A 16-seed in the Sweet 16? UMBC aims to continue its NCAA tournament ride

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Before he had even filtered out of the locker room and onto the team bus, Nolan Gerrity had reached a level of celebrity he had never imagined.

On Instagram, he and his teammates had gotten a shoutout from Stephen Curry.

On Snapchat, videos of Gerrity and his teammates on the bench celebrating each UMBC bucket with increasingly elaborate dance moves made the rounds.

On Twitter, praise came from legendary gamer Ninja, an unparalleled honor because the game Fortnite served as the inspiration for those dance moves.

Then came the call from his mother.

"You didn't even score," Gerrity's mom said, "and you're getting as much attention as [the stars]."

This is the type of history UMBC made Friday. It wasn't just a star turn for the diminutive point guard, K.J. Maura, or leading scorer, Jairus Lyles, or coaching prodigy Ryan Odom. The backups on the bench became overnight celebrities.

During Saturday's media session, UMBC's locker room -- a cramped, spartan space across the hall from where the defending-national-champion North Carolina Tar Heels dressed -- was mobbed with reporters and cameras. Players stood on chairs and tables to create space. Lyles looked around at the chaos and noted that 24 hours earlier that locker room had been nearly empty. No reporters. No interviews. No hype. Just the Retrievers, waiting for their moment.

It came in a flurry of 3s, a stifling defense and a celebration that continued well into Saturday morning.

The Tar Heels, Texas A&M and, of course, UMBC's next opponent, Kansas State, spent much of Saturday talking about the stunning upset the Retrievers pulled off, demolishing No. 1 seed Virginia by 20. On social media, on SportsCenter, in the newspapers and the hotel lobbies and the St. Patrick's Day celebrations happening just outside the arena, the talk was of UMBC.

The team's official Twitter account became a national darling.

Members of the school's chess club -- previously the stars of UMBC sports -- basked in peripheral glow.

Maura's father, Melvin, was a TV star, holding a cardboard cutout of his son's head and a Puerto Rican flag aloft throughout the game.

And those benchwarmers who waved towels and hugged each teammate during timeouts, they got their moment to shine. Their love for Fortnite -- an online game the team started playing together during a road trip to Vermont in early January that quickly became a bonding activity -- earned them legions of new fans, and Gerrity said there were rumblings that the game's creators and perhaps Ninja would make an appearance for Sunday's game. "I don't want to jinx it," Gerrity said.

This is what a Cinderella story looks like. After 135 tries, a No. 16 seed had finally knocked off a No. 1 in the NCAA tournament, and all the world wanted a piece of the little team from Baltimore that, a day before, had been a total afterthought.

"My phone's battery lost 30 percent just from the text alerts," said Arkel Lamar, who drained a late 3 that served as the final, ignominious dagger to Virginia's hopes.

But it was more than just an overnight love affair with the tournament's most unlikely stars. There was something utterly relatable about this Retrievers team that made their win feel both unique and personal.

Perhaps it was Maura, a David toppling Virginia's Goliaths. At 5-foot-8 -- a number even he grins at in acknowledgement of its generosity -- he should've been overmatched by Virginia's big men. Instead, he thwarted them again and again. On Saturday, he gave a nod of credit to another diminutive player who starred on the hardwood in Charlotte, former Hornets great Muggsy Bogues.

"He was a pest," Maura said. "That's my game, too."

Or maybe it was Lyles, the player on his third school who'd turned down overtures to leave UMBC after last season for a team with a potentially easier path through the tournament. He stuck with his team and was the scoring force behind the upset bid. Oh, and in a wonderful twist of fate, both of his parents went to -- you guessed it -- Virginia.

Or how about Daniel Akin, the freshman forward from England? He could barely put the win into perspective, finding comparison only in Leicester City's stunning win in the Premier League two years ago. Even on the other side of the Atlantic, UMBC's win was stunning.

Of course, if the rest of the world could finally appreciate the little team that made the biggest noise in any NCAA tournament, it was the folks who had been with them the whole time that really set the mood.

UMBC's bus didn't arrive back at the team hotel until after 3 a.m. When the Retrievers stepped into the lobby, nearly 300 fans were there to greet them.

"After that, the coaches told us to go back to our rooms," Maura said, "but I couldn't sleep."