UMBC is not known for their competitive sports teams – other than chess that is. When I began working at UMBC as a campus rabbi 18 months ago, I got used to the blank stares I’d receive when I told people where I worked. That all changed this week when UMBC was suddenly thrust in the limelight when they defied all odds by defeating the best team of the year in Men’s College Basketball.

When UMBC’s Retrievers defeated Vermont in the last second of the game after a 23-game losing streak against them, most people thought it was a fluke. No one thought they even had a chance against the best team in the N.C.A.A March Madness tournament. Out of 64 teams competing in the tournament, UMBC was ranked the absolute worst with the lowest 16-seed rating. University of Virginia’s Cavaliers who had gone 31-2 during the season were ranked the number one team in the tournament.  According to the ESPN Basketball Power Index, UMBC had a 1.5 percent chance of beating Virginia; number 16 seeds have never won against a number one seed team in all 132 games in N.C.A.A. tournament history.

Until now, that is. 

UMBC managed to overcome the astronomical odds and was catapulted from underdog to outlier overnight in what experts are calling the “biggest upset in college basketball history.” 

Against All Odds

Before their victory, UMBC was best known for producing the most African-American students who go on to complete combined M.D.-Ph.D. programs, for winning the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in 2017, and for their chess team. From 1996-2012 UMBC’s chess team won ten out of 16 titles in the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship, and is tied for first place with the most all-time titles. They also have a record six championships in the President’s Cup and went to every final four from 2001-15.  

President Freeman A. Hrabowski III is a self-professed mathematics nerd who became a civil rights activist at age 12 in 1963 when he was arrested for marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama. “When you think about who we are as an institution and what happened last night,” Hrabowski told the New York Times, “it represents what we tell our students: ‘If you work hard there can be these special moment where you’re moving towards greatness.’ The symbolism of last night is that my young men went out there to be the best that they can be, and believe in themselves, against all odds.” 

The Month of Miracles

Jews know a lot about going against all odds. We survived Haman and the Persian Empire’s plan to wipe out all the Jews in the Purim story; the ragtag Chashmonaim guerillas defeated the Greek super-power during Chanukah; and more recently the State of Israel withstood three wars waged on numerous fronts against nations and armies many times their number. 

According to Jewish tradition the prototype of all future miracles is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. After 210 years in slavery, the Jewish people could have abandoned all hope of ever being freed. But the Exodus taught them that miracles happen – when you least expect them. The Talmud emphatically states that “even when the sharp sword is resting on your neck, never hold back from [asking] for mercy” and salvation can come “in the blink of an eye.”

Ironically, UMBC’s miraculous victory took place on Rosh Chodesh – the first day of the month of Nissan – translated literally as the month of “miracles.”

Perhaps that is why the Exodus took place in the springtime. To teach us the eternal lesson that when the long, cold winter feels like it will never end, we must remember that spring is just around the corner. When things look bleak, when it appears as if all odds are against you, never give up hope in miracles. Change can occur in the blink of an eye.

Although UMBC lost in the second round against the Kansas State Wildcats, they will go down in history as the first seed-16 team to ever beat a seed-one. History is made by the few who are willing to stand up against the many despite the odds, with the knowledge that miracles do happen.