Groz: 16-seed UMBC’s upset of No. 1 Virginia brings back painful Sonics memory

Mar 17, 2018, 10:30 AM
Dikembe Mutumbo's Nuggets upset the top-seeded Sonics in the 1994 NBA Playoffs. (AP)...
Dikembe Mutumbo's Nuggets upset the top-seeded Sonics in the 1994 NBA Playoffs. (AP)

On Friday night, I sat alone on my couch fighting a cold, bundled up watching the astonishing performance of the UMBC Retrievers like the rest of America. They became the first 16 seed to knock off a 1 seed in NCAA tournament history, beating Tony Bennett’s No. 1 overall Virginia team 74-54.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many Seattle sports fans shared the feeling of déjà vu I felt in the pit of my stomach. I had been here, and it was bad.

The 1993-94 Seattle SuperSonics had crushed the NBA regular season with 63 wins for the league’s best record and the top seed in the Western Conference. Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins were all at the height of their powers, and there would be no Michael Jordan to contend with if they made it to the NBA Finals. Sure, the Rockets and Suns would be tough, but this was the Sonics’ year.

The opening-round matchup was with the ordinary No. 8 seed Denver Nuggets, who were 42-40 but had split with the Sonics during the regular season. Most concerns were put aside when the Sonics rolled to victories in the first two games by a combined 34 points. I don’t think there was a Sonic fan anywhere who thought anything but sweep.

In Game 3, however, it was clear the Sonics didn’t come to play, giving up 41 points in the first quarter, so it was left to Game 4. The Sonics held the Nuggets to 13 points in the first quarter but struggled on offense and the game went to overtime. Here’s where the first sense on unease hit me. The Nuggets dominated overtime and forced a Game 5.

Everyone who was at that Game 5 in Seattle remembers it. It felt good at tipoff, but it was tight the entire game. The Supes led by 3 at the half and by just a bucket going into the fourth quarter. When the Nuggets forced overtime again, there was shock of course, but most of us felt like the Sonics would still pull it off. After all, an 8 isn’t going to beat a 1.

Well, it’s blur for me after that – except for Dikembe Mutumbo lying on the floor with a look of total joy on his face after leading Denver to the biggest upset in NBA playoff history by snatching 15 boards and blocking 8 shots.

It’s still hard to describe the feeling of shock after all these years. But looking at the faces of those Virginia fans brought it all back.

An 8 has beaten a 1 since, but it doesn’t change the feeling of being the first team to be on the short end of that stick. Its a sports memory you try to bury, until some college kids from Baltimore bring it all back.

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Groz: 16-seed UMBC’s upset of No. 1 Virginia brings back painful Sonics memory