Majoring in financial economics, Joe Sherburne understood the significance of the staggering numbers involved when his University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC) basketball team was shocking the world in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on March 16. 1 vs. 16. 135-0.
As the lead kept growing for the Retrievers as they pulled off the upset of top-ranked Virginia, Sherburne was well aware that something special was happening.
“I don’t even remember what the coach was saying,” said Sherburne, who attended St. Monica’s in Whitefish Bay through eighth grade. “I just think I knew we were up 10, up 15. I was so in my head about the score. I couldn’t focus on the plays he drew up.”
Not only did UMBC become the first 16 seed to ever knock off a No. 1 seed, the Retrievers beat the team that had been ranked No. 1 in the nation for most of the last couple of months before the tournament began. And it wasn’t even close.
The Retrievers outscored the Cavaliers 53-33 in the second half to score the shocking 74-54 victory. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 135 teams had attempted to defeat a No. 1 seed. And all 135 came up short.
Until last month.
Sherburne, a junior who scored 14 points in the upset, will return to UMBC for one more season.
“I don’t think you can top it,” he said. “Even if you can’t, the feeling of winning a conference championship is incredible. That was the main goal. Winning the (Virginia) game was the extra piece.”
Sherburne ended up at UMBC because of his play in a showcase tournament in New Hampshire while attending a prep school the year after he graduated from Whitefish Bay High School. He said he played really well in that two-day event and UMBC offered him a scholarship.
The Retrievers, who finished 25-11, really turned their season around on Feb. 21, when they defeated Albany 68-60 after trailing by nine points at halftime. On Jan. 21, Albany had defeated UMBC 83-39. From that point on, UMBC won six of their next seven games before bowing out of the NCAA Tournament with a 50-43 loss to Kansas State.
When they won the America East Conference tournament, some of Sherburne’s teammates thought they could have been seeded 14th or 15th, but Sherburne ended up being right when he told them he thought they would be a 16.
When UMBC saw the opponent on the bracket, it was, “Three seconds of Oh My Gosh. No matter who we drew, it was going to be really hard. It just so happened they were called Virginia.”
However, they went into the game believing they had a chance. Since the tournament expanded to 68 teams earlier this decade, there are now six No. 16 seeds and four of those play in First Four games to get a shot at a No. 1 seed. UMBC wasn’t one of those four, so Sherburne said it felt like they were actually a 15 seed.
“A 15 had won before,” he said.
Plus, he knew their style of play could work against the deliberate, defensive-minded Cavaliers.
“We knew we needed to make a lot of 3’s,” Sherburne said. “They do a good job of not letting you in the paint. We knew they were a low-scoring team. I certainly didn’t expect it to be a blowout.”
Following the game, Sherburne said his team didn’t arrive back to their hotel until around 2 a.m., and they ended up sleeping until about noon. They didn’t turn their focus to Kansas State until around 4 p.m. the next day, waiting for tape.
“We were able to take in the moment,” Sherburne said. “We were told to stay off our phones — nobody did.”
He said he received 100s of messages via text, Instagram and Facebook in the hours and days following the monumental game.
However, when the team arrived back home after the loss to Kansas State, they weren’t exactly hailed as conquering heroes. Because their fans who were at the game were flying commercial (the team flew on a charter) and the school had started Spring Break. There were only about 20 people and some local media to greet them.
However, there was a celebration event in their arena and Sherburne said members of the team signed autographs for more than an hour.
Other than that, his life hasn’t changed that much.
“I still had a lot of schoolwork to make up over Spring Break,” he said.