The greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history had its roots in Columbus. As Ohio State was in Boise, Idaho, preparing to face Gonzaga in a second-round NCAA Tournament game, No. 16 seed UMBC was two time zones away in Charlotte, drubbing No. 1 overall seed Virginia in a shocking, 20-point first-round win.
On the winning bench for the game was UMBC assistant coach Bryce Crawford, a Pickerington Central graduate and four-year Ohio State student manager. In a phone conversation with The Dispatch earlier this week, he said the unprecedented win was the result of outstanding prep work and a mind-set preached by Retrievers coach Ryan Odom.
But it still took some time for the shock to register.
“Somebody asked me, when did you know you won the game? I said the next morning,” Crawford said. “I’m sitting there, we’re up by like 15 at the last media timeout and I was like, what are we going to do? How do we win the game?
“The final seconds, we made a couple threes and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, we might win this game.’ ”
Crawford said UMBC built confidence during the season by playing well in losses to Arizona and SMU, games the Retrievers played without their starting point guard. Their free-flowing style, which is built on keeping the ball “hot” (constantly moving) and predicated on taking the first great shot available, shredded a Virginia team that is still ranked the best nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom.com.
Even with that in mind, No. 16 seeds had lost all 135 matchups against No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament until UMBC came along. Crawford said those types of numbers weren’t discussed in the buildup to the game.
“We never talked about 16 versus 1,” he said. “We talked about winning a game. We talked about what an opportunity it would be to win a game in the tournament. We didn’t really talk about the 16 versus 1, I feel like, until after the fact.”
Then, he said, things got a little crazy.
“I have no friends,” he said. “I had 300 text messages after the game. I can’t imagine what the players did. I didn’t go to bed until 3 a.m. I’m trying to watch film, trying to come down from the moment.”
Like all coaches, Crawford traveled a twisted path to get to his moment in history. After working as a student manager at Ohio State from 2008-11, Crawford was a graduate manager at Charlotte where Odom was an assistant coach under former Ohio State assistant Alan Major. From there, he went to the University of Texas for two years as assistant video coordinator and technical assistant before then spending a year with Odom at Lenior-Rhyne, a Division II school in Hickory, North Carolina.
The starting point was Ohio State, though, and he credited coach Thad Matta along with assistants and staff members including Dave Dickerson, Dan Peters, Kevin Kuwik, Brandon Miller and Major for helping get him started on his path.
“I couldn’t have had a better overall experience at Ohio State,” he said. “It started my foundation of basketball. I feel like I knew some stuff, but being around coach Matta and that staff, he laid my foundation for how it’s supposed to be done.”
Now, Crawford is forever part of history. The Retrievers are a lock to be featured prominently in the annual “One Shining Moment” highlight film covering the entire tournament. Should another 16 seed knock off a No. 1 seed, that team will always be compared to this UMBC team that finished 25-11 and only reached the tournament by knocking off Vermont with a last-second shot in the America East conference tournament championship game.
After squeaking into the tournament, the Retrievers will never be forgotten.
“It’s amazing,” Crawford said. “We can walk into a gym in, Washington state, and they know who the Retrievers are. What a cool thing. It’s not like everybody is going to have a chance to experience something like this. This is not even once in a lifetime. What Loyola’s doing right now is bananas. Bananas. But I feel like UMBC’s deal has been so big that at some levels it’s trumped some of those times.”