These NCAA Tourney teams come from nowhere to steal our hearts
It may be one of the most fitting acronyms ever coined in the history of sports.
Last season, as the University of Maryland-Baltimore County men’s basketball team was beating Virginia to become the first No. 16 seed ever to defeat a No. 1 seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament, one of the TV announcers noted that UMBC must have stood for “U Must Be Cinderella.”
Yes, the Retrievers were truly the definition of Cinderella, a squad that comes from nowhere to steal the show at the ball. And in some ways, that is what March Madness has evolved into—a yearly debutante’s ball of teams from schools we’ve never heard of or teams we don’t expect who play their way into our hearts forever by besting some of college basketball’s wicked stepmothers.
As the regular season has become more and more a mere prelude to the tournament and the tournament more and more geared towards the Power 5 conferences, the greatest storylines to watch for each year are the Cinderellas that are sure to emerge and play deep into March.
The UMBC team of coach Ryan Odom, the son of former UVA assistant and Wake Forest head coach Dave Odom, wasn’t supposed to dance for long. It was supposed to be the sacrificial lamb to overall top seed Virginia, which most certainly was already making plans for its second-round game considering that, going into the 2017-18 tourney, the all-time record for No. 1 seeds was 132-0.
But somebody forgot to tell the Retrievers, who not only bested the Cavaliers, they bludgeoned them 74-54 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Led by grad student guard Jairus Lyles, who scored 23 of his game-high 28 in the second half, UMBC turned a 21-all game at halftime into a rout by outscoring UVA 53-33 in the final 20 minutes.
After Sherburne zipped a 3 for the first points of the second half in the first minute, it was never in doubt. But then it was never in doubt in the minds of the Retrievers anyway.
“I think we had the confidence coming into the game,” Lyles said. “I don’t think there was a point…we thought we couldn’t play with them.”
Their dance didn’t last long, as Kansas State shattered their glass basketball sneaker 50-43 in the next round. But that one twirl around the floor was oh so sweet.
“These guys love to play this game; this game means a lot to them,” Odom said. “It was just a special, special effort.”
Since the tourney’s inception in 1939, there have been dozens of these special moments and special teams that, in many cases, are remembered more than the squad that went on to win it all in a particular year. What follows are brief looks at five more of our all-time favorite Cinderellas:
BUTLER BULLDOGS (2010 and 2011)
It seems only fitting that the team that plays in Hinkle Fieldhouse—where they filmed the ultimate basketball Cinderella movie Hoosiers—leads off this listing.
Led by coach Brad Stevens, All-American boy Gordon Hayward, Sheldon Mack and others, the Bulldogs made it to the NCAA Final for two years straight, taking out the likes of Syracuse, Kansas State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Florida along the way.
Starting as a fifth seed in 2010, they made it all the way to the title game in Indianapolis before losing 61-59 to Duke after a Hayward desperation heave from halfcourt banged off the front of the rim at the buzzer. Then as a No. 8 seed the next year they made a return trip to the title game before falling to Connecticut 51-43 in Houston.
Since then the deepest the Bulldogs have gone was to the Sweet 16 in 2016, and they will be playing in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) this year. But for many, if you ask them to name an NCAA Tourney Cinderella, Butler is the name that will coming rolling off their tongue first.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE WOLFPACK (1983)
Jim Valvano’s Wolfpack squad may be the most well-known Cinderella after beating Houston 54-52 in great part because of the countless TV replays of Valvano scrambling around the court looking for someone to hug in the aftermath.
Replayed almost as much over the years is Lorenzo Charles’ dunk of a well-short Dereck Whittenburg shot at the buzzer that gave N.C. State a 54-52 win over one of the best college basketball teams of all time, Houston’s “Phi Slamma Jamma” of Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and others.
A great ESPN 30 for 30 called “Survive and Advance” details Valvano’s cardiac kids, who faced elimination at some point late in eight of the nine games it took to win the title, starting with the ACC Tournament in the Omni in Atlanta, Georgia. To win the ACC, the Wolfpack downed Wake Forest 71-70, beat North Carolina in overtime 91-84, and downed Virginia 81-78 in the final.
In the NCAA Tourney, which had expanded to 52 teams with four play-in games that season, sixth-seeded N.C. State had to go two overtimes to beat Pepperdine 69-67, beat UNLV 71-70, had its only real breather against Utah 75-56, beat UVA again 63-62, squeezed by Georgia 67-60 in the semifinal and then stunned Houston.
The legend of the the 1983 Wolfpack triumph also grew because of the loss of Valvano to glandular cancer in 1983 and the subsequent growth of the V Foundation.
VILLANOVA WILDCATS (1985)
Nobody gave Rollie Massimino’s Wildcats a chance to beat John Thompson’s big, bad Georgetown Hoyas in the 1985 final, the last final ever held on a campus site in Kentucky’s Rupp Arena. But win they did 66-64 in a contest Sports Illustrated labeled “The Perfect Game.”
Georgetown was the defending national champ, having defeated Houston and Olajuwon in the Kingdome in Seattle, Washington, in 1984. The Hoyas were 35-2 coming in, the tourney’s overall No. 1 seed and had one of college hoop’s toughest coaches in Thompson. They also had senior center Patrick Ewing and a roster noted for its toughness from top to bottom as well.
The Wildcats were the 8th seed in the Southeast Region, had lost to Georgetown twice that season, and had gotten blown out of the Big East Conference Tournament in the second round by St. John’s. They also had fate on their side.
In the first year the tournament expanded to 64 teams, Vegas made Villanova an eight-point underdog in the final. But seniors Ed Pinckney and Dwayne McClain and junior Harold Pressley remained completely calm and in control throughout, working the ball and working it until they had the highest percentage shot they could find.
As a result, the Wildcats hit 22 of 28 shots for an incredible 79 percent from the field, went 22 of 27 from the free-throw line (82 percent), and held Ewing to 14 points and 5 rebounds as they won their first-ever title.
It was a case of crazy 8s for Villanova, which became the lowest seed ever to win the tournament. Also, the minus 8 line made it the second biggest upset against the points spread in championship game history. The game was also notable as it was the first time that three teams—Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s of the Big East—from one conference made it to the Final Four in the same year. And it was the last NCAA game ever played without a shot clock.
Most of all it was notable for the improbability of it all.
“No one thought they could do it,” Massimino told a reporter immediately following his team’s historical win, “but I did, and they did.”
JACKSONVILLE DOLPHINS (1970)
This one may have a few folks shaking their heads in wonder, but a quick look at the Dolphins’ run in the 1970 tourney will confirm that they certainly belong here.
Led by 7-foot-2 center Artis Gilmore and his 26.5 ppg and 22.2 rebounds per game averages, the Dolphins, who played as an independent in those days, rolled through the 25-team tournament (for some reason the East Regional had seven teams instead of six and an extra first-round game) to meet mighty UCLA in the championship game.
Along the way, they beat Western Kentucky 109-106, Iona 104-103, Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats 106-100 and St. Bonaventure 91-83 in the national semifinal. Then it was John Wooden, the “Wizard of Westwood,” and a Bruins squad that featured five double-digit scorers, including Sidney Wicks, who averaged 18.6 ppg and 11.9 rpg.
Under Wooden, the Bruins won 10 titles in a span of 12 years from 1964 to 1975 and seven in a row. This was the fourth of those seven straight. UCLA was definitely the basketball establishment.
Jacksonville under Joe Williams was a true outsider at the time. They wore bell-bottom pants, had no curfew, even painted green-and-gold stripes on their shoes when they found out the national championship game could be seen on color TV. They also had long hair and…gasp…dunked in warmups at a time when dunking was not allowed by the NCAA.
Yes, they were flamboyant, they had a frontline of Gilmore, Pembrooke Burrows (7’0”) and Rod McIntyre (6’10”) that averaged 7 feet, and they were good. Even after coming up short to UCLA 80-69 in the Final held at College Park, Maryland, they still finished the year 27-2.
Some have speculated that in that era, the interloper was never going to be allowed to win the title, and it’s a subject for an interesting debate. There is no debate, however, that this team is one of the true Cinderellas in NCAA Tourney history.
IDAHO STATE BENGALS (1977)
The Los Angeles Times headline read , “Big Sky falls on Bruins” and it certainly seemed like the end of the world to UCLA fans when the Bruins, under second-year head coach Gene Bartow, were ousted from the 1977 tourney in the Sweet Sixteen by Idaho State.
The reference was to the Bengals’ affiliation with the Big Sky Conference, but the bigger picture was that the two free throws by freshman guard Ernie Wheeler in the final 51 seconds that sealed a 76-75 Idaho State win also signaled the beginning of the end of UCLA’s college basketball dominance.
That team had eight players—including Wooden Award winner Marques Johnson—who were drafted in the NBA. They had come into the tourney ranked No. 2 in the country. They were favored by 14. They were supposed to win.
The Bengals had 7’0” center Steve Hayes, who finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds and went on to an NBA career, Jeff Cook, a 6’10” post player who also played 10 years in the NBA and a cast good enough to send shockwaves through the UCLA program.
After the loss, Bartow moved on to the upstart UAB basketball program, a parade of head coaches followed and UCLA would not win another national title until 1995.
“The whole team was confident we could play with them and beat them,” Hayes said. “We were nervous. We were Idaho State and they were UCLA. We were excited to play against them. After the first few minutes of getting out on the court, we realized we could compete with them and we started settling down quite a bit. I remember (coach Jim) Killingsworth emphasizing that we could beat them. He prepared us for their game plan.”
Going in though, the only ones who probably believed in the impossible were Killingsworth, the Bengals themselves, and Cook’s mother, who is said to have stopped in Las Vegas on here way from California to the game in Provo, Utah, and placed an even money bet on the Bengals.
Their run ended with an Elite Eight loss to UNLV, but the payout was definitely still sweet. H&A
Other teams that deserve a passing nod in this category include:
The 1983 Georgia Bulldogs, who made their only Final Four appearance in school history;
The 2006 George Mason Patriots, who made their only Final Four appearance before falling to Florida;
The 2011 Virginia Commonwealth Rams, the only team to make it from the First Four to the Final Four before losing to Butler in the national semifinal;
The 2018 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, who came into the tournament an 11th seed and, cheered on by Sister Jean, rambled back to the Final Four for the first time since winning the championship 1963.
Latest posts by Jimmy Creed (see all)
- How will Auburn, Texas Tech fare in their first waltz? - April 2, 2019
- So long to another NASCAR tradition - March 29, 2019
- We call them Cinderellas - March 20, 2019