This week (and next), my annual countdown of the top ten sporting events I was lucky enough to attend this year.
10) Redbirds 3, Isotopes 2 (June 27) — There was some ugly baseball played by the home team at AutoZone Park last summer. But on this night, the ’Birds looked sharp, both on the mound and at the plate. Shelby Miller — the St. Louis Cardinals’ top prospect — pitched like all the scouts said he can. Over five innings, Miller struck out eight and gave up but a single hit (a home run to Albuquerque’s Matt Angle). Better yet, he pitched out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam of his own doing (two walks and a hit batter) to keep Memphis in the game. Down 2-1 in the seventh inning, the Redbirds took the lead on back-to-back homers from Mark Hamilton and Zack Cox. Adam Reifer and Maikel Cleto retired the last six Isotopes in order. Baseball like it ought to be.
9) Tigers 37, Tulane 23 (November 10) — Good vibes have been hard to come by at the Liberty Bowl recently. But this night had plenty, even with sloppy football (a combined eight turnovers) from both teams. You had the sense Justin Fuente’s boys were primed to compete when they gambled on fourth down near midfield on their opening drive ... and converted. They pulled off the same stunt early in the fourth quarter, again part of a touchdown drive. The Tigers’ final two touchdowns were scored on a pass from tailback Brandon Hayes and a 32-yard interception return by Tank Jakes. Quarterback Jacob Karam passed for 270 yards on just 18 attempts. If this is a preview of what Fuente Football might be, it’s worth staying tuned.
8) Tigers 81, North Florida 66 (November 12) — “Starting at forward, from Memphis Tennessee!” “Starting at guard, from Memphis, Tennessee!” And on and on went FedExForum p.a. announcer Chuck Roberts: five Tiger starters, all of them natives of the Bluff City. It can be hazardous to be too provincial in rooting for a team (or players). Shaq Goodwin and Antonio Barton might bristle at the thought of the 2012-13 Tigers being “our” team. But it’s fun to cheer the familiar, and yes, the 2012-13 Memphis Tigers are indeed “our” team in ways no college team has been for many years, at least since Larry Finch coached his last game in 1997. The drubbing of the Ospreys seemed formulaic, but the start of a new college hoops season — coach Josh Pastner’s fourth — made for a delectable night of home cooking.
7) Memphis 60, Chattanooga 59 (March 15) — There are charms to watching a basketball game at the Elma Roane Fieldhouse that are all too hard to find in modern sports. The small crowds (relative to FedExForum) are generated from essentially three fan types: students (the venue is on the U of M campus; imagine that), families of players, and fans who go because their parents and grandparents went. Despite 24 wins and three all-conference selections — senior center Jasmine Lee made Conference USA’s first team — the Tiger women’s team was relegated to the NIT and hosted the Lady Mocs in a first-round game. Memphis fell behind by 16 points (25-9) early in the game, but fought back steadily behind Lee and sophomore point guard Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir. The Tigers took their first lead (since the game’s opening bucket) with less than four minutes to play. Down a point, Lee put back a miss by Nicole Dickson with six seconds to play to keep the Tiger season alive. Fans lined up to high-five the victorious team as it departed the court. Yes, college sports can still be charming.
6) Louisville 87, Tigers 78 (December 15) — Forget the outcome. The Louisville Cardinals — the team a local fan base most loves hating — were at FedExForum for the first time in more than seven years. The game was played a day after the senseless massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. A day after a Memphis police officer was slain in the line of duty. If sports serve any redeeming purpose, it’s as a distraction from the troubles (and sometimes, horrors) we must confront — and endure — as the days and years go by. The buzz before tip-off was that of an NBA playoff game in the fourth quarter. For two hours, the good guys wore white and the bad guys wore black. Then they shook hands after the final buzzer. Simple, really. And much needed.
Next week — the top five.