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2019 Men's NCAA Tournament

A year later, UMBC upset played a part in Virginia’s championship run

UMBC president: ‘It’s inspiring what Virginia has done’

A few hours before the men’s NCAA basketball championship game won by Virginia over Texas Tech in overtime, Freeman Hrabowski reflected on a year of great memories.

This time last year, Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was basking in the glow of history.

The 16th-seeded Retrievers upset top-seeded Virginia, the first time in tournament history that a 16-seed defeated a No. 1 seed.

This season, Virginia reached the Final Four. I asked Hrabowski if he thought the stinging upset helped catapult Virginia to Monday’s national championship game.

“I can’t speak for them,” he said. “What I can tell you about is life. When human beings are knocked down, they have a chance of either staying down or they get back up and they’re even stronger than before. On my campus, the word is grit.”

He added: “It’s inspiring what Virginia has done. They showed us what human beings do when they have that grit. You work to be your best.”

In the aftermath of that victory, some UMBC fans believed the victory would open new vistas and the Retrievers would become a perennial mid-major power. “Some people wanted us to try to become big-time in basketball,” Hrabowski said. “That’s just not who we are. We want to be the best we can at our level. For us it has been a year of saying, ‘This is who we are. We want to be the best but have balanced athletics.’ When you don’t have billions of dollars in your endowment, you set priorities in a different direction.”

This season, UMBC finished third in the America East tournament standings and lost to Vermont in the conference tournament championship game.

Virginia, meanwhile, soared all the way to the national championship game.

The impact of last year’s loss had a totally different impact on the Cavaliers program. With a hefty budget and grand expectations, the loss to UMBC was a shock and an embarrassment to the school, one that could only be lived down by a trip to the national championship game.

On Sunday, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said the loss to UMBC had him looking for answers in the Bible. “There’s a Scripture verse that says, ‘Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have, but do it with gentleness and respect.‘ When you’re put in a spot like that, it makes you rely upon what matters. Sometimes when you get knocked down, you find out how real that is.”

The loss to UMBC “did draw us nearer to each other as a team,” he said. “I think it helped us as coaches. I think it helped the players on the court and helped us in the other areas that rely on things that were significant.”

Was this March Madness run karma?

“I knew it was going to be a significant year in all of our lives,” Bennett said. “I knew that going into this year because of what was coming at us, because of that from a basketball standpoint. So I just knew we needed each other.

For UMBC, last year’s victory was a crowning success that will last for seasons to come. For Virginia, the humbling loss set the tone for this year’s championship run.

Bennett said: “Everything was pretty intentional about this year and how we’re going. You say what a difference a year makes. I didn’t, but I knew it was going to be a really important marked year for all of us in our lives, and it’s certainly playing out that way.”

UMBC may never come close to the success it enjoyed last year in making basketball history.

That’s OK with Hrabowski. His mission was accomplished.

“We have been delighted that people have continued to remember our success and that people talk about the UMBC story,” he said.

“That’s the story of the underdog. That’s the story that sometimes people who are not expected to win can rise above all those expectations and excel.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.