Tar Heels stunned, inspired by UMBC’s first round upset of Virginia

While its ACC rival became the first top-seed ever to lose to a 16th seed in the NCAA tourney, UNC extended its streak of first round wins to 15 under coach Roy Williams

UMBC players celebrate their historic upset of Virginia on Friday as Cavaliers' star Kyle Guy bends over in dejection (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

CHARLOTTE — Today is St. Patrick’s Day.

But when Roy Williams took a break from scouting his team’s next opponent to check the score of Virginia’s NCAA tournament opener against UMBC on Friday, he could have sworn it as a different holiday.

“I kept thinking it was April Fools’ Day or something,” the North Carolina coach said. “I didn’t know what the crap was going on.”  

Like so many others around the country, Williams assumed that UVA would eventually settle down and win the game, just as every other No. 1 seed in tournament history had in the first round against 16th-seeded foes.

So despite the game being tied at halftime, he decided to step away and turn his attention back to preparing his Tar Heels for Sunday’s second round matchup against Texas A&M at Spectrum Center. Game time is 5:15 p.m.

“I said, ‘Guys, I’m not watching this. I’m going back to my room and watch Texas A&M and Providence,’” Williams said, referring to the Aggies’ first round victory earlier in the day in Charlotte. “There’s no way (the upset) is going to happen.”

He was wrong, of course.

UMBC scored more points in the second half against the Cavaliers than the ACC regular season and tournament champions allowed in 16 entire games on its way to pulling off the greatest upset in NCAA history.

And possibly all of sports, at least since the 1980 Olympic Miracle on Ice.

It was an incredible outcome that sent shockwaves throughout the nation, but no more so than in the UNC locker room — where the Tar Heels watched in stunned disbelief as an unheralded team from the America East Conference dominated a UVA squad that dominated the nation’s best league like few others have before.

“It just goes to show that when you have guys that stay around for a long time, no matter what the program, you learn more about the program and what everybody should be doing,” senior guard Joel Berry said. “All the guys know each other and just have that chemistry.”

Although Berry’s teammate Theo Pinson started out pulling for Virginia because of his allegiance to the ACC, he — like so many others both in the arena and watching on television — couldn’t help but get caught in the moment and ended up cheering for UMBC.

Even as the Retrievers started building their lead into double digits, most of the Tar Heels believed UVA would eventually come back, survive and advance. It wasn’t until UMBC’s Arkel Lamar hit a 3-pointer from the deep corner instead of pulling the ball out and running clock with about 3½ minutes to go that Pinson finally came to the realization that the upset was going to happen.

Now that a 16 has finally beaten a one, the senior guard said Friday’s result will serve as a cautionary tale for all future tops seeds.

“It was something you’ll never forget,” Pinson said. “Credit to them. They made every shot the needed. I’m sure (UVA) was kind of shook up a little bit and you could tell. But it was a great win by UMBC.”

That historic upset and another the night before in which fourth-seeded Arizona was beaten by No. 13 Buffalo adds even more luster to UNC’s already impressive run of early tournament success under Williams.

The Tar Heels have won 15 straight first round games under Williams. His all-time record in NCAA openers dating back to his previous tenure at Kansas is a perfect 28-0.

It’s a mark that was noted in a graphic during the CBS broadcast of Friday’s UMBC-UVA game.

“That’s special,” Berry said. “When they popped up the stat of him going 28-0, coach — you know how he is — yelled out ‘thank you.’ That’s because he never takes the credit. He thanks his players for coming here and dedicating themselves to wanting to win. But it has a lot to do with him, as well.”

Williams said that besides having talented players, the key to avoiding first round upsets has been his philosophy of not letting his team get caught up in tournament brackets and potential matchups that might never happen.

“We always try to just talk about playing one game, just one game,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “I’ve never spoken to our guys about, ‘OK, we’re a two seed and they’re a 15 seed.’ I’ve always said the better seed we get, the better chance we have of continuing.

“I really try not to get caught up in any records or anything like that, but last night when I was the thing up on the TV, that’s something I’ve been very proud of. It’s a pretty good streak (and) we kept it going.”