It was a go from the minute I knew we'd be in Charlotte.
I'm sure you've gathered by now: I'm a UMBC alumnus. But as a matter of context, not credentialing, I'm going to do something I don't often do: Lay all of my bona fides on the line. I attended UMBC from 1999-2003. I played four years in the pep band, attending virtually every basketball game, including those over break I had to drive back down from home in Delaware for. I'm married to a UMBC alumna. The processional at our wedding was Our UMBC, the alma mater, despite it having come into being after we both had graduated. I serve on the pep band alumni board of directors, and continue to give back to my alma mater. If I'm not mistaken, I've attended every postseason trip of any of our programs to North Carolina: men's lacrosse at Carolina, baseball at Wake Forest, men's soccer at Wake and again in the College Cup, and our previous NCAA men's basketball tournament trip in 2008. You could say I'm bought in.
UMBC has no Wal-Mart t-shirt fans. No one - until perhaps last weekend - picks up UMBC apparel because it's the cool thing to do. We're "An Honors University in Maryland" - a nerd school outside of Baltimore that objectively sits next-tier-down from the flagship in a state system in terms of resources and notoriety. So if I see someone in a UMBC shirt or hat, I know, whether you're an alumnus, current student, family member, or employee, we share some piece of a common experience.
Last weekend's experience is undoubtedly the best live sporting event of my life, and shy a championship, it may very well go unmatched. But one of the things that I saw bring so many people I know together had nothing to do with basketball. It wasn't a shared love of UMBC basketball, but in it the crystallization of a shared love of UMBC.
I'd be lying in your face if I told you I expected this to happen. A tweet (that full disclosure, I briefly considered deleting) shortly after the selection read,
Don't think I don't know UVA is a march to the scaffold. But I intend to raise some hell in the Queen City on the way there. And it only takes one... #RetrieverNation
Some have asked when I knew a victory was assured, and it's tough to say. I specifically recall noting the start of the "fourth quarter" - the 10 minute mark in the second half - and feeling confident in our 16 point lead. At that point, a loss would have been a choke job on our part, which seems counterintuitive of a 16 seed playing a 1. But I've also spent a lifetime as a Philly sports fan, so I'm not willing to acknowledge a sure thing until it is indeed that.
The overwhelming feeling of that weekend, particularly that night, is one of pride. Pride in my university, pride in the men who took the court, pride in my pep band, who held their own against a pair of Power 5 programs with marching bands to pull from, pride in the UMBC faithful who were there in Charlotte and the many more who experienced it in a variety of other ways. I'm also humbled by the fact that for so many folks, I was the one who you thought of when you thought of UMBC, and the one who got the call, the text, or the wall post.
My voice still has not fully recovered from last weekend. I shouted chanted, and barked more than was healthy. A friend commented that she could hear me on her TV and was legitimately unsure if she meant figuratively or literally. I sang the fight song and alma mater more than I ever did as a student - the former because I was typically playing it, and the latter because it didn't yet exist. While a trip to the second weekend would have been sweet (pun fully intended), no one can take Friday night away from us.
I can fully acknowledge that in a lot of ways, sports are frivolous, but they have a power to galvanize like no other. While the basketball team was an inextricable part of my college career, there were many others for whom it was not who were still brought together by this experience. Make no mistake - we're proud of our talented alumni, our brief but important history, our exceptional president, but this experience was unlike any other. Sure, the visibility provides a certain external validation that doesn't always come from the mainstream with other accomplishments, and I think having everyone else see the amazing university we already knew is part of it. But there's a way that one's alma mater - that our alma mater - is tied into our sense of self that makes this victory on the court all of ours.
The four letters on my shirt have always meant a lot to me, but only in the past week have others began to take note. I've always rocked UMBC gear, but now it's getting comments. Visitors to my office take note of the degree that hangs over my left shoulder and mention the game. The cynic in me mentally notes that I've been wearing this same gear for nearly two decades and the institution didn't get exponentially better because of the singular accomplishment of our team, but I can't sit here and act as though it meant nothing when I experienced firsthand how it made me feel.
"Shock and awe in college basketball! UMBC makes history in Charlotte!"
Those words, spoken by Bill Raftery on the TNT broadcast of UMBC's historic victory over #1 overall seed Virginia, may go down in NCAA Tournament lore.
UMBC's journey to the highest of highs began two weeks ago with a victory over Vermont in the America East conference championship. In case you've forgotten:
I watched on an otherwise unremarkable Saturday afternoon with admittedly few expectations. A friend messaged me after Jairus Lyles' game winning not-quite-buzzer-beater fell and our dance card was punched. A decade prior, I watched UMBC win at home in the conference final to secure the first trip; this victory came on the road as the #2 seed against a team that has bested us the 23 previous outs.
Because I already had another reason to familiarize myself with first round tournament sites, I knew that there was a site that would be most advantageous for me: Charlotte. UMBC's postseason history in North Carolina has been strong across sports, and sure enough, Charlotte it was. My attendance from the moment they announced it on Selection Sunday was never in question.
I made the trip down to Charlotte on Friday afternoon, and headed to a pregame social at the team hotel. I made a mutually beneficial agreement with a then-stranger, now-friend fellow alumnus: He was in from Atlanta; his hotel was adjacent to the arena and came with parking. I'd give him a ride back uptown after the social, and park in his designated spot. Works for me. I met Jeremy at the social, and got to catch a few more familiar faces: Nancy, my Director of Residential Life from my undergraduate days who is now the Vice President for Student Affairs; Cara, our mascot emerita who worked this game who I had the pleasure of meeting a few years back at Spirit Groups Alumni Day; Talmesha, a dance team contemporary of mine who now coaches her former squad; and of course our esteemed president, Dr. Hrabowski. I also got to see quite a few other alumni, employees, family members, and fans, and the current iteration of the Down and Dirty Dawg Band.
My usual predilection towards seeing games and bands gave way to the intent to be all in for my team. The pregame social and team sendoff lasted into the first game of the session (Kansas State vs. Creighton) but I didn't mind. After we saw the team and spirit groups off, we headed uptown to the arena, where I caught some of the second half of that game (and gave y'all a little #bracketbands) before the good guys took the court. Thanks to a bit of wheeling and dealing by our Director of Alumni Relations, I got to sit with Jeremy rather than in the solo seat I had purchased from StubHub, so I had someone with whom to share history.
The first half was a low scoring back-and-forth; by the under-12 timeout, both teams were still in single digits, and the first half ended tied at 21. While there was still a half of basketball still to be played, this didn't feel bad, as a fan of the team who by all intents and purposes should have been getting their teeth kicked in.
UMBC's defense stayed tight as the offense heated up in the second half. By the under-16 timeout, UMBC led by 11, and would never hold a smaller lead the remainder of the game. It was at about that point that the win probability flipped in UMBC's favor as well, though I've spent enough years rooting for losing programs that I wouldn't have believed it if you told me. It started to feel real around the "fourth quarter" - 10 minutes remaining in the game. By that point, UMBC led 47-31 with no signs of letting up. Everyone not clad in orange and blue was rooting for history by then, and the Carolina fans who had moved down to enjoy the game with us pointed out, accurately, that UVA wasn't built to come back from a deficit. UVA's deficit would never again fall within a dozen, and UMBC would go on to win by 20.
At some point late in the second, the students, who like us were in the arena's upper deck, saw a victory at hand and made their way down to the lower level to prepare to celebrate. After the game went final, the pep band pivoted deftly from the fight song and alma mater into All I Do Is Win and an all out party. An unnavigable crowd at the escalators led us to enjoy the celebration mostly from the upper deck, eventually making it down below before being politely but firmly ushered out by arena staff.
I should mention that from the point of inevitability on, my text and social media blew the hell up. My affinity for UMBC is pretty well documented, and everything from congratulations to wellness checks came my way. I assured folks I was, indeed, still alive, and went live on Facebook from outside the arena. A crowd stuck around for some live video from the local news.
I'll remind you that this was the session's late game, so it was pushing midnight at this point, but I was nowhere near sleep. Several of us kept the party going at World of Beer in the Epicentre, reflecting on the day and cheering at the SportsCenter highlights on the bar TVs before calling it a night, and my departure back up to Greensboro. I wasn't the only one who had to make a change in plans - after all, 135 previous attempts would have told us not to plan for a repeat performance as a 16 seed.
I actually had a work obligation on the Saturday that followed, and despite finally getting into bed around 4:30am, I was still plenty energetic by the next day, though I crashed hard Saturday night. Sunday's game was at 7:45, so I had a good deal of family time, including a hike, prior to heading back south to Charlotte. I ended up paying more than face value for Sunday's ticket, due largely to UNC playing but certainly at least in part to interest in lightning striking twice for UMBC. I made my way down to Charlotte just in time to see disappointed Carolina fans streaming out of the Spectrum Center, having just witnessed a drubbing at the hands of Texas A&M.
From a fan perspective, we were playing with house money by the game against K-State. A win here and a Sweet 16 berth would have been icing on the cake, but at the same time, we just knocked off #1; who should we fear? After nearly 48 hours of press, one thing was for sure: We wouldn't have the element of surprise on our side.
UMBC once again got after it defensively, though shots didn't fall as they did on Friday night. To our players' credit, they shot with no memory, but despite being in it all game long, the clock ultimately struck midnight on our Cinderella run as the Retrievers fell, 50-43. The pep band got out the fight song and alma mater before yielding to the victors, and the team got nothing but congratulations from the whole arena, As it had two nights prior, the night once again ended at World of Beer before hopping on I-85 northbound with nothing but pride in the alma mater.
In my first (technically second, I suppose) post from my weekend at the NCAA Tournament, I had to at least give a nod to #bracketbands. While my fanhood and my hobby are closely linked, there come times where content has to take a back seat to being in the moment, and with my team playing, this was one of those times. I do have a few observations from the games I caught though.
Friday night's first game pitted Creighton against Kansas State. K-State was perhaps the team in my session I was most excited about seeing, as their marching contingent totes a Sudler Trophy. They're also the band besides my own that I got to see twice. They did not disappoint.
My seat for Friday night put me kind of above Creighton's band (UMBC's too, in the second game) so they were playing with their back to me. My biggest gripe with them was that it felt as though they rushed everything they played.
I had seen UVA just a couple of weeks prior in Greensboro for the Women's ACC Tournament. They're good at what they do, though they're a bit buttoned up. They play Party Like a Rock Star that has some choreo where the members literally look like they're just going through the motions. Still their sound is great, and they may have brought all brass with them to Charlotte.
And then, there was UMBC. I'll first acknowledge that I am thoroughly, completely, and unabashedly biased, having spent four years in the band and knowing them in and out, even when I don't know the individuals. My alumni giving tends to go straight to them, I know all of the traditions, and began what has since flourished into an excellent drumline at a school with no marching band. So with all caveats on the table, we (yes, WE) killed it. I got to see The Down and Dirty Dawg Band coming and going - from the pregame social through the postgame victory lap on Friday, and again on Sunday. DDDB plays point guard for Retriever Nation's spirit. Faces are painted, bandanas are donned, and hell is raised every time they step into the arena. The book is deep, and still contains some pieces from when I was in the band, though they've evolved quite a bit. The drumline is a welcome addition, and does its own features that give the band an element that's less common in a pep band setting. And like our basketball team, they held their own. Sunday's game had me in the upper level, right around midcourt, giving me a pretty even perspective of UMBC and K-State's bands, and the Dawgs matched up favorably. With the unexpected extended stay, they even got to participate in Charlotte's St. Patrick's Day Parade.
On Sunday, unfortunately traffic to Charlotte meant I missed the first game of the session - UNC vs. Texas A&M - entirely. I saw a pep-band-plus-sized contingent of the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band in Charlotte less than three months ago at the Fan Fest before the Belk Bowl, and Carolina's practically kin round here. Still, while I caught some bracket bands action, this was one of the times it took a back seat.
Those of you who follow on social media already know at least parts of this story. I'm fresh off of a glorious weekend embedded in Upset City, capital of Retriever Nation. With all due respect to my annual #BracketBands, which got some love, I went experience over content and enjoyed the thrill ride. I'll share the experience here in due time, but as a placeholder, my postgame ramblings, recorded live outside the Spectrum Center in Charlotte:
With the ACC Women's Basketball Tournament returning to Greensboro after a year away, I treated myself to a Fat Friday at the league quarterfinals. I maintain that eight bands, teams, and fanbases in about eight net hours is one of the best experiences in all of sports.
I won't rehash the entire tournament for you; you can get a pretty solid feel via Twitter or Instagram, or #bracketbands on either platform. But a few highlights:
-I went back through the ACC Hall of Champions for the first time in a while, and the first time with the current conference lineup.
-Speaking of the lineup, seeing Louisville fans here in Greensboro just fit. I'm not a fan of all that realignment hath wrought, but that one seems right from all sides.
-Miami's high flying lead trumpet seems to have graduated, or at least not made the trip for the women's tourney.
-While each band brought something to the table, FSU's Seminole Sound in the nightcap was the champ.
Thanks to a local deal, I got back in for the Saturday semifinals with the family, so I got to reprise a few of the bands I got to see.
Lucky for me (and you!) the live Bracket Bands fun doesn't stop! With UMBC headed to Charlotte for the NCAA Tournament, I'll be live from Session 2 on Friday night. I'll catch UMBC, UVA, Creighton, and Kansas State. UMBC, of course, I know intimately; UVA I just saw here in Greensboro. Creighton made the trip to Greensboro a few years back when we hosted, but I didn't get to see their pep band. And I'm looking forward to K-State as the pep band peeloff of a Sudler Trophy winner.
My #bracketbands stance has long been that March Madness begins with the conference tournaments, but all of us - especially those of us in one bid leagues - yearn for the Big Dance.
The fun began a week ago, as UNCG punched its ticket to the tournament, avenging last year's conference championship game loss to East Tennessee State to become the SoCon champions. The better part of the next week was hope and holding pattern as we waited to see where the Spartans, who hadn't seen the tournament since 2001, would be headed. Luckily, I had something to occupy my time.
The next night, I tuned in live from the brand new UMBC Event Center to see the Retrievers take on Hartford for a berth in the America East title game. The Dawgs won themselves a trip to Vermont to take on the #1 seed - and perennially problematic for the good guys - Catamounts this past Saturday. Saturday was admittedly a bit of a bonus for me - I was not without hope, but history hadn't been kind to the Retrievers at UVM. The game was competitive throughout, and I had reason to believe victory was within grasp. And then:
I had about 28 hours to wait until the selection show. I took an educated guess that UNCG wouldn't end up in Charlotte, but UMBC very well could. Sure enough, they called our name - the 16 matched up against overall #1 Virginia. Historically, the odds are impossible, but I'll take it. Moreover, I'll take it in live on Friday night.
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I can't ignore my other alma mater, though I won't know their fate for another hour. USF took the best-available slot in the American Athletic Conference women's basketball tournament - you only play for second place when you share a conference with UConn, and is headed to the dance as well. ESPN's bracketology currently has the Bulls as a 5 seed, coming to Raleigh in NC State's pod (which'll make for a packed weekend), though a 4 seed isn't out of reach.