The University of Maryland-Baltimore County didn’t just beat Virginia in the first victory by a 16th seed over a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. The UMBC Athletics Twitter account put a friendly beating on CBS Sports analyst Seth Davis, too.
While Jairus Lyles and his underdog Retriever teammates made history by knocking off the nation’s No. 1 team 74-54, a series of tweets jabbing skeptics like Davis and celebrating the biggest victory in school history helped put UMBC on the map like never before. People all over the world were treated to as many nothing-but-net one-liners and gems on social media as UMBC dropped on Virginia on the court Friday night.
From his courtside seat in Charlotte, North Carolina, Zach Seidel documented one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history tweet by tweet as the voice of UMBC. The cascade of retweets, likes and mentions showed he was doing a pretty good job of entertaining a growing audience.
“That’s how I always tweet our games, whether it’s a 3 o’clock Wednesday afternoon women’s lacrosse game or a 2 o’clock Saturday baseball game,” said Seidel, director of multimedia communications and digital media for UMBC athletics. “That’s how I tweet from our account. That’s just normal me. It just happened to be a bigger stage, but I didn’t change anything.”
Seidel got his bachelor’s degree from UMBC in 2012 and his master’s in 2015. When he found out he’d be running the @UMBCAthletics account during the opening-round NCAA game, he initially didn’t know how he’d approach the night. Then Davis tweeted “Virginia, Sharpie” at tipoff to predict a victory for the Cavaliers. Seidel saw his opening and didn’t miss an opportunity to remind the renowned college basketball writer of the score from time to time.
Zach’s dad, Jeff — a reporter who freelances sports stories for The Associated Press — didn’t have any idea his son was behind the Twitter account but in going back and reading the tweets could tell Davis’ declaration made him “kind of ticked.” Zach Seidel light-heartedly poked at Davis with the same precision UMBC had in cutting through the lane to the basket against the top-ranked defense in the country.
“He was my muse a bit,” said Seidel, who spoke with Davis briefly Saturday to tell him there were no hard feelings. “It was just having fun. Seeing him playing along and the other reporters playing along was fun.”
Virginia was favored by 20 points, and No. 1 seeds were 135-0 against No. 16s since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, so Davis was far from the only person who counted UMBC out. When baseball writer Jon Heyman asked, “Anyone know what UMBC is?” Seidel tweeted, “University of Maryland Baltimore County, who are you?”
His favorite tweets of the night featured hopes for new on-campus buildings when someone predicted applications would go up 400 percent and an advertisement for the school when the score was tied at halftime: “Second Half about to start, no matter what happens we just want you all to remember……we are conveniently located just outside of Baltimore and have stellar academics.”
The commuter school of under 14,000 students 10 minutes away from Baltimore-Washington International Airport has never gotten this kind of publicity. Seidel said the UMBC athletics website crashed during the second half, and the Twitter account went from 5,000 followers at tipoff to more than 30,000 by the end of the game and surpassed 80,000 on Saturday.
Seidel’s dad — a UMBC graduate along with his wife, Nadine — thought it already was a good day for the family when daughter and current senior Kara found out she made the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and then realized his son was behind the tweets.
“This just was something big because everybody’s talking about UMBC,” Jeff Seidel said. “A mid-major school needs that today, desperately needs that. Things are changing and if you’re a mid-level school with a more limited budget, you have to be able to do that.”
Zach Seidel wishes he could’ve been reading Twitter during the game so he could’ve seen the reactions — many of which included videos and photos of Retrievers of the canine variety — but did his part to contribute to the coverage that made this feel like a bigger upset than Villanova over Georgetown in 1985 in part because of social media.
“I was tweeting what I would love to see if I was sitting at home following Twitter watching the game,” Seidel said. “I was just there watching history, and I was just trying to contribute to it because I know a lot of people are following Twitter, too, now.”
Seidel said he “got roped into” running the Twitter account for UMBC’s second-round game on Sunday against ninth-seeded Kansas State and doesn’t plan to change his approach. This time his dad will be paying attention because he’d “like to see what he’s saying.”
Spoiler alert: It’ll be more humor and pride for UMBC as Seidel tries to help turn this Cinderella story into a real benefit for the school.
“Internally we think we have some of the best academics in the country,” he said. “Now people will actually start to look at it and realize, ‘Hey they really do have some of the best academics in the country.’ People will look at the school for real and hopefully will take a look at it more.”
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