I fell into a One Shining Moment wormhole a couple of weeks ago.
With the exception of Jennifer Hudson’s 2010 performance (seriously CBS, why try fixing something that isn’t broke?), One Shining Moment is the cherry which tops the perfect hot fudge sundae that is the NCAA Tournament. March Madness – as it’s commonly referred to – has always been my favorite sporting event on the calendar. In high school, I remember watching games during gym class, and from 2010-2014 (my four undergrad years and one graduate year) I skipped all of my classes on the first Thursday and Friday and watched as many contests as I could from 3-4 monitors in my dorm room.
I’ve been to a pair of games as a fan, experiencing both the glory of victory (2015 First Four vs. North Florida) and the agony of defeat (2010 Round of 64 vs. Villanova). Last March, I worked the Second & Third Round contests held at the CONSOL Energy Center in downtown Pittsburgh, allowing me to gain some more insight on what happens beyond the broadcast that CBS, TBS, TNT, or TruTv provides. (Shameless plug: I did an interview here in the Altoona Mirror on last year’s Pittsburgh tournament games.)
So to capture the spirit of the thing, I decided to look at some of my favorite teams, moments, and games from my last 10 years experiencing the Madness. No analytics, no evaluation – just reminiscing on memories from the best month in sports.
(Disclaimer: Before I started at Robert Morris and fell in love with its basketball program, I rooted for North Carolina. That support completely waned during my undergraduate years, but because of my previous bias for the Tar Heels, I am eliminating them and RMU from consideration for these lists.)
2008 Davidson College Wildcats – #10, lost to #1 Kansas, 57-59, in Elite Eight
Who would have imagined that a scrawny guard from a mid-major conference would turn out to be the best basketball player on the planet eight years later? Steph Curry showed flashes of what he is today in the Big Dance of 2008, scoring at will against the most notable Cinderella in Gonzaga (40 points), Big East champion Georgetown (30 points), and Big Ten champion Wisconsin (33 points). While Curry’s performance was the story, senior point guard Jason Richards and junior post Andrew Lovedale also played big roles in the Wildcats’ run.
2010 Cornell University Big Red – #12, lost to #1 Kentucky, 45-62, in Sweet 16
For whatever reason, I find it incredibly difficult to root against an Ivy League team in this format. Cornell, behind its dynamic senior trio of Ryan Wittman (17.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG), Louis Dale (12.8 PPG, 4.7 APG), and Jeff Foote (12.3 PPG, 8.1 RPG), became the first Ivy to make the Sweet 16 in over 30 years with victories over Temple and Wisconsin. They were balanced and relatively deep (five players averaged over 6.0 PPG and nine played over 10.0 MPG), and had one of my favorite stories from that tournament in Foote – a one-time walk-on at Saint Bonaventure – who found his spot in Ithaca after his mother met the head coach in an emergency room.
2012 University of Kentucky Wildcats – #1, defeated #2 Kansas, 67-59, in National Championship
Sometimes the favorite can be likable. That’s what I thought about the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats, who lost just two games (one of which came on a buzzer-beating three at Indiana) en route to their national championship. Five players averaged double-figures and a sixth (senior guard Darius Miller) was at 9.9 points per contest. They marched through the bracket, winning each game in their region by double-digits, and were never really threatened in Final Four games against Louisville and Kansas. Teams this talented (six players were selected in the 2012 NBA Draft) sometimes run into various chemistry problems, but there was no instance of that in Lexington. Anthony Davis’s National Player of the Year campaign was the most dominant I have ever seen. (And Kentucky’s impressive run set the stage for an even bigger moment the next year.)
2013 Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles – #15, lost to #3 Florida, 50-62, in Sweet 16
This shouldn’t need an explanation. “Dunk City” captured the nation by storm in 2013, becoming the seventh 15-seed to win an NCAA Tournament game and the first to advance to the Sweet 16. They weren’t winning by the skin of their teeth either; Florida Gulf Coast held second-half leads of 19 against two-seed Georgetown and seven-seed San Diego State. Excluded from tournament eligibility until just the season prior, the Eagles were its ultimate underdog – if an underdog had a swagger like Jay-Z’s.
2015 University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish – #3, lost to #1 Kentucky, 66-68, in Elite Eight
I hated Notre Dame growing up, but there are times when biases subside because a team is so damn fun. That was this Fighting Irish team, who had the nation’s second-highest offensive rating of 120.4 (guess I lied when I said no analytics, oops) thanks to a starting five that all averaged 10.1 or more points per game. I was lucky to have the opportunity to watch this team in Pittsburgh and while they played Northeastern a little too close in the Second Round, their overtime battle with Butler was my favorite from the six Steel City games.
Jermaine Wallace’s game-winning three-pointer for #14 Northwestern State against #3 Iowa in 2006 Round of 64
Ali Farokhmanesh’s three-pointer for #9 Northern Iowa against #1 Kansas in 2010 Round of 32
Jordan Crawford’s game-tying three-pointer for #6 Xavier against #2 Kansas State in 2010 Sweet 16
Chase Fieler’s alley-oop dunk for #15 Florida Gulf Coast against #2 Georgetown in 2013 Round of 64
BeeJay Anya’s game-winning leaner for #8 North Carolina State against #9 LSU in 2015 Round of 64
#4 LSU over #1 Duke, 62-54, in 2006 Sweet 16
LSU’s defensive performance over the top team in the land is still something I’m in envy of to this day. The Tigers held Duke to just 27.7 percent shooting from the field and a 19.2 percent conversion rate from behind the arc, while Garrett Temple forced J.J. Redick into a 3-of-18 shooting performance in the latter’s final collegiate game. LSU held serve for most of the contest, but the Blue Devils were able to take a 52-51 lead with 3:32 remaining following a Redick trifecta. The Tigers’ defense tightened up after that, allowing just two points the rest of the way.
#2 Kansas State over #6 Xavier, 101-96 [2 OT], in 2010 Sweet 16
An epic game on its own right, the contest gains even more significance for me because Gus Johnson was on the call. His extravagant style is perfect for this slugfest of a bout as Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen and Xavier’s Terrence Holloway seemed to match each other shot for shot. Jordan Crawford’s game-tying three at the end of the first overtime deserves another mention here, becoming more notable of a moment thanks to Johnson’s frenetic scream after it was converted.
#14 BYU over #14 Iona, 78-72, in 2012 First Four
Despite going to a First Four game last year, I still dislike the concept of it because I’ve always been stubborn in regards to having the tournament at a 64-team cap. That being said, the tilt between BYU and Iona was extremely chaotic and just as exciting as the Cougars climbed out of a 25-point hole to stun the Gaels. Noah Hanstock’s three-pointer with 2:25 remaining provided BYU with its first lead of the contest, but it proved to be a dagger as an exhausted Iona team could only manage two points during the final stretch to complete its collapse.
#15 Lehigh over #2 Duke, 75-70, in 2012 Round of 64
Mercer’s 2014 victory over Duke provided us with the greatest post-game dance in NCAA Tournament history, but it was Lehigh’s win against the Blue Devils in 2012 that resonates more with me. The Mountain Hawks completed the sixth 15-over-2 upset (at the time) and second on the day thanks to a special performance by C.J. McCollum, who scored 30 points and pulled down six rebounds. John Adams’ throwdown with 1:59 left was the cherry on top as he avoided a foul attempt by Plumlee #2 and coasted in while a dejected Duke group could only stand and watch.
#8 Kentucky over #1 Wichita State, 78-76, in 2014 Round of 32