Continuing from last week, my annual countdown of the top ten sporting events I was lucky enough to attend this year.
5) Redbirds 24, Oklahoma City 7 (July 22) — Spectator sports are foremost about gathering, and this was one of the happiest gatherings of the year for me. My sister’s family was visiting from Seattle, and I was able to take my 5-year-old niece and 3-year-old nephew to their first game at AutoZone Park. As if the playground and leftfield bluff weren’t enough to impress, the home team scored a franchise-record 24 runs, with Pete Kozma and Steven Hill each hitting grand slams .... in the fourth inning. For one night, the last-place Redbirds and first-place RedHawks switched roles. Would have been the biggest baseball event of my family’s visit had Ichiro Suzuki not been traded to the Yankees the next day.
4) Tigers 84, Ohio 58 (December 5) — Adonis Thomas will be an NBA player a year from now. Three juniors from Memphis — Joe Jackson, Tarik Black, and Chris Crawford — collectively make up the face of the 2012-13 U of M basketball team. But on this night, two rookies made the team their own. Freshman forward Shaq Goodwin — a McDonald’s All-American from Georgia — scored the Tigers’ first 10 points of the second half, finishing with 20 (along with nine rebounds) for the game. Junior transfer Geron Johnson — shaking off a troubled past one field goal at a time — scored a game-high 21 points off the bench, nine coming via three-point shots, several others via supreme athleticism. Best of all, the Tigers had that grammatically fractured specialty of college hoops, a “quality win” over a team that played in the 2012 NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. If Goodwin and Johnson are the players we saw on this night, the ceiling for the Tigers come March will be rather high.
3) Grizzlies 105, L.A. Clippers 98 (May 2) — After a kick-in-the-gut collapse in Game 1 of their playoff series, the Grizzlies regained their footing — and established some backbone — by beating Chris Paul and friends at a packed FedExForum. Six Memphis players scored in double figures, led by Rudy Gay (21) and O.J. Mayo (20). Paul picked up 29 points and five steals for the bad guys, but the Grizzlies maintained a lead from midway through the second quarter to the final buzzer. You had the sense leaving the arena that the Griz could regain home-court advantage in Los Angeles (which they did with a win in Game 6). Then Game 7 happened ... .
2) Tigers 83, Marshall 57 (March 10) — This was the sixth and final time the Conference USA tournament championship would be decided at FedExForum. And the fifth time the home team would cut down the nets. There was little in the way of drama, the Tigers coming off easy wins in the quarterfinals and semifinals before taking the court against the Thundering Herd. Memphis led by 18 points at halftime and cruised to the automatic NCAA tournament berth behind tournament MVP Joe Jackson (19 points and six assists). With the Tigers’ move to the Big East next year, it will be a long time before U of M fans get to see such a title won in their own neighborhood. On a Saturday morning in early March, the game — and a tourney championship — felt quite natural.
1) Tigers 42, Southern Miss 24 (November 24) — If this was the final Black-and-Blue Game on the gridiron, what a way for Memphis to finish a long rivalry. Three weeks after a program fell to 6-39 (dating back to the start of the 2009 season), it rode off the Liberty Bowl field — literally for many of the seniors — after winning a third straight blowout. The Tiger offense scored three touchdowns in the second quarter and three more in the third. (There were times of late when three touchdowns in a quarter-season would have felt normal.) The U of M finished its final Conference USA season with a 4-4 league record and, best of all, indications that it may well be competitive in the Big East, perhaps as early as 2013. This game was a much-deserved send-off for a group of seniors that had to endure more than any class of football players should.