UMBC’s K.J. Maura Was The Weekend’s Best NCAA Story

The first week of the 2018 NCAA tournament proved why America’s greatest sporting spectacle is known as March Madness.

The defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels got smacked in the second round, 86-65, by No. 7 Texas A&M. It was Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams largest margin of defeat for his entire career in an NCAA tourney game.

Houston got its first March Mdness win since the program was known as Phi Slamma Jamma back in 1984. Senior Rob Gray scored 62 points in two games, including a tournament-high 39 points vs. San Diego State in the first round. But the Cougars dreams of a sustained run was derailed by Michigan freshman Jordan Poole as his buzzer-beater sent Houston back home. 

Gonzaga freshman Zach Norvell Jr. – a Chicago native who prepped at the Windy City’s legendary Simeon Career Academy that has produced the likes of Benji Wilson, Nick Anderson, Jabari Parker and Derrick Rose – got busier than a horny rabbit in the second round, dropping 28 points and grabbing six rebounds against Ohio State. 

Gonzaga’s Zach Norvell Jr. powers the Bulldogs to the Sweet 16

Zach Norvell Jr. posts a 28 point, 12 rebound double-double as Gonzaga advances to the Sweet 16. Watch highlights, game recaps, and much more from the 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament on the official NCAA March Madness YouTube channel.

Cincinnati, a serious Final Four candidate heading into the tournament, fell to Nevada. And No. 1 seed Xavier was upended by Leonard Hamilton’s Florida State Seminoles. Those games saw both Cincy schools blow big second half leads.

Loyola-Chicago advanced to Sweet 16 by winning consecutive one-possession games on their final shot, and they’ve got folks in The Chi dreaming about the Final Four. 

And of course, there was the moment that shook every bracket except for a miniscule few in Baltimore County when UMBC became the first No. 16 seed to ever take out a No. 1 when Jarius Lyles snuffed the Virginia Cavaliers with his vicious 28-point outburst.

KJ Maura The Playmaker 787

UMBC PG KJ Maura Highlights of the America East Conference Semifinal Game. KJ istMaura is leading on assit and he is the Defense Player of the Year.

But it was his backcourt mate, 5-foot-6 senior point guard K.J. Maura, that truly embodied why we love March Madness upsets so much. 

This year, Maura was named the America East Conferences shortest Defensive Player of the Year ever, and showed that you don’t have to score in abundance to make a significant impact on the outcome of a game.

Hes just a pest, Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber said prior to his team’s 50-43 win against the Retrievers in the second round. Hes the guy on the playground that you hate to play against because hes everywhere and makes plays and hell steal the ball off you. Maura definitely creates for everybody else and makes them go.

Maura, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, patterned his game after Steve Nash growing up. 

Natural Point Guard KJ Maura

Highlights City Of Palms Tournament Point Guard KJ Maura of ACD

That’s my hero, to be honest, Maura told the Baltimore Sun. Best player ever. Best point guard ever, for me. I admired him a lot. I tried to copy or imitate him a little bit.

Despite being the smallest kid on the court, his game was large and in charge, earning him a scholarship to a private school on the island.

In high school, he was invited to a youth national team camp. But despite playing well, wreaking his usual havoc and being a supreme floor general, he was told that he wasn’t big enough. 

He eventually enrolled at Arlington Country Day school in Jacksonville, Florida where he averaged a double double in points and assists as a junior. 

When he held his own against future No. 1 NBA Draft pick Andrew Wiggins in a game against West Virginia’s Huntington Prep at the Boyd County Roundball Classic in Kentucky, that should have solidified him as a college prospect. He also played well in games against Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid‘s prep teams, and led his team to a state championship his senior year. 

And yet, no Division I programs came calling. 

Maura wasn’t dismayed, he just went the juco route. Again, his impact could not be denied and he was named a junior college All-America. Eventually, he found his way to UMBC where he’s become the best story of the tournament thus far.

Instant classic: Relive UMBC’s incredible win over Virginia in 8 minutes

Watch the Condensed Game from Virginia Cavaliers vs. UMBC Retrievers, 03/16/2018 Watch highlights, game recaps, and much more from the 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament on the official NCAA March Madness YouTube channel.

Was it a gamble? coach Ryan Odom said of offering Maura a scholarship. Maybe, a little bit. I felt like our staff felt like his unselfishness would permeate the team and impact us in a positive way.

Maura does not come from means, his family is versed in tragedy, his home was badly damaged during Hurricane Maria’s wrath. He was the ultimate individual underdog playing for the ultimate underdog team in the NCAA Tournament.

And somehow, as he’s seemed to do on each step up the basketball ladder, he and UMBC, following his tenacious lead, proved all the doubters wrong. That’s what March Madness is all about.

And don’t be surprised into thinking that you may have heard the last from him. At the rate he’s going, he just might be getting started. 

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