My annual countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended this year:
10) Tigers 67, Southern Miss 61 (February 12) — It’s always been fun watching Memphis butt heads with Southern Miss, but it’s gotten better since coach Larry Eustachy arrived in Hattiesburg in 2004. If Eustachy wears a sport coat to the bench, it’s off before the opening tip. His tie is loosened before halftime, his hair dripping with sweat whether or not the score is tight. Eustachy makes things easy for the courtside hecklers at FedExForum. On this night, the Golden Eagles were anything but easy, taking a six-point lead at the half behind the trio of Gary Flowers, D.J. Newbill, and Maurice Bolden. Southern Miss extended the lead to 10 early in the second half before the Tigers clawed their way back. Memphis didn’t gain the lead for good until the last four minutes when a pair of freshmen — Tarik Black and Chris Crawford — hit four straight free throws. The win was the second of three the U of M enjoyed over Eustachy’s crew, including the quarterfinals of the C-USA tournament.
9) UAB 41, Memphis 35 (November 12) — Emphasis on memorable here, not enjoyable. The Tigers scored five touchdowns and more points than in any other game under coach Larry Porter. Jerrell Rhodes and Billy Foster combined to rush for 182 yards in a virtually empty Liberty Bowl. The Tigers led by 11 at halftime and 18 after the third quarter. Then it all collapsed. Memphis quarterback Taylor Reed couldn’t complete a pass, killing the clock and buying the Blazers time for a comeback. The Tiger defense made UAB signal-caller Jonathan Perry look like this year’s Cam Newton. One of the weakest offenses in the entire country — the visitors this time — scored 24 points over the game’s final 15 minutes. Shortly after the game, another reporter looked at me and said, “I thought Larry would get three years.” Not after this game.
8) Tigers 4, Tulsa 0 (October 9) — I have two soccer-playing daughters who essentially direct weekend activity in the fall. The U of M women’s soccer program has gained some spotlight in my family just as it’s gained in national prominence. On a brilliant Sunday afternoon at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex, we saw Tiger freshman Natalia Gomez-Junco score the first hat trick (three goals) for the U of M in four years. And she did so on her 19th birthday. The win improved the Tigers’ record to 13-0-1. And decreased once more the likelihood of seeing two Murtaugh girls anywhere near a football stadium.
7) Grizzlies 89, Mavericks 70 (January 15) — Hindsight is heavy. Memphis was three games under .500 entering this game, one that saw Dallas All-Star Dirk Nowitzki return to the floor after missing two weeks with a knee injury. The Grizzlies raced out to a 31-19 lead after the first quarter and were never really challenged. Nowitzki had as many fouls as he did field goals (2), thanks largely to Zach Randolph’s relentless pressure. Having played only 14 minutes, Nowitzki was ejected in the third quarter after protesting one of those foul calls. Randolph was the star this night, with 23 points and 20 rebounds. One of three times (in four games) Memphis beat the eventual NBA champs last season.
6) White Station Middle vs. Cordova Middle (October 15) — Honest and full disclosure: My older daughter played in this girls’ soccer city championship. My rooting interest gave this contest weight before foot met ball. But it happened to be among the most tightly fought contests I saw all year, so it makes this list. Having tied (0-0) less than two weeks earlier, the Spartans and Cougars were scoreless at halftime, the bleachers at Cordova High School close to full, a youth-league football game being played in the adjacent stadium. White Station took the lead nine minutes into the second half on a laser strike from atop the penalty area. But the defending champs evened things six minutes later. The game extended to overtime, and White Station took the lead in the first 10-minute session (many parents and friends thinking the game was over at the end of the period). Cordova managed to bounce a loose ball over the Spartan goalie midway through the second OT period, forcing the game to decisive penalty kicks. A cruel way to decide a World Cup (ask Hope Solo), and purely painful for 12- and 13-year-old girls. The Cougars made one more PK than did the Spartans.
Check back next week for the Top 5.