The five most memorable sporting events I attended in 2014.
5) Tigers 60, Gonzaga 54 (February 8) — It was a birthday block party Joe Jackson — and every witness at FedExForum — will never forget. With his Tigers trailing Gonzaga by 11 and 13:45 left to play, the 6’1” point guard rose (and rose . . .) and blocked a dunk attempt by 7’1” Zag center Przemek Karnowski. An arena roared, and the Tigers outscored Gonzaga 29-12 the rest of the way. Jackson played in four NCAA tournaments for the Tigers, won three Conference USA tournaments, and finished his career seventh on the school’s all-time scoring chart. For many, though, the single play he left for posterity is a jaw-dropping blocked shot. (Jackson blocked 19 shots in his college career.)
4) Redbirds 2, Nashville 1 (July 7) — Monday night in the minor leagues. If you’re desperate to catch a foul ball at a professional game, this is the one to attend. After packing the house twice — a total of more than 20,000 fans — over the holiday weekend, the Redbirds welcomed empty seats back to AutoZone Park for the opening game of a four-game series with division-rival Nashville. The Sounds held first place in the Pacific Coast League’s American Southern Division, the Redbirds last . . . but only four-and-a-half games back of their intrastate rival. The Milwaukee Brewers’ top prospect, Jimmy Nelson, held Memphis scoreless for seven innings, and the Redbirds trailed, 1-0, entering the bottom of the ninth. Xavier Scruggs led off with a single and came around to score the tying run on an infield hit by Jermaine Curtis. Two batters later, Curtis scored on a sharply hit ball to short by Luis Mateo and the Redbirds had a five-game winning streak for the first time in almost two years . . . walk-off variety. Fewer than 1,000 people were in the park as Mateo was mobbed by his teammates at first base. I was glad to be one of them.
3) Tigers 72, Louisville 66 (March 1) — Memphis hadn’t swept its arch rival since the 1996-97 season, Larry Finch’s last as head coach. The Tigers were playing less than 48 hours after losing at Houston. And this was 7th-ranked Louisville, for crying out loud, the defending national champions. When Cardinal forward Montrezl Harrell slammed home an offensive rebound with 4:44 to play in the game, the Tigers trailed by eight points (65-57). They outscored Louisville the rest of the way, 15-1. Tiger senior Geron Johnson converted a steal into the tying points, Chris Crawford drained a dagger three (his fourth of the game), and the home team hit four of six free throws to pull away. Rick Pitino’s program is now part of the ACC, so it will be a while (if ever) before these two again face each other multiple times in the same season. A win — and sweep — to relish, well beyond 2014.
2) Grizzlies 98, Oklahoma City 95 (April 24) — This was Tony Allen in full Grindfather form, the match — off the Memphis bench — for the powder keg that is FedExForum on a playoff night. Allen scored 10 points in just 11 minutes in the first half while helping keep MVP-to-be Kevin Durant under control (12 points in the first half). And after 40 minutes of play, the Grizzlies appeared to be unequivocally the superior team. But over the game’s last eight minutes, Oklahoma City outscored the home team, 21-4, to force overtime. All four of the game-saving points were Allen’s. And so, you might say, were four scored by Thunder guard Russell Westbrook on a three-pointer (plus free throw) converted after an Allen foul. Mike Conley drained a three-pointer and converted a Durant turnover into a layup midway through the overtime session to give the Grizzlies just enough for a 2-1 series lead. Dating back to the 2011 postseason, this was the fifth game (among 15) between these opponents to require overtime.
1) Tigers 41, UConn 10 (November 29) — This game made for a Thanksgiving weekend local football fans will never forget. Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch opened up a tight game by throwing three touchdown passes in the third quarter to help the Tigers secure their sixth straight victory (the program’s longest winning streak in 45 years) and a share of the American Athletic Conference championship (the program’s first league crown in 43 years). With the dreadful (2-8) Huskies playing a long way from home, there was no doubt who’d win this game during warm-ups. Nonetheless, to walk the Liberty Bowl field after the game, under falling confetti as coach Justin Fuente accepted the AAC trophy, was to live in the surreal. Three years after finishing 2-10 and ridiculed as the worst college football program in the country, the Memphis Tigers were champions.