This week (and next): A countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended in 2017.
Joe Murphy (NBAE/Getty Images)
Mike Conley will be good again someday, right? Right?
10) Grizzlies 110, Pacers 97 (March 29) — Things seemed so simple then. Familiar. Mike Conley played like the All-Star he’s long been, spurring the Griz to a 14-point lead by the end of the first quarter on his way to a 36-point night. Tony Allen started, played 33 minutes and helped partially shackle Pacer star Paul George (22 points). Zach Randolph came off the bench and scored 17 points in 24 minutes. Marc Gasol missed the game with a minor injury, but 40-year-old Vince Carter stepped in and scored 21, draining four of six shots from three-point range. The win clinched a .500 record for the Grizzlies and moved them a step closer to securing a seventh straight playoff berth. And David Fizdale seemed like a rising star among NBA coaches. The Grizzlies have delivered many nights like this one at FedExForum. They will again.
9) Tigers 83, Mercer 81 (December 2) — If a good basketball game is played in front of more empty seats than full, does it count as a good game? Played right after the Tigers’ exhilarating AAC football championship game in Orlando, the contest drew fewer than 5,000 fans to FedExForum. (Probably fewer than 3,000. I didn’t actually do a head count.) The Tigers fell behind, trailing by nine at halftime and by eight with six minutes to play. But freshman Jamal Johnson drilled a three-pointer with less than 30 seconds on the clock to force the first overtime, and the Tigers hit 16 of 18 free throws in the two overtime sessions to snag a precious win in what is sure to be a trying season for Tubby Smith and friends.
8) Cardinals 9, Redbirds 3 (March 30) — I’ve yet to take my mother-in-law to St. Louis for a Cardinals game, but she can now say the Cardinals came to Memphis to play for her. Three generations of my family enjoyed this chilly opening to the 2017 Redbirds season, the seventh time the Cardinals have stopped for an exhibition game at AutoZone Park on their way from Florida to Missouri. Four Cardinals — Jedd Gyorko, Aledmys Diaz, Jhonny Peralta, and Yadier Molina — homered to delight every mother-in-law in attendance. Less than four months later, Molina — a Memphis catcher way back in 2004 — homered in the major-league All-Star Game, the first Cardinal to do so in 43 years.
7) Tigers 66, SMU 45 (November 18) — The 18th-ranked Tigers actually trailed in this
game, 10-0. Effects of their bye week, apparently. They proceeded to score nine touchdowns (a program-record-tying seven on the ground) to manhandle the Mustangs and clinch the American Athletic Conference’s West Division championship. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson tossed two touchdown passes and ran for three more. Anthony Miller had, for him, a ho-hum game: eight catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns. Patrick Taylor ran for 112 yards and a pair of scores, but was merely the Tigers’ second-best running back. Sophomore Darrell Henderson scored on runs of 52 yards and 70 yards on his way to 147 (on just 10 carries). With the win, the 9-1 Tigers jumped to 17th in the AP rankings.
6) North Carolina 75, Kentucky 73 (March 26) — When the 6th-ranked Tar Heels and 5th-ranked Wildcats met in the NCAA tournament’s South Regional final at FedExForum, it wasn’t merely John Calipari’s heroically awkward return to the building he made famous in college hoops circles. This game qualified as a run-through for the upcoming NBA draft. Four of the top 15 picks-to-be took the floor: De’Aaron Fox (5th), Malik Monk (11th), and Bam Adebayo (14th) for Kentucky and Justin Jackson (15th) for North Carolina. (For good measure, another Tar Heel was taken by the Lakers with the 28th pick: Tony Bradley.) And the game lived up to expectations. Five Wildcats scored at least 10 points and a three-pointer by Monk with seven seconds left on the clock appeared to force overtime. But sophomore forward Luke Maye — not NBA-bound, alas — drained a 17-footer from the left wing with less than half a second to play to give Carolina the win and yet another trip to the Final Four (the program’s 20th). Just as they did in 2009, the Tar Heels followed their Memphis net-cutting by winning the national championship.
Next week: The Top Five