If the impossible was ever going to become possible, it was going to happen against a team like Virginia. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County didn’t pull off the greatest upset in college basketball history just by playing the most perfect game a 16-seed has ever played against a one-seed (though they did that too). They pulled it off because Tony Bennett’s Virginia teams have always been uniquely constructed to suffer these kinds of choke jobs.
“Defense wins championships” is a true cliche as long as your defense isn’t slow as hell, and that’s always been Virginia’s problem. They don’t have a way to recover from their mistakes, which is fatal in the tournament. The Cavaliers’ tempo is the slowest in college basketball, and it’s not even close. Usually, fewer possessions means that a bad Virginia game is something like an atrocious 49-37 win. On Friday, it meant that when they slipped and fell, getting behind by double digits in the second half, they had no way to pull themselves back up. Here is a particularly bad example of how not to respond to an incredible underdog draining a crowd-pleasing three.
Virginia had 62 possessions in this game, slightly above their season average of 60.6. (For comparison, Xavier, a team that had a brief scare against a 16-seed Friday before going on a 21-2 run in the first half, had 81 possessions in its game.) That meant a 21-21 first half wasn’t out of the ordinary for the Cavs, but it also meant that when UMBC scored on six of its first seven possessions of the second half to take a 38-24 lead, there was no blueprint for a quick comeback. Virginia responded to the run by continuing to take their time and miss their threes, and all of a sudden the clock said 5:00 and they were still down by 14.
It’s true that this Virginia system worked all year, and in years before—Virginia hadn’t given up 74 points in a regulation game since February 2016—so UMBC had to do something unique to break it down. They made 12-of-24 threes against the typically frustrating pack-line defense, while UVA only went 4-of-22 against guys who wouldn’t have been more than walk-ons at ACC schools. But unlike any other top seed, UVA couldn’t paper over its flaws or capitalize on UMBC’s 12 turnovers with a quick momentum-swinging explosion of talent.
Virginia is made to slowly drain the life from a team, but when that team resists, there is no way for the Cavs to quickly knock them down. UVA couldn’t spark a comeback because they didn’t even bother to bring a match.