This week (and next), a countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended in 2018.
10) Tigers 94, UAB 76 (December 8th) — A banner hangs from the FedExForum rafters during Tiger games that honors Gene Bartow, the coach who led Memphis State to the 1973 Final Four. Bartow was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009 as much for his role in founding and building the UAB program as for his success in the Bluff City. Which makes games between these two programs more poignant than most, especially considering most current players were born after Bartow coached his last game in Birmingham. The Tigers took control early in this Saturday matinee, hitting seven three pointers over the game’s first 12 minutes. Freshman guard Tyler Harris led the way with 24 points to help provide Penny Hardaway his first winning streak as a college coach. Coach Bartow would have relished the cross-generational significance.
9) Grizzlies 123, Lakers 114 (January 15th) — The Grizzlies’ Martin Luther King Day game is one of the top-two annual sporting events in the Mid-South. (You’ll find the other later in this countdown.) This year’s contest, of course, had some extra weight, coming only a few weeks before Memphis commemorated the life of Dr. King, slain a half-century earlier on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, today the National Civil Rights Museum. Among the pregame honorees as a Sports Legacy Award recipient was Penny Hardaway, the hometown hero who would make his own significant news two months later. The Griz were down a star, Mike Conley sidelined by injury. But this was the Lakers, post-Kobe and pre-LeBron. Eight Memphis players scored at least 10 points, led by rookie Dillon Brooks with 19. Best of all, my firstborn daughter was in town between college semesters, so the matinee was a family affair. Basketball matters in Memphis. Always will.
Darrell Henderson, All-American
8) Tennessee 102, Tigers 92 (December 15th) — Forget the outcome. A crowd of 18,528 stuffed FedExForum for this nationally televised game between cross-state rivals renewing a series that had fallen dormant since their last meeting in 2013. The third-ranked Vols (fresh off an upset of top-ranked Gonzaga) made their first five shots from the field to take a 15-5 lead just four minutes into the game. For the remaining 36 minutes, the two teams played even basketball: 87-87. Tiger senior Kyvon Davenport scored 26 of his 31 points after halftime in the kind of performance that takes ownership of a season. Penny Hardaway suffered his first home loss as Memphis coach but spoke for an entire region after the game: "We're going to higher places, and we'll be there sooner than later."
7) Redbirds 6, Iowa 3 (July 16th) — When Stubby Clapp is managing in the major leagues, this is a game I’ll remember. On a hot and sticky Monday night, the Redbirds’ bats looked cold and sickly for seven innings. Even with Luke Weaver on the mound (after a recent demotion from St. Louis to fine-tune his arsenal), Memphis trailed the lowly I-Cubs, 3-1, entering the bottom of the ninth. The Redbirds proceeded to score five times, with big hits from Edmundo Sosa (a reserve infielder playing his 17th game at the Triple-A level) and Alex Mejia (off the bench). The Redbirds simply didn’t quit, and did not in two years on Clapp’s watch. They had no business winning this game, and it meant little in the big picture (the victory gave Memphis a 14-game lead in its division of the Pacific Coast League). But professional athletes are paid to perform, to compete until the final horn or final out.
6) Tigers 59, Georgia State 22 (September 14th) — The only reason this game isn’t higher on my countdown is the soft opponent. Manhandling Georgia State doesn’t lead national game coverage. But Darrell Henderson could only outrun the next team on the U of M schedule, and he did so to the tune of 233 yards on 14 carries in the Tigers’ second win of the season. The junior All-America scored on a 54-yard run in the first quarter and a 61-yarder early in the fourth on his way — 10 games later — to setting a new single-season touchdown record for Memphis (25). I got to see what voters for the Doak Walker Award did not.
Check back next week for my top five.