From picking up basketball to making NCAA history in just three years: The Daniel Akin story

Daniel Akin, from Eltham in south east London, only started playing competitive basketball three years ago. After his UMBC team made history this week, the 19-year-old tells ENRG Sport about his journey to join the Retrievers and what it was like to play a part in the biggest basketball upset of all time.

Daniel Akin, from south east London, celebrates scoring against Virginia. Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

They’re calling it one of the biggest upsets in the history of American sports.

It was supposed to be impossible. In 135 previous attempts, a 16th seed had never beaten a 1st seed to advance to the second round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. As the University of Maryland – Baltimore County took to the court against the mighty University of Virginia, that didn’t look like changing.

Virginia were ranked as the best team in the country, and were strong favourites to win the national title. UMBC, meanwhile, were competing in only their second-ever NCAA tournament. They were one of the smallest schools left and only weeks before, the Retrievers were thrashed 83-39 by the University of Albany – a side who didn’t even come close to making the tournament.

What followed is difficult to describe and almost impossible to explain. UMBC didn’t just beat Virginia; they thrashed them, putting up 77 points against a defence who had conceded an average of only 53 all season. As the Retrievers edged closer to making history, they continued to play breathless, free-flowing offence. The whole country watched open-mouthed as UMBC advanced, sparking jubilant scenes amongst the team.

Here in the United Kingdom, the majority of the country continued to sleep, blissfully unaware of the seismic sporting history that was being created across the pond. Unaware too, that a 19-year-old from south east London – who had only started playing competitive basketball three years ago – was playing a part in one of the biggest sporting shocks of all time.

“It’s surreal,” UMBC freshman Daniel Akin tells ENRG Sport. “It feels like just the other day I was in England and now I’m a part of the biggest upset in basketball history. It’ll sound like a cliche, but words can’t describe how I’m feeling right now.”

Akin is talking on the phone having only just arrived back on campus the previous night. UMBC’s reward for defeating Virginia was a second-round tie against Kansas State, a match in which they battled hard but were eventually edged 50-43.

The Retrievers were still given a hero’s welcome. Despite getting home at 3am, hundreds of students were waiting on campus to congratulate the team. The Kansas St. game had already been forgotten, all anyone wanted to talk about was Virginia.

“We go into most games with confidence that we’re going to win,” says Akin. “(Because it was Virginia) there was some elements of doubt, but then as soon as we started playing and  the ball got tipped we knew we could do it. It was crazy, from then on we just couldn’t miss.”

Being confident is one thing, but actually having the belief that you can succeed where 135 of your predecessors have failed, going back 33 years, is another. Just how did Ryan Odom, UMBC’s head coach, convince his players that they could be the first 16th seed to knock out a number one?

“It was a really emotional speech,” Akin explains. “Coach talked about how a couple of years ago he didn’t have a job and how he was sat watching the first round of March Madness on TV, and how he used that to inspire him to make it where he is today.

“He said a 16th seed has never beaten a 1st seed and asked why it couldn’t be us. It was all just an emotive story that really touched us and made us want to play even harder for him.”

Akin scored the Retrievers’ first two points of their famous win, and went on to record a total of five points and six rebounds in 39 minutes across the two games. This was after a debut regular season in which the Brit was named in the East American conference’s All-Rookie team.

And yet Akin only started playing competitively three years ago.

“When I was 16 I grew to 6’6”, 6’7”,” he says, “I wanted to get into another sport and the most obvious thing to do was basketball. I decided to do another year in school after sixth form in order to play so I transferred to Barking Abbey, and that’s when I started getting offers from America.

“UMBC initially contacted my coach last March and my first reaction was ‘what’s UMBC?’” laughs Akin. “I’d never heard of it before so I did my own research and watched some films and saw they were pretty good.

“Me and Coach Odom instantly had a good relationship. He even came to England to talk to me even more, and that’s when I committed to the school. I thought if he is willing to travel all that distance he really sees a future of me in UMBC.”

Initially though, the 19-year-old found the move to Maryland a difficult one.

“At first it was really hard to adjust,” Akin admits. “The playing style at UMBC was really different. They played really quick and I wasn’t really in the groove of it straight away and I wasn’t getting as many looks as I was hoping to. It took me a while to settle but once I did it felt good.”

But did he ever think that in his first season he’d end up playing in only the school’s second- ever NCAA tournament?

“Honestly no,” he says, “because we didn’t start the season too great. We started like 5-5 but then towards the end of the season we started playing really well and we started thinking that it could be possible to get to the tournament.”

UMBC certainly qualified for the tournament in style, after a buzzer-beater from Jairus Lyles clinched the America East Championship Game and sealed an automatic berth.

What followed was the greatest Cinderella story college basketball has ever seen. The public reaction reflected that too; on Twitter the school’s athletics account, which had just over 5,000 followers before the Virginia match, gained 100,000 followers in a single day. UMBC’s story was everywhere, but as I point out to Akin, not in the UK.

That did surprise me,” he replied. “We were getting so much coverage in the US. Literally when we turned on the TV we could just see our faces, so that was a bit of a shock. There was none of that back home, no one had anything on it.”

It’s a shame, because at a time where British basketball has had its funding slashed, it could really do with stories like Daniel Akin’s and UMBC’s. Virginia’s first-round defeat was as big a college basketball story as you were going to get. If that didn’t make its way into the UK’s mainstream media then nothing from the NCAA will, and Akin’s involvement will be forgotten.

In the meantime, it’s now time for Akin to return to classes. He is a student athlete, after all, and it is therefore required for him to study a degree. He plans to use his Spring Break to catch up on the work he missed while away at the tournament.

It’s quite a comedown. To go from a sell-out stadium and mass-media attention back to essays, lectures and UMBC’s quiet Maryland campus. But that is the life of a student athlete.

You can’t create sporting history every week.

 

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