UMBC is the Greatest Thing That Ever Happened to Me

Friday, March 17th, 1989. I was just a kid, and while I was already a sports geek of the highest order, this was the first year where I really grasped the majesty of March Madness and the NCAA tournament.

I don't remember if I was an upset connoisseur yet — I probably was, being a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan living in the increasingly desolate rust belt city of Akron, Ohio — but I was glued to ESPN, who had wall-to-wall coverage of the first round of the NCAA at the time, barring a couple late night games on CBS.

For their 7:00 window that night, they curiously chose Princeton vs. Georgetown as their main coverage game. Princeton was the 16th seed, Georgetown the 1st. It was likely to be a blowout.

Of course, it wasn't. You can read more about it here, but the title of that piece, "The Game That Saved March Madness," is no understatement. It captivated so many of us across the country, and it no less than changed my perception of sports.

Princeton drove Georgetown nuts with their backdoor cuts, stingy defense, and slow-as-molasses pace. They led most of the game. They fell in the end, 50-49.

I quite literally spent much of my ensuing teenage years chasing the Cinderella rush Princeton/Georgetown gave me.

A fledgling sports channel called SportsChannel (it later morphed into what is now FOX Sports) had the national rights to UNLV games around this time. Back then, UNLV was in the Big West conference and was a national power. Think of Gonzaga vis-a-vis the West Coast Conference today.

While my friends were watching games like Duke vs. North Carolina, I was watching, say, UNLV vs. UC Santa Barbara. I just wanted to see that upset again, that upset Princeton all but gave me (it had the unintended side effect of making a UNLV fan when they went against other heavies, because I knew them so well).

Almost every game, UNLV pounded their opponents to dust. Sometimes, thrillingly, the games would be close. Very occasionally, UNLV would even lose. Names long forgotten by everyone except for lifelong UNLV fans still roll off my tongue so easily. Dedan Thomas. Lawrence Thomas. Sunshine Smith.

I have said many, many times in this space that upsets are my favorite part of sports and why I am a sports fan. That Princeton/Georgetown game was, if not the origin of that sentiment, the ultimate nurturer of it.

The game had a name of sorts: 16 vs. 1. The 64-team team tournament was broken down into four brackets with four No. 1s, four No. 16s, and four of every number in between that remains, basically, the same format we use today. It's a format that goes back to 1985.

My love and my hunt for upsets was now firmly established, and 16 over 1 became my white whale. It was the unachievable, as close as Princeton and others had come.

Before Princeton/Georgetown, 19 No. 16 seeds had tried to win, and failed.

After Princeton/Georgetown, the next 115 No. 16 seeds had tried to win, and failed.

The 116th attempt after Princeton/Georgetown, and 136th overall, was No. 16 seed UMBC vs. No. 1 Virginia.

When Princeton played Georgetown, I had just turned 13.

When UMBC played Virginia, I had just turned 42. I'm older than all active NBA players.

I wasn't sure it was going to happen in my lifetime. It did. For this, I am grateful.

Thank you, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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