By Thomas Sellers Jr.
Since 1939, the spring was guaranteed to have storms, bugs and college hoops.
But last week concerns over the Coronavirus brought on the cancellation of the men’s and women’s NCAA Basketball Tournaments.
Normally we would have three weeks of iconic moments worthy of a Hollywood production.
Phrases like bracketology, upsets and five seed vs. 12 seed won’t be necessary this March. The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament would have been used as a break from the regular news of the Coronavirus scare and presidential election talk.
Filling out brackets would have crushed the productivity at most offices across America. Instead, Corona has taken over that job.
Who can blame us for devoting so much attention to this event. For three weeks we would have enjoyed magical, special moments and made memories that could last a lifetime.
If you doubt how special March Madness is … let me remind you with Webber’s Timeout, Jordan’s Shot and sorry Memphis fans — 21 of 22. If I say the name Keith Smart, an Indiana fan will start smiling. It was those Hoosiers in 1976 completing a perfect season while winning the title.
The perfect ending to a game came in 2016 when Villanova’s Kris Jenkins drained a three-pointer at the buzzer to beat North Carolina in the championship game.
There are so many countless moments of March Madness deserving of my top 10 list. But I will only place the ones that touch my heart and are worthy of a movie.
Although the NCAA expects me to pretend like this never happened, I remember my beloved Memphis Tigers destroying Michigan State, Texas and UCLA in the Lone Star State in March and April 2008.
The first victims were the Spartans on March 28 in the South Regional Semifinals in Houston. Michigan State was overwhelmed by halftime before falling 92-74. Next victims were the Longhorns. The home cooking couldn’t save them March 30 from an 85-67 loss.
The Tigers entertained the nation a week later in San Antonio at the Final Four, crushing UCLA 78-63. We all remember Memphis gave the Bruins “No Love,” as Joey Dorsey dunked over UCLA big man Kevin Love.
David vs. Goliaths
Another NCAA Tournament run stands out going back to 1985. While the 2008 Memphis Tigers came up one game short, the Villanova Wildcats pulled off the trick. Sadly among the foes to fall along the Wildcats’ path to the championship were the Memphis State Tigers.
Villanova was a No. 8 seed. The school out of Philadelphia had not won the title at that point. The Wildcats had to take down the Georgetown Hoyas and all-world center Patrick Ewing. Villanova shot better than 78 percent from the floor to take down the No. 1 overall seed. The Wildcats became the lowest seed to ever win the title with the 66-64 win over Georgetown in Rupp Arena.
Magic vs. Bird
Two years before I was born, the birth of March Madness as we know it today came to be. Michigan State’s Ervin “Magic” Johnson went to battle against Indiana State’s Larry Bird.
The one-on-one rivalry I grew up watching in the NBA started on the NCAA championship court in Utah back in 1979. Most of America tuned in to watch that year’s championship between Michigan State and the undefeated Indiana State Sycamores. Johnson’s Spartans won the title. The game is still the most-watched basketball game of all-time (college or professional).
Duke upsets UNLV
I have a confession. I am a Duke basketball fan. This came to be in 1990 when the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels destroyed Duke in Denver, Colo., 103-73. The team in red was running up and down the court, embarrassing the squad in blue. I developed a connection with those Blue Devils in defeat.
The following year the Runnin’ Rebels were better than ever, defending their championship from the previous season. The undefeated UNLV team arrived at the 1991 NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis ready to make easy work of the Blue Devils in the rematch. The National Semifinal contest wouldn’t be a run-away. Instead, it was a classic. Duke upset UNLV 79-77 en route to Mike Krzyzewski’s first national championship. The Duke players who suffered the national championship game loss the previous year had matured and played smart the entire 40 minutes. And having a freshman like Grant Hill didn’t hurt either.
Loyola Marymount’s run for Hank
One of those moments I will never forget will be seeing college basketball star Hank Gathers collapsing on the floor during a game. Seeing a man who was in great physical condition hit the court and start to heave up and down with no control over his bodily functions scared me.
Later, learning of his passing hurt my 9-year-old heart. I’m sure my sorrow and pain was a fraction compared to Gather’s team. The 1989-90 Loyola Marymount Lions had to go into the NCAA Tournament without their best player. With heavy hearts for losing a brother, the Lions put together three memorable wins to reach the Elite Eight. Hank’s best friend, Bo Kimble, led the way on the court and shot each first free throw of the game with his left hand. Gathers was left-handed.
Kimble never missed with his left hand.
LMU not only honored Gathers but also set some records along the way putting up record points. One of those games was a 149-115 win over the reigning champs, the Michigan Wolverines.
A person no longer on this earth can inspire a team. We learned in 2018 that a little old lady courtside could be inspiration. The 2018 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers stole the spotlight along with their team symbol, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt. We simply call her Sister Jean now.
She was on the sideline for each upset win from her beloved Ramblers. The diehard fan rooted her boys on to wins over Miami (Fla.), Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State before losing to Michigan in the Final Four. Sister Jean’s energy was a blessing for Loyola-Chicago, and her charm gave the country a sweet spirit of rejoicing. Miracles do happen.
Another great moment of the Tournament of Upsets (2018) was the first time a No. 16 seed was able to beat a No. 1 seed. A couple of teams came close, since the No. 16 seed came to fruition in 1985.
In 2018 it finally happened, courtesy of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Those Retrievers took a big bite out of the backside of the Virginia Cavaliers to the tune of 74-54. As UMBC kept hitting timely shots and back-breaking three-pointers, it dawned on an America it was going to happen.
Good thing Virginia used the upset as motivation to rebound in 2019 to win the championship. But a moment like the UMBC upset is better than any trophy.
Bryce Drew’s shot
Having a basketball coach as your U.S. government teacher is a blessing during March. Coach Jimmy Adam’s classroom was NCAA Tournament Central after 11 a.m. at Raleigh-Egypt High School.
So in 1998, I got my assignment done in time to fully concentrate on the Ole Miss vs. Valparaiso game. I knew the Rebels, but I’d never heard of the Crusaders. So as this epic First Round game was unwinding, the Valpo team kept hanging around with one of the best Ole Miss Basketball teams of all time. The Rebels had Ansu Sesay, Keith Carter and Joezon Darby.
We just knew Rob Evans’ squad would pull it out. But Coach Adams saw the upset brewing with his NCAA Tournament experience. He was an assistant coach on the 1991 Memphis Tiger Elite Team.
“The Crusaders have a good coach and his son is the best player on the floor,” Adams told the class.
Valpo Head Coach Homer Drew had a not-so-secret weapon with Bryce. The No. 13 seeded Crusaders kept feeding the younger Drew to stay in the game. Then it happened right before my eyes as I stood underneath the classroom TV.
Valpo was down 69-67 with 2.5 seconds left when Jamie Sykes threw a long pass to mid-court. The ball was quickly passed by Crusader Bill Jenkins to Drew in rhythm. Drew drained the three-pointer as time ticked away for the upset. Coach Adams set behind his desk and said, “I told you, Sellers.”
Jimmy V needs a hug
Another iconic buzzer beater took place in New Mexico back in 1983. The champions that season were the upstart North Carolina State Wolfpack. It took a miracle run for them just to make the tournament. Then the team led by Head Coach Jim Valvano just kept on winning and upsetting the opposition.
When N.C. State reached the title game, the reward was the imposing Phi Slamma Jamma crew from Houston. The Cougars were primed to win the title with stars Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon.
The perfect storm of the elevation, foul trouble and heart of a champion set the table for an iconic March moment. The NC State vs. Houston game was a low-scoring slugfest. Then as time was running out and the Wolfpack had possession of the ball, the magical moment took place. The game was tied 52-52 when N.C. State’s Dereck Whittenburg heaved up a shot. The ball traveled in a projection that looked more like a pass. N.C. State forward Lorenzo Charles caught the ball mid-air and dunked with 1 second left. We will always have the image of Jimmy V storming the floor looking for somebody to hug for several reasons.
Texas Western makes history
We don’t think about race when it comes to the NCAA Tournament these days. Some of the most iconic players have been from all races in the past 50 years. But back in 1966 we needed a game-changing moment. Now known as UTEP, then Texas Western started an all-black team to take on the storied Kentucky Wildcat program for the 1966 NCAA Championship.
The court on the campus of the University of Maryland was the site of a landmark moment. Texas Western’s historic lineup beat the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats 72-65. The idea of black players not having the intelligence to win a championship was destroyed that night. And the victory came courtesy of Kentucky’s legendary coach Adolph Rupp. He made the infamous statement that he wouldn’t recruit non-white players.
Christian Laettner’s shot
The best buzzer-beater I’ve ever seen on live TV cost my parents a bed. I was watching the 1992 NCAA Tournament East Regional championship in my parents’ bedroom because my big sister seized control of the family room television. I had to watch because my now-beloved Duke Blue Devils were trying to capture back-to-back titles. They were taking on the upstart Kentucky Wildcats. A program fresh off probation scrapped its way to the Elite Eight to take on the No. 1 seeded Blue Devils.
The game went back and forth. Overtime was needed, and all the great moments a sports fan could desire happened in this game. With 2.1 seconds left in overtime, Duke’s Grant Hill threw a perfect full-court pass to teammate Christian Laettner.
Laettner was 9 of 9 from the field at this point. He also went 10 of 10 from the free throw line. When Laettner gathered the Hill pass, he was standing near the foul line with a pair of Wildcats on his back. Laettner was not facing the goal. So he made a casual dribble move with only 2.1 seconds remaining. Laettner launched the shot and hit nothing but net. Then he pulled a reverse Jimmy V. He ran away from the hugs in a moment of celebration, winning 103-102.
In celebration, I jumped up and down my parent’s bed. It broke, and I still owe them a new bed today.
THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for West 10 Media/Magic Valley Publishing. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.