On March 16, 2018, UMBC defeated Virginia in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, becoming the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed in men’s tournament history. And with the upset, PressBox’s Sportsperson of the Year was set. This year, PressBox honors two Sportspersons of Year — guard Jairus Lyles and head coach Ryan Odom.
Lyles scored 28 points in the 74-54 win against Virginia, shooting 9-of-11 from the field and 3-of-4 from 3-point range. He also sank the game-winner against Vermont to send the Retrievers to the Tournament.
Glenn Clark talked with Lyles in March shortly after UMBC’s season ended and in November as Lyles pursued his NBA dream with the G League’s Salt Lake City Stars.
Those interviews have been edited for clarity and content.
PressBox: What does it feel like to know that you’ll always be the first No. 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament?
Jairus Lyles: It’s an incredible feeling, a very special feeling knowing that you’ve done something that nobody else has done, that no other team has accomplished. Until it’s done again, it’ll always be that special. … It’s always going to be that historical, that moment that we created.
PB: When the bracket was announced, even though Virginia was the No. 1 overall seed, was there a part of you that felt they might be the best path to allow you to do this?
JL: At first, we were like, “Damn, we got Virginia?” We knew they were the No. 1 defense in the country, so we were like, “It’s going to be a struggle all game.” But it was funny because the day before we even found out who we were going to be playing or what seed we were, we were like, “Watch [us] get Virginia. Watch [us] get Virginia.” So we kind of spoke that into existence, but once we realized who we were playing and got to practice and everything, we were like, “Yeah, we can go in here and we can win this game. We can make history.” And, you know, it happened.
PB: When did you know you were going to pull off the upset against Virginia?
JL: Coming into the game, we all had that confidence, we were all talking about it before the game. As long as we play defense, we know how hard it is for them to score, so as long as we play defense, we’ll have a chance to score because we can score with the best of them in college. We came into the game with that confidence, and I think going into halftime being tied, knowing that we were right there. When we came out for the second half and [UMBC guard Joe Sherburne] went on a [6-0] run by himself and then we were like, “Oh yeah, we got this.” If we keep it close, then I’m going to take over and we’ll win the game. So we had that mindset coming into the game.
PB: For yourself as a great scorer, did the challenge of going against the No. 1 defense get you geared up?
JL: Yeah. I watched a lot of film by myself the night before and a couple of days before just to see how they guard, the spots that we can beat them at, and I sent it to a couple of my guys, so I was studying them a lot. Happily I was successful in getting my shot off and getting other people involved. We did a great job with that.
PB: Coach Odom talked about hearing the crowd go crazy from the locker room when UMBC took the floor for the game against Kansas State in the second round of the Tournament. What was that feeling like?
JL: Even during the Virginia game, the whole crowd was rooting for us. And then once we won that game, coming out to play Kansas State, just the energy that was in the crowd — because people wanted to see another upset, you know? Once you’re an underdog, people want you to succeed no matter who you’re playing. It was a very special moment for me and my teammates and the coaches just to get that welcoming and that energy that came out.
PB: When you came to UMBC, you certainly had a vision of what you wanted to accomplish, but if somebody would have told you then that you’d go from a seven-win season in 2015-16 to not only make the NCAA Tournament but pull off the greatest moment in the history of the NCAA Tournament, what would you have said?
JL: I’d have been like, “Man, you’re crazy.” … But even during that seven-win season, I knew how good we were as a team. I had to sit out that first half [of the season]. We had a lot of young guys in the lineup starting to play, so I knew we were young, inexperienced and we didn’t really have a lot of chemistry. So I knew that next year, no matter what, we were going to be good.
PB: Coach Odom wasn’t the one who recruited you to UMBC. What made that relationship work so well with the two of you?
JL: I just think coming in, you’ve got to buy into what the new coaches want. It’s not only a new situation for the players, but it’s a new situation for the coaches, too. So I wouldn’t say it was just me — it was a team, collective effort, just buying into what Coach wants. That first year, we had a lot of ups and downs, but that next year, just creating a better relationship with Coach Odom …. and the whole coaching staff. The players just followed my lead. It took us a long way.
PB: You were such an integral part of what happened, but in winning a championship and winning a game in the NCAA Tournament, how important was it that everybody was buying into Odom?
JL: You know, everybody has to be bought in for you to win championships and for you to go that far in NCAA basketball, you have to be bought in. We’re a mid-major school, so we don’t have the same talent that a high-major does or those types of schools, so we have to be bought in at every single aspect of the game — not just for practice but off the court, doing school work and getting everything done, making sure you’re not getting in trouble. That plays a long way in getting to where you want to be.
PB: You and Coach Odom have stayed in touch as you’ve gone the pro route. How important is that relationship for you?
JL: You always want to create great relationships with people that you’ve done special things with. Coach Odom’s an important person in UMBC history just like the players are. So you always want to have that relationship with your coach that goes beyond basketball because you always need somebody to lean on and somebody you can talk to about basketball, ups and downs that happen outside of UMBC when you end up graduating and going on to pursue different things.
PB: Have you had a moment where it’s struck you how significant it is to have been the first to accomplish this?
JL: I don’t think I’ve had a moment yet where I just got to appreciate it as much as I should be appreciating it. I just enjoy that it happened and enjoy that I got to be a part of history.
PB: When they make the movie about UMBC’s historic upset, what do you want to make sure they get right?
JL: I just think our togetherness, how connected of a team we were — not just on the court but off the court. There were really no rifts between the team and the coaches. So I think they’ve got to show how connected we were as a team — and how much fun we had. It wasn’t just always business with us. We were a real goofy team. I think they need to show that, too.
PB: Who do you want to play you in the movie?
JL: I would say Michael B. Jordan.
For more Best Of, visit PressBoxOnline.com/BestOf2018/.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of UMBC Athletic Communications
Issue 250: December 2018 / January 2019