Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Updated: Most Memorable NCAA Semifinal Games Since 1979

Back in 2007, in connection The New Republic, I put together the "Most Memorable NCAA Semifinal Games" since 1979. With four more Final Fours since that list, and with two highly-anticipated semifinals approaching on Saturday, it's time to update the list.)

(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.))

Here's the updated list, with video (as available):

Honorable Mention:
* (#1) Georgetown 50 / (#3) Louisville 46 (1982) (Trivia: Name that game's MVP, as chosen by CBS. (Answer below))
*(#11) George Mason 58 / (#3) Florida 73 (2006)
For more on these two games, go here.

10. (#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.

9. (#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.

8. NEW (#5) Butler 52 / (#5) Michigan State 50 (2010)

While the clock struck midnight for George Mason in the 2006 National Semifinal, but mid-major Butler just kept rolling along. Indeed, Butler's bubble would not burst until after the final horn on Monday night.

The "patron saint of analytical coaches" Brad Stevens earned his stat-geek stripes in the last minute of this one, electing to foul Korie Lucious -- despite the presence of hundreds of college coaches in the gym, ready to second guess that decision -- with a 3-point lead.

Top-ten draft pick Gordon Hayward secured the rebound and Butler's place in NCAA history. (Of course, Butler center Matt Howard's place in fashion history had long been immortalized.)

7. (#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.

6. (#1) Indiana 97 / (#1) UNLV 93 (1987)

Despite having one of the best shooters in the game (Steve Alford), Indiana Coach Bob Knight had been a vocal opponent of the 3-point line, which was introduced that year. No one adapted faster to the new rule faster than UNLV (37-1 going into the game), and the Rebels hoisted 35 threes in the semis, including 10-for-19 from guard Freddie Banks (38 points). Armon Gilliam added 32, despite facing double-teams (Indiana essentially left UNLV guard Mark Wade unguarded, as he was a poor shooter); Wade, to his credit, handed out 18 assists, a tournament record.

Indiana only took four three-pointers, all by Alford (2-4, on his way to 33 points), and received unexpected help off the bench from a well-coiffed Steve Eyl. After the game Knight was unrepentant: "This game was a classic example of how much influence shooting now has on the game because they got 13 three-pointers and that was worth an extra 13 points. I believe basketball should involve passing and a lot of other things, not just coming down the court and throwing it in."

Trivia Answer: Freddie Brown was the 1982 MVP (as chosen by CBS) for Georgetown in the 1982 semifinal game. His 15 minutes of fame lasted just 48 hours.

(Numbers 1-5 coming tomorrow.)

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