On Dec. 23, 2008, the UMBC men's basketball program did what storied programs like Arizona State, Oregon, Saint Louis and Creighton (twice) could not do. They also accomplished a feat, which lands at No. 31 on the #retriever50for50 countdown that had been denied to them on all 54 previous occasions.
UMBC's nine-man squad, coaches, staff and a few hearty supporters shook off the bitter cold of a Lincoln, Nebraska evening and entered the Devaney Sports Center. The other 8,400 folks in the arena that night mostly wore red and white, but they all left around 9:15 p.m. shocked and disappointed as the Retrievers pulled off a 66-64 win over the Cornhuskers. The loss ended NU's 31-game non-conference home winning streak, tied for the eighth-longest in the nation.
"Due to the weather and fearing that we wouldn't be able to get home for Christmas, we figured a win was the only way to keep everyone happy," said UMBC guard Jay Greene.
UMBC played nearly a flawless first half. The team's match-up zone defense confused the Cornhuskers. Greene controlled the tempo of the game from the point guard spot and freshman wing Chauncey Gilliam hit six of seven shots, including a pair of dunks, which stunned the crowd. The Retrievers built a pair of 20-point leads and went to the locker room with a 37-21 advantage.
The Retrievers still had a 13-point advantage at 57-44 with 6:42 remaining. But the Cornhuskers, who entered the game seventh in the nation in scoring defense, began to make their run. They forced UMBC into turnovers on three consecutive possessions and eventually cut their deficit to 60-57 on a Paul Velander jumper with 1:49 remaining.
The crowd was in a frenzy as both teams fought for every loose ball and the game started to resemble a WWE battle royal. But UMBC maintained its poise, as Matt Spadafora hit four straight free throws and Greene made two-of-two in the final 1:43 to keep the visitors in the lead.
Nebraska would get two chances to tie or win in the final 14 seconds, but a Darryl Proctor blocked shot of a Steve Harley driving layup with a second to go preserved the upset.
The ripple-effect of the UMBC victory came nearly immediately. ESPN's Dick Vitale mentioned the upset on the network's nightly college basketball program and text messages started pouring into Coach Randy Monroe's in-box. After some review, it was discovered that Nebraska was ranked No. 53 in the nation in the RPI (ratings percentage index), meaning the Retrievers had vanquished its highest-ranked opponent ever.
Nebraska (18-13, 8-8 Big Ten) finished with its first .500 record in Big 12 play in 10 years and with 18 regular-season wins, the Huskers earned their second straight NIT berth. UMBC (15-17) would make its second consecutive America East title game appearance, but fell at Binghamton, 61-51.
The victory remains as UMBC's lone triumph in men's basketball against a team from a "Power Five" conference.