24 hours," Jairus Lyles explained. It was his shot that sunk Vermont and his 28 points that crushed Virginia. "We were never overwhelmed. We worked hard to enjoy it. But when it was time to play ball, we had to be ready to play ball."
Sunday night they looked ready. They certainly didn't look rattled. No one expected UMBC to shoot like it did during the historic 53-point second-half performance against Virginia, a performance that Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber described after watching the game film as "one of those magical nights when even the goofy shots you take during warmups are falling in."
This night was not that night. There hadn't been on those nights in the 135 games prior and there might not be another one of those nights again. But concerns about an emotional letdown after their launch into fame were silenced when the Retrievers rolled out to a 10-2 lead in the game's opening minutes. They soon surrendered that lead and trailed at the half, 25-20 after shooting only 29 percent from the field.
To spark their second-half rally on Friday night, UMBC had been forced to create their own motivational fuel, a 16-seed playing in a half-empty arena slanted heavily in their opponent's favor. On Sunday night, no such manufacturing was needed. An entire half of the building roared with every field goal, all 14 of them, and groaned with every miss, all 34 of those.
There was a lot of groaning.
"We just didn't hit our shots," confessed guard K.J. Maura, who also committed seven of the team's 17 turnovers. Maura scored 10 points. Not bad. But Lyles scored only 12, a brutal 4-of-15 from the field. The team also missed half of its free throws, 9-of-18. "We hit them early, just like we left off. But then it went cold and stayed cold. "
The final great moment of this greatly regarded underdog was the perfect metaphor for the night. Having cut the Wildcats' lead to three, UMBC lost the handle on the ball trying to set up a potential game-tying shot. One two three times the ball was saved from crossing midcourt and becoming yet another turnover. Up from an on-the-floor scrum, Lyles emerged near midcourt and drove hard up the lane. The black-and-gold crowd rose and the volume in the Spectrum Center rose with them.
But inches from the rim the ball hit the hand of a defender and Lyles hit the floor with a thud.
Kansas State answered with a jumper and then an exclamation-point dunk. The lead went to seven with 41 seconds remaining and the shoulders of the roster drooped in unison. Maura, standing at midcourt, refused to make eye contact with his teammates, trying to avoid the helplessness of the moment, and instead turned toward the now-quiet UMBC half of the arena. To his friends and family he mouthed one word.
There's no reason for Maura or anyone else on his team to feel sorry. Sunday night was their last game together, but certainly not the last time we will see the 2017-18 UMBC Retrievers. They stole the show of the opening weekend and they will most certainly steal the show when TBS rolls out its "One Shining Moment" highlight package two weeks from now.
And anytime any team has even the slightest chance to pull off a college basketball upset -- really, any sports upset -- from now until forever, the images of (16) UMBC 74, (1) Virginia 54 from March 16, 2018, will be dusted off and fired back up.
"I don't really want to think about legacy right now because I am still hurting from what just happened," Odom continued. "But whenever anyone tells anyone else, 'Hey, you can't do that,' I think you can point to the UMBC Retrievers and say without a doubt, 'Actually, you know what? I can.'"