What makes March so incredibly special? It has the power to take a team from a school we've never heard of and make it incredibly special.
This March's No. 1 "Who the heck is that?" school was 16-seed UMCB ... no, wait, sorry, UMBC: University of Maryland, Baltimore County. A name so long it has a comma in it. Its mascot? The Retrievers. Aw, that's cute. Its coach? Ryan Odom. Hey ... Odom ... how do we know that name? Its biggest star was a guy we saw briefly on our timelines, knocking down the shot that won the America East title that got UCBM ... er, UMBC ... into the Big Dance.
When said sacrificial lamb took the court against Virginia in its NCAA opener Friday night, none of that felt like it really mattered. The Retrievers were footnotes. The kids in black and gold were just going to play their game, get a few cute mentions on social media, take their lumps from the No. 1 team in the land and go back home to Baltimore, right? Wrong.
It all mattered. By the time they were done, UMBC wasn't just on America's radar, it became America's team. Its Twitter account went from 5,000 followers to 100,000. Its players wore special shoes sent by Steph Curry. The Retrievers went from the NCAA's most anonymous bunch to living out scenes straight out of "Hard Day's Night."
So, how it did go down? How did they feel as it happened? Here's a timeline of tales told from inside the 72-hour Rise of the Retrievers.
Before tip against Virginia
K.J. Maura has a tattoo on his arm, a pair of angel wings with initials inked in between. They're in honor of a sister he can barely remember.
Maura was 3 when his sister, Gina, died, but she is with him in spirit.
"She's my guardian angel," Maura said.
And as fate would have it, Friday was Gina's birthday. So a few hours before tipoff of the biggest game of Maura's life, he met with his father, Melvin, and the two prayed. They asked Gina to look out for her brother. They wished her a happy birthday.
A few hours later, Maura delivered a birthday gift -- a historic win that, the way he sees it, came with a touch of divine intervention.
Max Portmann waded through a sea of reporters crowding the UMBC locker room in the wake of the Retrievers' historic upset of No. 1 Virginia, stretching a glowing cell phone out to show his teammates.
"Steph Curry just mentioned us," he said.
On Instagram, the Golden State Warriors' superstar guard had posted a photo of UMBC's celebration.
Four hours earlier, the locker room had been bereft of media, the No. 16 seed had been a national afterthought and the notion that one of the NBA's most recognizable stars would be rooting for UMBC might've seemed absurd.
Now, it was all happening.
Portmann and his teammates had developed an intricate series of bench celebrations gleaned from the video game "Fortnite." Now the creators of the game were hyping UMBC, and legendary gamer Ninja was hinting he might attend the Retrievers' next game.
Carmelo Anthony, a Baltimore native, texted assistant coach Eric Skeeters to offer congratulations, and Skeeters showed the text to the rest of the team.
Hundreds of other texts and tweets and Instagram posts flooded across phone screens in the locker room, and if the magnitude of what UMBC had done wasn't clear by the score flickering across the video boards after the final buzzer, all this attention on social media provided an emphatic reminder: The Retrievers were famous.
Two days later, a package arrived from Curry. He had sent shoes -- his new, unreleased, Under Armour sneakers -- for each of the players to wear in their game against Kansas State.
"It's like Christmas in March (Madness)," UMBC's Twitter account noted.
Portmann slumped in his chair, still weary from a night with little sleep, reliving the excitement for a horde of reporters who crowded UMBC's locker room.
"What did you think about the team's Twitter account?" one media member asked Portmann.
To be sure, the Retrievers are a social-media-savvy group, and Portmann beamed at the question. While UMBC's on-court heroes made history in the win over Virginia, the man behind its Twitter account provided the hilarious narration of each step toward immortality.
"It was great," Portmann said. "I got to talk to him after the game. He was all worked up. The guy with the beard? I can't remember his name."
His name is Zach Seidel, a UMBC graduate and superfan with a biting sense of humor, a shaggy beard and a newfound celebrity for his work from his laptop during Friday's win.
It started with a jab at CBS reporter Seth Davis, who had boastfully called the game for Virginia before the opening tip. From there, Seidel delivered one punch line after another, while UMBC's Twitter following ballooned from 5,000 to more than 40,000 over the course of just a few hours.
"My TweetDeck broke, like, eight times," Seidel said. "I had to recharge my phone right before the end. But I wanted to have fun with the moment and have people realize we're a fun school."
As much as fans connected with Jairus Lyles' intensity or Maura's David vs. Goliath storyline or the bench celebrations that followed each big shot Friday, it was Seidel's work on a keyboard that offered perhaps the most insight into the real personality of the Retrievers.
They were, in a word, fun.
When the run ended on Sunday with a loss to Kansas State, Seidel stood quietly in the UMBC locker room with his back to the wall, taking in the final moments this team would all be together. A student assistant stopped and patted him on the shoulder.
"You're a legend at school now," the assistant said.
A reporter swooped in a moment later, shaking Seidel's hand, not to ask a question but to offer some praise.
"I'm a huge fan," the reporter said.
A bus packed with UMBC students honked the horn and started heading south, making the 434-mile trip from southwestern Baltimore to Charlotte, North Carolina. It's the second official university bus to roll out, the first having departed Saturday evening. This group includes members of the women's lacrosse team. On Saturday afternoon, the team defeated the Longwood Lancers in a nail-biter 13-10 on the road. Then, it motored back to Baltimore, eager to return in time to join the pilgrimage south. Wherever the players went, they quickly realized that wearing a Retrievers logo after the Virginia game was a much different experience than it ever was before.
"Yesterday, when we went to Panera Bread before our game, there were people taking pictures of our bus," recalled sophomore midfielder Zoe Perkins, to the laughter of her teammates. "I know some people's friends have been wearing UMBC stuff. And when people ask, 'Oh, do you go there?' I bet they say yes when, like, they really don't."
A group of gold-and-black-clad fans approached the ticket sellers lined up along 5th Street across from Charlotte's Spectrum Center. It was a family of four -- the McIntyres -- and dad and daughter are both UMBC alums. They had decided just this morning to skip church and make the same seven-hour drive from Maryland to North Carolina as the student buses. When they stopped at a Cracker Barrel somewhere near Petersburg, Virginia, they were stunned when they walked into the dining room and counted at least a dozen other people dressed in the same colors.
"Honestly," the daughter admitted, "we don't ever see a dozen UMBC fans gathered anywhere unless we're actually at a game."
They ended up buying four lower-level seats online for $95 each. Good move. The guys on the corner were nearly out of inventory. "We knew we were gonna have a good day because UNC is in the first game," explained one curbside entrepreneur. "But I have no idea how many Retriever grads there are, but I think all drove down here today."
The path traveled by the McIntyres and the lacrosse team -- Interstate 95 and I-85 South -- are two of America's most miserable ribbons of roadway. Not this weekend. Those climbing out of their vehicles on Sunday afternoon in Charlotte were sharing smiles and stories gathered along those highways ... even if some of the people along their route weren't quite as happy. The people of Virginia.
The number of Virginia drivers flipping off our UMBC bus is so entertaining!— Cory Bosco (@CoryBosco) March 18, 2018
As Texas A&M pounded North Carolina on the floor behind them, members of the UMBC Down and Dirty Dog Band were putting on their game faces. Literally. Student director and tuba player Joe Skowronski held a paper plate palette with his left hand while he slathered thick coats of black and gold onto the face of fellow senior Alexander Jones, a trumpet player.
"This whole weekend has been incredible," Jones explained as he awaited the final thumbs-up of approval from Skowronski. "But yeah, we weren't expecting to be here this long. Have you read the reports about the UMBC band members who ran out of underwear? Yeah, that's me. I did run out of underwear. But it was worth it."
As the brass men slipped behind a black curtain to warm up with their bandmates -- they did so with Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4" -- the furriest member of their group emerged. True Grit is the UMBC mascot and is performed by alum Cara Jaye. Drumsticks in hand -- that's right, she plays -- Jaye proudly showed off her new T-shirt, the same one the actual Retrievers were about to wear during pregame warm-ups. Across the front it read, "Unleash Chaos" while the back said, "Shock the World," both printed in an unmissable bright yellow.
"Is this the biggest event I've ever performed as True Grit? Are you kidding?" Jaye said, scoffing. "Before this were in the soccer Final Four in Cary, North Carolina, four years ago. So yeah, this is big."
Almost as big as the piece of her costume she was about to adorn. But first, she repeated the same lesson taught repeatedly this weekend by Academic All-American guard Joe Sherburne.
"True Grit is a Chesapeake Bay retriever, and he's brown. He is not a golden retriever. I love golden retrievers. But I am not one."
She pulled on the enormous dog head and strutted away toward the court.
"Sorry -- gotta go to work."
There wasn't a seat to be had at the Sports Zone. This was one of three "watch party" sites at the Commons on the UMBC campus. There were people in the back, forced to stand just to get a glimpse of the big-screen television.
They cheered with every turnover and basket.
UMBC had gone from a chess school to a basketball school overnight.
Ronny Meghairouni had been to only one UMBC game, but he was the most vocal of the 200-plus crammed into the room. The Catonsville High senior is set to attend UMBC next season and said he'll be in attendance for far more than just one game. There were plenty of others in the room who had never been to a game but were swept up in "Retriever Fever" and were enjoying the ride.
But there were a few die-hards in the room, those who didn't just jump on the bandwagon after the Vermont win in the America East tourney or following the victory over Virginia.
Tola Abu attended every game.
"The school's known as academics," he said. "And the chess team."
Andrew Moore -- a super-senior, as he called himself (a fifth-year) -- said everything changed after the shocker against the Cavaliers. Moore even bought UMBC gear at the bookstore for the first time in his five years on campus. When he went bar-hopping in Annapolis for St. Patrick's Day with his UMBC bandana, there was no shortage of comments.
"I felt like a celebrity," he said.
Eight-year-old Lucille Hardesty trying to rally the troops here at UMBC. pic.twitter.com/mlzb3aqtwM— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) March 19, 2018
41 seconds remaining against Kansas State
Down 50-41, the realization that the game was over began to wash over the faces of the five Retrievers on the floor. They wouldn't even make eye contact, especially Maura and Lyles, who had drifted back toward midcourt together, hands on hips.
Maura turned and looked toward the crowd to his right. The half-filled arena of fans and alums who drove down over the weekend was still cheering, breaking out into an almost desperate version of the Baltimore Orioles' "Oh-o-o-o-oh-oh!" chant from "Seven Nation Army." But the section at which Maura is looking is totally silent. This is where the families of the players and coaching staff are seated. Dave and Lynn Odom have their eyes locked in on their son across the court, both smiling.
Seated in the row in front of the Odoms are the Mauras. They are easy to spot in their bejeweled "KJ The Playmaker" hats and shirts, customized all the way down to "Playmaker's Dad" or "Playmaker's Sister." K.J.'s dad, Melvin, celebrated big moments by holding up an enormous Fathead of his boy's face. It totally blocked the Odoms' view. They didn't care.
It had become custom during the season for K.J. to fire an imaginary arrow at Melvin during games to illustrate the connection between them. When it became difficult for the Mauras to travel to Baltimore from their home in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for games, especially after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, that imaginary arrow shot became even more important. So K.J. started sharing it with the UMBC fans during every game.
Now, though, the kid didn't shoot any arrows. He didn't point. He didn't smile. He looked over his family and mouthed one word -- "Sorry" -- just as he and the other four starters are checked out of the game to begin an emotional conga line of hugs and tears on the UMBC bench.
"It is OK!" his father yells back in Spanish. "It is OK! You have done so much!"
Ryan Odom does the same thing at the end of each season, but this was different.
One by one, he sought out each of UMBC's seniors moments after their careers ended. For some, their basketball careers would be over. For others, such as Maura and Lyles, the hope was for a deal overseas. But the point was this group wouldn't be together again, and Odom wanted them to know what they'd meant to this program, meant to him. Perhaps more importantly in this moment, what they'd meant to so many people outside those doors, people who'd never heard of UMBC just two days earlier.
"What I think about is the kids being told, 'You can't do this or you can't do that,'" Odom said. "Whether it's in sports or outside sports. What our kids accomplished should be a lesson to everybody that, yeah, you can do it."
The Retrievers connected with people because of who they were, Odom told his guys, not just what they did. In the lead-up to tip, he had preached the same two philosophies: effort and connection. Work hard, stay close. That resonated well beyond the court.
"I got a lot of messages from little kids," said the diminutive Maura. "They said I gave them strength and hope to follow their dreams. That makes my heart warm."
The locker room was quiet, a far cry from Friday's hysteria. The weight of the loss to Kansas State, at least for the moment, overshadowed the history UMBC had made. But freshman Brandon Horvath was eager to lighten the mood.
"We're going to be on the ESPYS," he said.
This brought a rumble of enthusiasm from a few players sitting nearby, but fellow freshman Daniel Akin was puzzled.
Akin is from England. After Friday's miracle, he compared UMBC's win to Leicester City winning the Premier League. But there were still aspects of American sports culture he didn't quite grasp.
"What are the ESPYS?" he inquired.
"It's like the Oscars and the Grammys combined," Horvath said. "But about sports."
After the media filtered out of the UMBC locker room, things were quiet. There was little sense that this team had done the impossible just two days earlier. For 48 hours, they were America's team, as sophomore forward Nolan Gerrity said. Now, America had moved on, and after two days of celebrity and attention and the kind of madness found only in March, there was still regret.
In time, Arkel Lamar said, he would remember all this fondly. Right now, though, he wished he hadn't hurt his arm midway through the loss to Kansas State, wished he could've done more, wished a few more shots had fallen.
Down the road -- a week, a month, 20 years -- this weekend will be a story they'll tell their kids about, Gerrity said, and it will have a happy ending despite the loss to the Wildcats.
For now though, there wasn't a celebration. There was anguish. It wasn't a story of history made, but the burden of what might've been if they'd just hit a few more shots.
Before the game, Gerrity had gotten a tweet from a fan who said he expected UMBC to get blown out by Kansas State. That's just what happens in a situation like this.
"My answer was, no, not at all," Gerrity said. "We weren't here to take part. We were here to take over. We weren't just happy to be here. We were here to compete."
It's spring break, so the welcoming party on the UMBC campus is fairly small. 20 or so diehard Retriever fans.
They sat and waited, about 20 of them. They wanted to see the program that pulled off the greatest upset in the history of college basketball -- maybe all of sports -- but they also wanted the players to see them.
"They made history," senior Talan Bevan said. "They deserve it."
"I love this team and this school," added Corey Johns, who graduated in 2011 and said he has watched every game over the past decade. "They've given me so much joy and sorrow. I wanted to be here to show my support."
UMBC team returns to campus after making history.
The UMBC bus, led by a police escort, pulled into the circle that provides an official entrance to the campus. The group, primarily students, started to yell and cheer as the players, one by one, got off the bus.
"We love you K.J.," they yelled when they saw Maura's face.
Finally, the new golden boy, Odom, emerged into the dimly lit area behind the old arena. He immediately walked over to the group and thanked them for their support.
One yelled, "Coach of the year." Odom responded, in his modest manner: "Players of the year."
Then he went to his car with a smile, eager to see the one family member who had no idea what he had just accomplished: his dog, Bear.
"He loves me no matter what," Odom joked.
So does everyone else these days.