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UMBC assistant Eric Skeeters is thread to two of the biggest upsets in NCAA history

The longtime assistant was also with the No. 15 seed Coppin State team that upset No. 2 South Carolina in 1997

In an age where players hit first-half 3-pointers and celebrate as if they’ve won an NCAA title, University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) assistant coach Eric Skeeters has always preached to his players to “act like you’ve been here before.”

But when Arkel Lamar’s dunk with just under two minutes to go gave UMBC a 19-point lead over No. 1 seed Virginia on Friday, Skeeters was struggling to follow his own advice.

“We got back-to-back 3s and then that dunk, then you look up at the clock and say, ‘Oh, we did it,’ ” Skeeters recalled of the closing moments of UMBC’s historic 74-54 win. “Then you realize there’s still time left, and you say to yourself, ‘Stay composed.’ ”

That’s right, act like you’ve been there.

Ironically, Skeeters had.

Before Friday night, when he was an assistant coach for the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed, Skeeters in 1997 was on the bench the day No. 15 seed Coppin State shocked the basketball world by beating No. 2 South Carolina in a first-round game in Pittsburgh. Coppin was the third No. 15 seed to beat a No. 2, and the first historically black college or university (HBCU) to pull off an upset. Eventually, eight No. 15 seeds would hold the distinction of being tied for the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history.

Until Friday, when history was rewritten.

“Once we got the lead in the second half, the entire arena erupted and they were with us,” Skeeters said. “The North Carolina fans at the game stayed because they wanted to see Virginia lose, and they were all cheering for us. It was just like what had happened in Pittsburgh with Coppin, when it felt like a home game when we took the lead.”

The anatomy of the two upsets? They are very similar.

In 1997, South Carolina entered the NCAA tournament ranked sixth in the nation behind the play of a trio of guards — Melvin Watson, Larry Davis and BJ McKie — considered the best in the nation. The three, who held spots on the All-SEC first, second and third teams that year, led the Gamecocks to the SEC championship, the school’s first regular-season conference title in 17 years.

But Coppin guards Antoine Brockington, Fred Warrick and Danny Singletary felt, despite the lack of accolades that come with playing at an HBCU, that they were actually better.

“During the press conference they asked me what are you going to do about their guards,” Brockington recalled of the days before the South Carolina game. “And I asked the reporter, ‘What are their guards going to do about me?’ ”

The UMBC guards were just as confident, mainly because of their experience. Jairus Lyles and K.J. Maura are both seniors, and neither expected to be rattled by Virginia’s backcourt of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, both sophomores.

“Their guards were young and didn’t have that much experience,” said Skeeters, a Baltimore native and a Coppin State graduate. “Playing in an NCAA tournament at such a young age as a No. 1 seed, all the pressure was on them.”

As the UMBC staff pored over tape to devise a plan to disrupt Virginia, they noticed that very few ACC teams pressured the Virginia guards high.

“They put a guard up top and let two other guys come off screening action, and we made the comparison of Tom Brady sitting back in the pocket with no pressure,” Skeeters said. “We told our guys, ‘Pressure the quarterback.’ We made it hard for the point to make that pass, and that took them out of their rhythm.”

That resulted in a tied game at the half. Once the Retrievers ran off the first 11 points of the second half the arena flipped, with a majority of the crowd cheering for UMBC and easily drowning out the deflated Virginia fans.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams was so stunned by the result that he had no intention of watching the Virginia/UMBC matchup when he went to his hotel room in Charlotte after his Tar Heels had won their game earlier.

“I said, ‘I’m going back to my room and watching A&M/Providence. … There’s no way that [UMBC winning] is going to happen,” Williams told the media on Saturday. “I try not to get caught up in records, but being 28-0 in the first round is something I’m proud of.”

Skeeters can be proud of being 3-0 in the first round as an assistant with three heavy underdogs: Coppin in 1997; South Florida, which beat Temple in 2012; and now UMBC.

“What does that mean?” Skeeters said, laughing. “Right place. Lucky guy.”

That job as assistant at Coppin was Skeeters’ first college coaching job. He was hired by legendary Coppin coach Fang Mitchell, who built the premier HBCU program during the 1990s. Since then he’s been an assistant at George Mason, South Florida, Towson, Virginia Tech and Youngstown State.

“Back in ’97 I kept the stats, worked out guys and handled the business side of the team,” Skeeters said. “Now I’ve been in the game 26 years, 22 years as an assistant. Coming to UMBC two years ago has been great.”

Skeeters came to UMBC with the staff of Ryan Odom, and in those two years the Retrievers have put together back-to-back 20-win seasons, which followed seven straight seasons of 20 or more losses.

“In this business, you really can’t say a job is a good job or bad job,” Skeeters said. “From the public’s standpoint, UMBC was a bad job when we came in because of all those losing seasons. But look at us now.”

The Retrievers were bolstered by persuading Lyles to stay for his graduate senior season. Lyles, who has led the team in scoring the past three seasons, transferred to UMBC after beginning his college career at VCU.

UMBC played an inspirational video before Friday’s game, part of which included clips from Coppin’s win over South Carolina in 1997. The video ended with the camera zooming in on Skeeters’ face.

Now the Retrievers’ coaching staff looks to pull together a team whose players have been overwhelmed with congratulatory calls, numerous texts and thousands of new followers on social media.

“We have to keep these kids focused through the craziness,” Skeeters said. “We want to continue this. We want to beat Kansas State.”

Skeeters was showered with a lot of attention as well. By the time he got back to the team hotel on Friday to break down Kansas State tape, he couldn’t keep up with the calls and messages.

“Carmelo Anthony, people from elementary school, former players, texts from random people,” Skeeters said. “I had over 350 text messages.”

Which means he has to keep himself focused as well. With the prep for Sunday’s game against Kansas State, Skeeters said Friday’s win hasn’t quite sunk in yet.

“We’ll always be associated with being the first No. 16 seed to win a game,” Skeeters said. “When the tournament starts next year and everyone will be talking about who’s going to be the next UMBC, I think that’s when what we accomplished is going to really set in.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.