Thursday, March 29, 2007

Most Memorable Semifinal Games Since 1979

This entry is cross-posted on TNR's site, Posting Up:

This weekend’s games hold the potential to be the best ‘Final Four’ games – i.e., National Semifinals – in many years. Two #1 seeds (Florida and Ohio State) face two #2 seeds (UCLA and Georgetown), and both games offer intriguing storylines (e.g. http://infrematch of last year’s title game in FLA/UCLA, two big-men face off in Ohio State/Georgetown).

With about 48 hours remaining until tip-off, I thought I might propose a modest list: Most Memorable Final Four (i.e., National Semifinal) Games, since 1979.

Why 1979? It’s arguably the start of the modern era, with the Bird/Magic final. (That’s still the highest rated TV game, and also – and perhaps not coincidentally -- the first college game I remember watching.)

And that game was the start of March Madness, as we now know it.
Without further ado:

10. (#1) Georgetown 50 / (#3) Louisville 46 (1982)

Although a defensive struggle, this National Semifinal marked the arrival of Patrick Ewing (then a freshman), Georgetown, and the Big East Conference on the national basketball scene. In four years, Ewing’s Hoyas would go to three Finals, and win one; the two defeats in the Finals would be by a total of 3 points.

Interesting sidelight: the MVP (as chosen by CBS) for Georgetown in this game was Freddie Brown. His 15 minutes of fame lasted just 48 hours.

9.(#11) George Mason 58 / (#3) Florida 73 (2006)

The clock finally struck midnight for Cinderella. But the Patriots, as they had through their entire tournament run, battled; after falling behind early (16-6), they went on a run and cut the lead to 31-26 at halftime. But Gator sharpshooter Lee Humphrey (look for him on Saturday) started the second half with three straight three-pointers, and Noah, Horford, and Brewer got untracked. The #11 seed never recovered.

8. (#3) Michigan 83 / (#1) Illinois 81 (1989)

The 31-5 Flyin’ Illini had been near the top of the national rankings for a good part of the season, and featured future NBA first round draftees in Kendall Gill (#5 pick), Nick Anderson (#11), and Kenny Battle (#27), along with sixth man (and high school legend) Marcus Liberty. Michigan featured future NBA players such as Rumeal Robinson, Loy Vaught, and Glen Rice.

With the score tied late in a back-and-forth game, Michigan’s Terry Mills missed a long jumper, but on the weak side, Sean Higgins followed-up with 0:01 left, and “Michigan man” Steve Fisher moved to a (then) career record of 5-0; somewhere Bo Schembechler is smiling at the memory.

7. (#1) Georgetown 77 / (#1) St. John’s 59 (1985)

Although a dominating performance by the Hoyas made the result a foregone conclusion well before the final horn, the lead-up to the game was enormous. #2, and St. John’s had beaten the then-previously-undefeated Hoyas earlier in the season in the Capital (DC) Center. That win was part of a long St. John’s streak that began when Coach Lou Carnesecca wore on an ‘ugly Italian sweater’ that became his trademark.

In late February, on the Hoyas’ return trip to Madison Square Garden, Georgetown coach John Thompson put on a replica of Carnesecca’s sweater under his suit coat, and opened it up to the crowd just before tipoff; the Hoyas won that night, as well.

Interesting sidenote: the Big East had placed three teams in the Final Four in 1985 (Georgetown, St. John’s, and Villanova), a feat not since equaled.

6. (#2) UConn 79 / (#1) Duke 78 (2004)

UConn jumped on Duke early, racing to a 15-4 lead. But the Blue Devils clawed back and eventually took an (seemingly) insurmountable lead of 75-67 lead with just 3 minutes left.

But to the horror of the Dookies everywhere, UConn went on final 12-0 run to drive a dull, splintery, wooden stake – metaphorically, of course – through Duke Nation’s collective heart.

(Numbers 1-5 coming tomorrow.)

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