Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Updated: Most Memorable NCAA Semifinal Games, Part II

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.)

Just as a reminder, this list is only for semifinal games, not Championship games. So no Jimmy V looking for someone to hug, no Keith Smart from the corner, no Mateen Cleaves dancing (although that looks like the start of another list...)

The list also begins in 1979, the year of the Bird-Magic final. That year’s Final Four was memorable for other reasons, as it featured not one, but two Cinderellas (Bird’s Indiana State, although a #1 seed, was from a mid-major conference; and #9 Penn), as well as another team (DePaul) that looked as though it was on the verge of becoming the dominant force in college basketball in the early 1980s. With Mark Aguirre (who was the NBA’s #1 overall pick in 1981) and Terry Cummings (#2 overall in 1982), the Blue Demons were derailed by UCLA in 1980 (UCLA eventually played in the National Championship that year), and then stunned by St. Joseph’s in 1981 in an early round game – albeit underappreciated today – that surely ranks among the greatest upsets in NCAA history.

This year's Final Four also features two mid-majors, Butler (back for the second straight year -- and making the most of it with a memorable semi-final a year ago) and Virginia Commonwealth.

Without further ado, Numbers 5 through 1:

5. (#1) Michigan 81 / (#1) Kentucky 78 (OT) (1993)

A year removed from the heartbreak of the ‘Laettner game’, Kentucky’s Rick Pitino brought a hungry and talented team to New Orleans, with players such as Jamal Mashburn, Travis Ford, and Jared Prickett, and an average margin of victory of 31 in its four NCAA tournament games. But Michigan’s Fab Five – Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson –were not only one of the best recruiting classes ever, but a still-influential fashion statement: they invented – or at least widely popularized – the baggy-short-look for colleges.

Facing a double digit deficit with 14 minutes left, the Wildcats started pounding the ball to Mashburn, and eventually tied the game with 1:26 left in regulation. But when ‘Mash’ fouled out, Pitino had to mix-and-match lineups in the extra period; finally with four second left in the OT, and Michigan clinging to a 3-point lead, Webber made two straight deflections on in-bound plays, including a ‘heads-up’ second one from the baseline where he tipped the ball back towards mid-court, forcing a desperation heave by Kentucky’s Tony Delk that fell short.

But like Freddie Brown in 1982, Webber’s reputation as a crafty end-of-game player would last just 48 hours.

Interesting sidenote: the 1993 Final Four featured three #1s (Michigan, Kentucky, and UNC) and one #2 (Kansas) – the best ‘chalk’ ever.

4. 1984 (both games)

(#1) Georgetown 53 / (#1) Kentucky 40

At halftime, the budding Georgetown dynasty was at risk. The Hoyas had suffered through two scoring droughts of more than 5:00 minutes in the first half, trailed at one point 27-15, and more importantly, had their franchise center, Patrick Ewing, saddled with three personal fouls.

But coming out for the second half, it was Kentucky who went cold. The Cats went scoreless for the first 10 minutes of the second half, scored 2 points, then went another 7 minutes without another score. The whole crowd – including Georgetown fans – cheered when the Cats ended the worst drought in Final Four history.

Interesting sidenote: this game was only the second-biggest disaster that Kentucky’s Sam Bowie (was involved with during 1984, although he was only an innocent bystander in the June meltdown in Portland.

(#2) Houston 49 / (#7) Virginia 47 (OT)

Before there was a “Ewing Theory”, there was a “Sampson Theory.” In 1984, Virginia looked to be undergoing a rebuilding year, having lost 3-time college player-of-the-year Ralph Sampson to graduation the year before; but after going to just one Final Four with Sampson (in 1981), Othell Wilson took an undermanned and undersized team to the brink of the title game.

Houston’s Guy Lewis – the 80s coaching version of Dick Cheney – had seemingly learned nothing from his experience in 1983 (see below). The entire game was played at UVA’s slow, patient pace, despite Houston’s superior athleticism. In the last minute of regulation, the Cougars turned the ball over three times without a call of timeout, and barely escaped the NC State-esque ending. Georgetown would overpower Houston two nights later, however.

3. NEW (#1) Kansas 84 / (#1) North Carolina 66 (2008)

The only time all four #1-seeds advanced to the Final Four, although Kansas had to hold off the ultimate Cinderella (#10-Davidson) in the Elite Eight game to get there. The Kansas/UNC game itself was played at a high level, with Kansas sprinting out to a 40-12 lead, withstanding a furious UNC rally that closed the gap to a mere 4 points (54-50 with 11 minutes left in the game), and finally pulling away to the final margin.

What makes this game so memorable, however, is the announcer. Billy Packer had called every Final Four in the Magic-Bird era (actually, every FF since 1975), and was the defining voice of the Final Four. But at the same time, he seemed to court controversy, especially with regard to rising Mid-Majors like St. Joes (in 2004) and George Mason (in 2006).

The final straw came for Packer in the middle of the Kansas first half run. With the score 38-12, Packer declared the game "over" as the broadcast cut to commercial break. Although UNC eventually lost, the game was in fact, a long way from over.

But Packer's career was. Three months after the game, Packer was replaced by Clark Kellogg.

2. (#2) Duke 79 / (#1) UNLV 77 (1991)

[No video available]

A year removed from a 103-73 pasting in the Championship Game from the same Runnin’ Rebels (like Florida this year, the core of the UNLV team returned as defending champs), Duke ended a 45-game winning streak and ended talk of ‘greatest team of all time.’

UNLV had rolled through the regular season and the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament with an average victory margin of 29, and had rarely been involved in a tight game. And when point guard Greg Anthony fouled out late in the second half, the Rebels were suddenly rudderless in the closest game they had played in close to two years. Bobby Hurley, the slightest man on the court – and who, along with Christian Laettner, helped put the “detest” in “Duke” for many – belied his reputation (to that point) as a poor shooter by burying a huge 3-ball with a little over two minutes remaining to bring Duke within 2. Brian Davis then gave Duke the lead, with a conventional three-point play, and the UNLV reign ended in a haze of missed foul-shots (Larry Johnson went 1-3 from the line), and a botched last-second ‘play.’

Two nights later, the Blue Devils escaped the can’t-win-the-big-one tag by beating Kansas for the National Championship. A year later they repeated, a feat that the Gators are seeking to match in Atlanta.

1. (#1) Houston 94 / (#1) Louisville 81 (1983)

Phi Sla(m)ma Ja(m)ma vs. the Doctors of Dunk. Thought to be the ‘real’ championship game (especially since the other semifinal featured two low seeds (#6 NC State vs. #4 Georgia).

And the game delivered. Referee Hank Nichols calls the game “The Blitzkrieg.” At one point, there were 11 dunks in 14 minutes. A note that was passed down press row during the game: “Welcome to the 21st Century.”

An end-to-end game in a real college gym (not a dome) that featured (H)Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Michael Young, Larry Micheaux, and Alvin Franklin for Houston and Milt Wagner, Rodney McCrae, Scooter McCrae, Billy Thompson (one of the first ‘super frosh’), and Lancaster Gordon for Louisville.

When Houston’s sixth man, Benny (called “The Outlaw”, but who would have fit in on the Jackson’s Victory tour) Anders, was asked, in the post-game interview room, about “one of the dunks” he had to ask, “which one?”

Of course, earlier in the season Anders had said, “I like the dunk. It’s a high percentage shot.”

This is a must-Tivo on ESPN Classic, if you have the opportunity.

Interesting sidenote #1: Houston starter Micheaux fouled out with 13:28 left because Guy Lewis didn’t know he had four fouls; two nights later in the final against NC State, Lewis made the same mistake when Drexler picked up his fourth foul with 2:38 left in the first half!

Interesting sidenote #2: In her story after the NC State victory in the final, then-Boston Globe reporter Lesley Visser asked rhetorically about Lewis’ decision to slow the pace midway in the second half:
Why, they asked, did Houston coach Guy Lewis, a man who had coached for 27 years, signal for a stall when the team led by seven points with 10 minutes left? Or, as one coach said in a bar after the game, "Ninety-thousand dollars of recruiting on the floor and he has them play like Princeton.

Interesting Sidenote #3: The toughest of all of the Cougars, Larry (“Mr. Mean”) Micheaux is now a high school teacher in Stafford, Texas. You never know.

I couldn’t include every great game, or memorable moment in this list. A few that ‘just missed’: Duke 81 / Indiana 78 (1992), Coach K vs. Bob Knight (“The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.”); or Duke 70 / Florida 65 (1994), giving Grant Hill the chance to win three titles; or Kentucky 86 / Stanford 85 (OT) (1998). And of course, without semifinal wins like NC State over Georgia in 1983, or Villanova over Memphis State in 1985, the memories of those respective Finals would have a different flavor.

But here’s hoping that this weekend’s games add a few more memories to this list.

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