Monday, December 29, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: Murtaugh's Top 5 Sports Events of 2008

Wrapping up a countdown of the ten most memorable sporting events I attended in 2008

Posted By on Mon, Dec 29, 2008 at 4:00 AM

5) Memphis 45, Tulane 6 (November 29) -- There may have only been 15,012 fans at the Liberty Bowl on this overcast Saturday after Thanksgiving, but two of them -- Sofia Murtaugh (age 9) and Elena Murtaugh (6) -- were attending their very first college football game. With more than 200 rushing yards, the Tigers left no doubt on the field in earning their 6th win of the season, qualifying for a bowl game (the fifth postseason contest for the Tigers in eight years under coach Tommy West). I insisted on a review from my daughters after the game. "The field was pretty," said Sofia, "but not as pretty as a baseball field." As for Elena's inaugural gridiron adventure: "I liked the way we scored lots more points than they did." Well put. And the hot chocolate was great.

4) Grizzlies 109, Rockets 97 (December 8) -- A sagging economy and lukewarm local interest screamed in the form of 10,000 empty seats on this Monday night at FedExForum. But the home team played some positively Bull-market basketball. With Rudy Gay benched at the start of the game for having been late to shootaround that morning, the Griz still raced out to a 10-0 lead over the Southwest Division-leading Rockets, and they never looked back. (Didn't hurt that Houston's Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest were out of uniform with injuries.) Channeling his inner James Worthy, Memphis rookie O.J. Mayo scored 10 points in the first nine minutes, on his way to 18 for the game. And Mr. Gay came off the bench to score a game-high 20. With Shane Battier and Joey Dorsey on the Rocket bench, it felt like Old Friends Night at the big barn on Beale.

3) Memphis 6, Omaha 5 (July 13) - Josh Phelps will likely join Ernie Young and Kevin Witt in the Memphis baseball history books as a one-year slugger who couldn't quite land a coveted big-league job, but took advantage of Triple-A pitching during his five months as a Redbird. Phelps was the hero of this Sunday matinee, drilling a three-run homer in the bottom of the 12th inning, after Memphis fell behind the Royals in the top of the frame. It was the most dramatic of the team-leading 31 dingers Phelps hit in 2008. Alas, even in Memphis this slugger was but the second-most famous Phelps of the summer.

2) Memphis 77, Tulsa 51 (March 15) -- Memphis fans are getting dangerously close to taking the Conference USA tournament championship for granted. And that's a shame. The Tiger program went 19 years between tourney titles, having last won a Metro championship in 1987 before taking the C-USA title in 2006 at FedExForum. Just as they did in 2007, the Tigers went undefeated in conference play on their way to the 2008 championship game, again at FedExForum but this time against the overmatched Golden Hurricane of Tulsa. Tipping off at 10:30 am for a national television audience, the Tigers ate their Wheaties and won the game by halftime with a 42-13 lead. This was Derrick Rose's last FedExForum appearance as a Tiger, and a rare spotlight moment for John Calipari's "glue guy," Antonio Anderson. After leading Memphis with 19 points, Anderson was named the tourney's MVP.

1) Tennessee 66, Memphis 62 (February 23) -- With apologies to Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, this was the biggest showdown in Memphis sports history. Any matchup involving a top-ranked Tiger basketball team and the number-two squad in the country would likely have earned that status. But for the second-ranked team to be none other than the Tennessee Volunteers (the highest such ranking that program had ever achieved) made this Saturday night at FedExForum nothing short of epic. I hid my credential outside the arena two hours before tip-off and asked an invigorated scalper what he was asking for a single ticket. He laughed at the notion that such information would be volunteered before I stepped forward and established my demand. (This was Economics 101, in sneakers and a ball cap.) When I suggested $50, well, he laughed again. The home team missed a few last-minute opportunities after UT grabbed the lead, and fell by a score of 66-62. The Tigers' five-week reign as number-one in the country came to an end. If there was any solace, it came a few nights later when Tennessee fell at Vanderbilt. Five weeks beats three days, right?

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