This week I present the first half of my annual countdown of the most memorable sporting events I attended in 2014. It was a fun year, and a challenge to pick just ten.
10) Oklahoma State 73, Tigers 55 (December 13) — Forget the score and outcome of the game. For that matter, forget the sport that was being played. Basketball was incidental, it turned out, on this late Saturday afternoon at FedExForum. At halftime, the 2014 American Athletic Conference champions — the U of M football team — was introduced to the crowd of 14,000 (an audience smaller than those at the Liberty Bowl last season, not a given in this town). Coach Justin Fuente spoke to the crowd through a microphone and included the words “our first” when introducing his champs. Fuente’s brief address left you with the feeling there are more good times ahead — perhaps great — for U of M football.
9) Florida 62, Dayton 52 (March 29) — Anytime FedExForum hosts a regional final in the NCAA tournament, my blood pumps a little quicker. But with a chance to see a team that calls itself the Flyers reach the Final Four? (There were shirts in the arena that said “Flyer Nation.” Honest.) Scottie Wilbekin (23 points) and the top-seeded Gators proved to be too much for Dayton (the South region’s 11th seed), ending a three-year losing streak in the Elite Eight for Florida. The Gators went on to lose in the national semifinals. And Dayton? They returned to Ohio, still owners of the best nickname in college sports.
8) Redbirds 4, New Orleans 3 (August 7) — Defense wins championships. We hear this (whether or not we believe it) every football season, every basketball season. It’s not such a catch phrase for baseball. (Substitute the word “pitching” for defense.) On this night, the Redbirds flashed leather of the big-league variety. The bases loaded with Zephyrs in the top of the seventh inning (and Memphis leading 4-2), New Orleans catcher Rob Brantly drilled a ball deep into the right-centerfield gap. But Redbird rightfielder Stephen Piscotty ran it down, catching the ball across his body in full extension to save at least one run. (The catch ultimately secured Redbird pitcher Tim Cooney’s 11th win of the season.) Pete Kozma put on a clinic at shortstop, throwing out eight Zephyrs, even after bobbling one ground ball. And the game ended when Memphis first baseman Xavier Scruggs dove to snag a ball down the line. You’d see none of these highlights in the box score. Which is among the reasons baseball is the best sport on the planet.
7) Grizzlies 106, Dallas 105 (April 16) — You won’t see two NBA teams play a better 82nd game. With a 50th win and seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs on the line for both teams, the Grizzlies won their fifth straight game, and 14th straight at FedExForum. It didn’t come easily. Dallas led at halftime. There were 15 lead changes. Dirk Nowitzki, having recently entered the NBA’s all-time scoring top 10, scored 30 points, the last three coming in overtime to give the Mavs a three-point lead with just over a minute to play. But after a Tony Allen putback and a defensive stop, Grizzly point guard Mike Conley drew a foul with 1.1 seconds left on the clock. He buried both charity shots to give Memphis a one-point lead. The game wasn’t decided, though, until the final shot of the regular season’s final game. As the buzzer sounded in overtime, Monta Ellis missed a 20-foot jumper and streamers fell to the FedExForum floor.
6) Tigers 36, Middle Tennessee 17 (September 20) — There should have been a linebacker named Tank on Vince Lombardi’s Packers. Or maybe with Dick Butkus and the Monsters of the Midway. No, Tank Jakes is merely a University of Memphis linebacker who played like Butkus on this night in front of 46,000 fans at the Liberty Bowl. Midway through the first quarter, he sacked Blue Raider quarterback Austin Grammer in the end zone for a safety (the first of two sacks for Jakes). Early in the fourth quarter, he drilled a Middle ball carrier and forced a fumble that was returned 59 yards for a touchdown by Tiger cornerback Bobby McCain. Not done yet, Jakes intercepted a Grammer pass on the Raiders’ next possession. This was the best game — at least statistically — by a Memphis defensive player in at least a generation or two. Let’s call the stat line (forced fumble, safety, interception) what we should: The Tank Trifecta.
Check back next Monday for my top five. And happy holidays.