Continuing my countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended in 2016.
5) Tigers 62, UAB 55 (December 10) — Let’s hope this renewal of a longtime regional rivalry becomes a permanent part of the U of M schedule. Gene Bartow, remember, founded the Blazer program. (The teams hadn’t played since Memphis left Conference USA after the 2012-13 season.) The Tigers fell behind by nine points early in the second half, but rallied behind the dominant play of sophomore forward Dedric Lawson. With 24 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 blocks, Lawson came within two rejections of the program’s fourth triple-double and just one from tying the Tiger single-game record. It was Lawson’s seventh double-double in nine games, and 24th of his career. His next would tie him for 10th in Memphis history.
4) Cardinals 11, Mariners 6 (June 26) — You might say I followed Tommy Pham from Memphis to Seattle. Having injured himself playing for St. Louis on Opening Day, Pham had recently been promoted to the big club after a stint with the Redbirds. During a visit with my sister’s family, we made our way to Safeco Field on one of those sunny Sundays the Pacific Northwest does so well. Matt Carpenter homered in the top of the sixth to give the Cardinals a 6-3 lead, but the Mariners tied things up in the bottom of the inning. Over the next three innings, though, the Cardinals hit five solo homers to secure the win. Tommy Pham hit two of them.
3) Redbirds 7, Nashville 6 (August 25) — This was Grizzlies Night at AutoZone Park. Rookie Wade Baldwin threw out the first pitch, and the Redbirds wore jerseys that reflected the color and style of their NBA brethren. (The blue cardinals on the bat were disorienting if not unsettling.) Rehabbing slugger Matt Adams clubbed a two-run homer in the first inning to give last-place Memphis a lead over the first-place Sounds, but Nashville took a 6-5 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Centerfielder Harrison Bader led off the inning with a home run to tie the game. Five batters later, Jose Martinez came to the plate with runners at first and second and two outs. He slapped a hard grounder up the middle that was snagged by the Nashville second baseman. But the throw to first was late and bounced off Martinez’s heel, allowing Breyvic Valera to score from second for the victory. A mob scene ensued around Martinez in short rightfield. The standings don’t matter in walk-off celebrations.
2) Tigers 48, Houston 44 (November 25th) — Mike Norvell’s first regular-season as Tiger coach ended with a holiday showdown at the Liberty Bowl against 18th ranked Houston. The Tigers scored on their second snap of the game, a 67-yard connection from Riley Ferguson to Phil Mayhue. By halftime, the underdogs were up 34-17. Houston scored the first 20 points of the second half, though, forcing Memphis to come back — twice — in the game’s final five minutes. Ferguson hit Anthony Miller on a 35-yard strike to regain the lead for the U of M (41-37) with 3:49 to play. But Cougar quarterback Greg Ward led a 75-yard drive to put Houston back on top with 1:29 on the clock. A deep pass to Mayhue and a pass-interference call set up the Tigers’ game-winner: a 10-yard slant by Miller, hit in stride by Ferguson with 19 seconds left. The victory gave Memphis three straight seasons with at least eight wins for the first time since 1961-63.
1) Grizzlies 128, Lakers 119 (February 24) — A man with five NBA titles and more career points than anyone not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Karl Malone took the floor one last time at FedExForum. In many respects, Kobe Bryant was Public Enemy Number One over the Grizzlies’ first 15 years in Memphis. No player scored more points against the Griz than did Bryant, and the 18-time All-Star holds the single-game scoring record at FEF (60 points on March 22, 2007). But on this night, Kobe was king and the Bluff City his court. With less than five minutes to play and the outcome decided, Bryant entered the contest one last time. This was atypical of a man as fiercely competitive as any athlete of his generation. It was entirely for Memphis fans. One last goodbye. The Black Mamba getting sentimental on us. Who would have thought?