TAYLORSVILLE — Jairus Lyles figured that maybe when the first ball was tipped on Thursday morning to start this year’s NCAA Tournament, the feelings of being an instrumental part of making history would get conjured back up inside him without much prompting.
Thirty-six hours prior, however, the Salt Lake City Stars guard said the nation’s preparation for the Big Dance hadn’t done a whole lot to cause him to independently recall everything that surrounded his UMBC Retrievers becoming the first-ever 16-seed to beat a 1-seed in the tournament, a feat many thought would never happen before the Retrievers trounced the Virginia Cavaliers 74-54 in 2018 and became the talk of the country.
Only when queried about it does Lyles reflect, but perhaps that’s the best way to frame his life now, a year after the upset to end all upsets. UMBC isn’t in this year’s tournament after falling in the America East Conference tournament, while the Stars are fighting for their playoff lives in Lyles’ first professional season, with him as a key piece of the squad. Things are different for the 23-year-old.
But for as much as Lyles is looking at the present and future, the feat he led the charge in accomplishing last year won’t soon be forgotten.
In truth, it’s not outlandish to say the Retrievers weren’t even supposed to be in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
With a 12-4 conference record, they finished second in the America East, but three games behind the Vermont Catamounts. In the title game between the two teams, however, the score was tied at 62 with two seconds to go when Lyles, UMBC’s leading scorer, hit a dead-eye 3-pointer from the top of the key to punch the Retrievers’ ticket to the Big Dance.
They didn’t have to wait long to find out their first-round opponent and destination during the selection show. As the top overall seed in the tournament, Virginia’s matchup in the South region was announced first. Of the 31-2 Cavaliers, commentator Clark Kellogg declared, “Virginia’s as dominant as any team in the country this year, deserving of that No. 1.”
As the Friday night contest in Charlotte drew closer, Lyles recalled having a mixture of feelings, from recognizing the significance of the challenge that awaited to confidence he and his team could win.
“It was never going in there scared or anything like that,” he said earlier this week. “We definitely went in there thinking we could win.”
The first half began to unfold like many NCAA Tournament games do regardless of teams’ seeding, as UMBC stayed within just a few buckets. Then with 6:32 remaining before intermission, the Cavaliers took a 16-10 lead. Would they start to pull away?
Just the opposite occurred, as UMBC went on a 9-0 run to take the lead, and the teams went to the locker room tied at 21 even though Lyles had scored just five points.
Then the real barrage began. Retrievers wing Joe Sherburne scored the first six points of the second half, and UMBC opened the stanza up on a 14-3 run in less than four minutes before a media timeout.
Out of the timeout, it was Lyles’ turn to shine, as he scored the Retrievers next 12 points over less than six minutes. At the 10:24 mark, UMBC had opened up a 16-point advantage, 47-31.
“When you’re in the zone like that, you’re not really thinking at all,” he said. “You’re just kind of playing. You understand that you’re hot, but you’re not thinking, ‘I’m doing this’ until after the game when they tell you. I didn’t really know what happened until after when they told me.”
Virginia cut the deficit to 12 with 4:12 to go, but that’s as close as the Cavaliers would get, and the Retriever lead ballooned to 20 with 1:18 to go as the UMBC bench went wild.
More than the idea of making history, Lyles, who finished with a game-high 28 points to go with six rebounds, four assists and four steals, recalled his first feelings after the final buzzer sounded being fatigue and happiness that his team would be advancing.
“We kind of knew the meaning behind that game if we would’ve won, but it wasn’t like that’s what we were thinking when we won,” he said. “It was just like, ‘We won the game. We’re going to the next round.’ That’s what type of feeling it was.”
The next few days were crazy, as the Retrievers’ win became the talk of the nation. As such, there were countless media appearances and not a lot of rest, especially for Lyles as the star of the show.
UMBC fell to Kansas State 50-43 in the second round two days later despite being within three with 2:14 to go after a Lyles layup, but he made media appearances throughout the tournament, and even now people regularly ask him about it.
“It’s obviously a great accomplishment for not only myself, but my team, our coaches, the whole university,” he said. “Just an incredible moment. I’m glad I got to share it with my guys, with my team. I can’t really put it into words. Just a very special moment.”
Given he was a senior in 2018, Lyles had an eye on what his future held, and his goal was to make it to the NBA. He hired an agent and participated in a number of predraft workouts with teams. He wasn’t selected in June, but participated in a minicamp with the Utah Jazz the last few days of the month, and was on their summer league team in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas in July.
On July 12, he signed with the Jazz after some solid summer league performances, with the agreement being that he’d go to training camp and then most likely spend this season with the Stars.
With one game remaining in the G League regular season and Salt Lake City still in the fight for a playoff berth, Lyles has appeared in 45 of 49 contests (14 starts), and has averaged exactly 13 points to go along with 4.3 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 27.1 minutes per game.
On March 13, he dropped 41 points in a victory over the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, a performance that got the attention of a number of notable people on social media, including Jazz forward Jae Crowder, who has become a good friend of his over the last year.
“He’s fast and he gets in the paint,” said Stars head coach Martin Schiller. “That’s his biggest quality, and he’s got a knack for scoring the basketball. Then defensively, if he uses his quickness in the full court, he’s really good.”
Off the floor, Lyles is known by a number of his teammates as a jokester and one to keep the mood positive, even amidst challenge.
“He’s a very funny dude,” said Jazz two-way player Naz Mitrou-Long, who is Lyles’ roommate on the road. “Even if the day’s not going great, he’s always able to give some good laughs.”
As Salt Lake City’s season winds to a close (its playoff hopes were hanging by a thread entering Thursday’s G League games, with its regular-season finale set for Friday night at the Lifetime Activities Center), Lyles is looking forward to continuing to hone his craft this summer, with both he and Schiller saying the biggest improvement he can make is in his point guard skills.
“Definitely just want to keep getting better in the offseason,” Lyles said. “Keep getting better, keep building toward ultimately getting that NBA contract that I want."