CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Jairus Lyles says fellow UMBC guard K.J. Maura is “annoying” in practice.
Kansas State coach Bruce Weber says the 5-foot-8, 140-pound Maura is “a little pest” after studying him on game film.
Maura breaks into a wide smile when relayed the comments — like he’s been paid the biggest compliment in the world.
“Oh, I’m definitely a pest, but I have to do that for my team to be successful — and I try to do that at a high level,” Maura said.
Maura and Lyles, the Retrievers’ super smooth combo guard, form the dangerous backcourt of the nation’s new favorite underdog.
They combined for 38 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals Friday night against Virginia, helping UMBC to the first win for a No. 16 seed against a No. 1 seed after the previous 135 teams failed.
And stopping them is weighing heavily on the mind of Weber, whose ninth-seeded Wildcats take on UMBC in the second round on Sunday night.
“Those two guards are very good — and they always say guards win in the tournament,” Weber said.
Maura is a diminutive point guard from Puerto Rico who also excels at volleyball. He didn’t move to the United States until he was 17 and played a year of junior college basketball before being recruited by UMBC.
He looks more like a high school freshman than a Division I player, joking he’s “5-foot-8 on a good day, but 5-foot-7 most of the time.” He models his game after Muggsy Bogues and childhood hero J.J. Barea.
But he doesn’t view his lack of size as a hindrance.
“My size is an advantage because a lot of guys are taller than me and they don’t expect me to be pressuring the ball,” Maura said.
Maura hounded Virginia’s taller guards with his ball pressure, continuously disrupting the Cavaliers’ ability to get into their offensive sets.
Weber said he is the type of player no one likes to face in a pickup game.
“He’s everywhere and makes plays and he’ll steal the ball off you, he’ll drive you, flip it back over his shoulder for a 3,” he said.
The 6-foot-2, 175-pound Lyles is different, fitting the mold of a top-notch Division I player. He was recruited by Shaka Smart and spent one season at VCU before transferring to UMBC. He is now playing as a graduate student, already holding a double major in psychology and sociology.
He had a chance to transfer to a couple power conference schools after last season, but chose to stay at UMBC because of his teammates and school president Freeman Hrabowski, whom he befriended a few years ago.
“I knew I was going to stay there all along,” Lyles said. “This is my family. I created a legacy here. I knew we could do things like this. This is one of the reasons I came back.”
Lyles has that certain mojo.
He sliced through Virginia’s top-ranked defense while getting to the hole six times for layups, and also knocked down three 3-pointers. He finished the game 9 of 11 from the field and had 23 of his 28 points in the pivotal second half.
Lyles also got UMBC into the NCAA Tournament by hitting a buzzer-beater 3-pointer to beat Vermont in the America East Conference championship.
Weber compares him to Creighton’s Marcus Foster, “a guy that can create (and) scores on all three levels.”
Together, Maura and Lyles simply mesh.
That was evident Friday night when Maura drove near the top of the key against Virginia and left a blind behind-the-back pass to Lyles, who seemed to know the ball was coming, caught it on the way up and drilled an open 3-pointer.
Both players are enjoying their time in the limelight.
The UMBC players didn’t go to sleep until after 4 a.m. Saturday, all of them too filled with adrenaline to even consider nodding off.
Once coach Ryan Odom finally sent them back to their rooms, things began to sink in. Maura and roommate Jourdan Grant turned on the television and saw highlights of UMBC’s historic win on numerous channels and couldn’t contain their excitement.
“We just started jumping from bed to bed and hugging each other,” Maura said. “That’s my brother for life. We are making big things for ourselves, our program and our families.”
Just how far they can go in the NCAA Tournament remains to be seen. But Maura and Lyles will have a lot to say about that.
For now though, they are still basking in the team’s historic accomplishment.
“We’re just trying to soak it all in” Lyles said.
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