Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 18, 2018

Of Fairy Tales, Wildcats, And Retrievers

Though it gained prominence thanks to the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century and was popularized for modern audiences by Walt Disney in the middle of the 20th, versions of the Cinderella story have appeared in cultures around the globe since at least the 1st century BC. Things work out for the title character in all those many accounts, for the folk tale is one of unjust oppression eventually overcome by a glorious reward. The story ends differently for the bracket-busting underdogs of March, the little teams that come out of nowhere to take down prohibitive favorites. For every basketball Cinderella, the clock always strikes midnight and the golden carriage always turns back into a pumpkin.

Villanova fans will argue that the fairy tale came true in 1985, when the Wildcats took down the Southeast Region’s 1st, 2nd, and 5th seeds to advance to the Final Four in Lexington, Kentucky. On the tournament’s final weekend at Rupp Arena, Villanova first beat Memphis State, the 2nd seed out of the Midwest Region to set up a battle for the title with Big East rival Georgetown, the defending champion and that year’s overall top seed.

The 1985 Final is remembered as one of the greatest in the history of March Madness. Both teams shot better than fifty percent from the field, but both also employed patient offenses in the final season before the shot clock became part of the college game. Villanova ended the first half with the last successful use of the four corners offense, running nearly two minutes off the clock before Harold Pressley canned a jumper to put the Wildcats up by one at the intermission, 29-28.

The Hoyas reclaimed the lead on a basket by Patrick Ewing the open the second half, but Villanova gradually pulled ahead, twice opening a five point advantage as play continued. Georgetown called time with six minutes to play and trailing 53-48, then answered with six straight points when the action resumed. At 54-53, the Hoyas had the lead for the final time that night. Harold Jensen put Villanova back on top at the 2:37 mark with the Wildcats’ last field goal attempt of the game. The Hoyas were forced to foul, and while the Villanova players were far from perfect at the charity stripe, they kept converting the front ends of one-and-one opportunities. It was good enough to push the lead to 59-52 with a minute and a half to play, then 66-62 with just ten seconds to go. A final basket by Georgetown’s Michael Jackson cut the lead to two, but Villanova was able to convert the inbounds pass and hold the ball as time expired.

While the win by the Wildcats is the greatest upset in Finals history, it is also a reminder of the impossible road that a true Cinderella team would have to travel for the slipper to finally fit. Villanova was the 8th seed in the Southeast Region in 1985. That team remains the lowest seed ever to win a national title, and the only number eight to survive to the championship game, but in the first year of the sixty-four team field the Wildcats were still in the top half of the draw. Before starting their string of upsets, they began regional play as the favorite over number nine Dayton.

Villanova also had the good fortune to have a familiar opponent in the title game. As fellow members of the Big East, the Hoyas and Wildcats had already played each other twice during the conference’s regular season. As glorious and improbable as the win by coach Rollie Massimino’s team was, it wasn’t quite the old March Madness fairy tale coming true.

Since that 1985 expansion to sixty-four teams, just five teams from the bottom half of the bracket have made it to the Final Four – #9 Wichita State in 2013, #10 Syracuse in 2016, and three eleven seeds, LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006, and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011. All five lost their national semifinal game. Another thirteen would-be Cinderella squads have advanced to Sunday of the tournament’s second weekend, losing as one of the Elite Eight. This year is unlikely to be any different.

But before order is restored, fans have witnessed the moment in the national spotlight of some thoroughly unexpected entrants, including, at long last, the most improbable would-be Cinderella of all. Nine of the thirty-two first round contests resulted in upsets. While three of those were nominal, a nine seed beating an eight, there were also first round victories by a ten seed, a pair of elevens, a thirteen, and, of course, the game that will forever compete with that ’85 Final as the biggest upset in tournament history.

As this is written three of those upset winners have already been bounced from the field in second round play. But the two eleven seeds have both advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. The selection committee was criticized for making Syracuse the last team in the field at the expense of USC. But the Orange have vindicated the committee by beating TCU 57-52 on Friday and then holding off Michigan State 55-53 Sunday afternoon. Even more remarkable has been the run of Loyola of Chicago. The Jesuit school has actually won a title – all the way back in 1963. Nothing so remarkable was expected of this year’s squad, in the field with an automatic bid as champions of the Missouri Valley Conference. But with Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, their 98-year-old team chaplain cheering them on, the Ramblers took out #6 Miami 64-62 on a buzzer-beater in the first round, then beat #3 Tennessee 63-62 on Saturday.

But those exploits pale next to the first round victory by the University of Maryland – Baltimore County. The UMBC Retrievers, champions of the America East Conference, didn’t just draw the short straw with a #16 seed. They were placed in the South Region, meaning their opponent was Virginia, the overall top seed in this year’s bracket.

As even casual fans know, a #16 has never beaten a #1. Not once in 135 previous matchups. Never. Ever. Until now. Friday evening, in Charlotte’s Spectrum Center, the Retrievers claimed a spot in the history book of sports alongside the 1968-69 New York Jets and the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team. UMBC didn’t simply beat UVA, the Retrievers crushed the Cavaliers. The teams were knotted at 21-all at the intermission. Then UMBC started running and shooting. The Retrievers finished the night 12 of 24 from beyond the arc and shot sixty-eight percent from the field in the second half. Virginia is built on defense, with an offensive pace that is, at best, ponderous. As UMBC took the lead and sped up the game, Virginia simply couldn’t keep up. In the end the Retrievers scored 53 points in the second half alone against a team that yielded an average of just 54 points per game. The final score was 74-54, a rout.

By the time many readers finish that last paragraph, UMBC may well have exited the tournament. The Retrievers play Kansas State on Sunday evening, and history suggests that well before the Madness moves to its final weekend in San Antonio, time will have run out for the Retrievers, and all the other would-be Cinderella teams as well. But on the UMBC campus this weekend an electronic billboard displayed the simple message: “Number one seeds: 135-1. We’re the 1.” That sure sounds like a fairy tale come true.


  1. Congrats to UMBC. I hope they have some game left in them for the sequel to the Cinderella story of their tournament.

    • The Retrievers may no longer be dancing Allan, but those young men will always be part of NCAA history. Thanks as always,

      Michael Cornelius

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