Time Wrap: Game on at its Finest

The games we play. When you discuss sports, athletes, or moments that stay locked in your mind, it all comes down to the games we play. All sports fans can relate to a contest that made them pay attention. Whether we're in a bar with friends, secluded at home, or in the arena itself, that "remember where you were" game is what makes us tune in. We're willing to sit through the "ehh," the "meh," and the "ugh" for that matchup that only leaves us breathing "wow."

In my lifetime, there are too many games to count. There are too many that I've overlooked. One thing is certain, though. My easiest thoughts regarding great games include some pretty high stakes. You can have all-time games with little appeal. They can happen when someone needs to make a statement. But, for me, the ultimate happens with glory on the line. That guides my selection process for the following ... the 10 greatest competitions since November 10th, 1979.

February 22, 1980: Olympic Men's Hockey Semifinals, USA vs. USSR

As documented ad nauseam, the game that would become known as the "Miracle on Ice" was about so much more than a berth in the Olympic gold medal match. The Cold War was 30-plus years along, without much of an end in sight. It was still heated enough to the point that the U.S. Summer Olympic team would not go to Moscow just five months later (the Soviets would return the favor for 1984's Los Angeles games).

The tension and the massive underdog factor made this one of the most monumental upsets in the history of sports. But the matchup was also tightly contested. Neither squad ever had a multiple-goal lead. The first six goals were alternated before Mike Eruzione's celebrated score midway through the 3rd period. And the Americans held on for what, in essence, was basically their memorable Game 6 in a best-of-seven series.

January 10, 1982: NFC Championship, San Francisco vs. Dallas

A lot of cliches occur in what we herald as the greatest games to be contested. This was one of those "passing the torch" moments. The Cowboys were the established, championship-quality team. The 49ers were the upstarts. Everything came down to a last-minute decision by Joe Montana that ended up as "The Catch". Dwight Clark's extension to the sky became the spark that ignited the new face of the NFL. Dallas would bottom out during the decade before returning to the top in the early 1990s.

October 27, 1991: World Series, Game 7, Atlanta vs. Minnesota

During this break from live sports, the radio station that I work at has been replaying Twins games of classic import. The Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend (the upcoming one as I type this), we'll be offering the radio call from this specific matchup. While some find 1-0 baseball games to be complete snoozers, I've said before that these matchups can be some of the most thrilling in the sport.

This game underscores what I still believe to be the most underrated World Series of all time. Five one-run games. Four of those were won in the final at-bat (in the other one, the winning run was scored in the bottom of the 8th). Three went to extra innings. Whichever team won would go from division bottom-feeder to world champion in just a year's time. In my mind, Jack Morris pitching 10 innings to out-duel John Smoltz for everything pushes this game into legendary status.

March 28, 1992: NCAA Men's East Regional Final, Duke vs. Kentucky

To a fan, I don't know if there's anyone that can objectively say any college basketball game was better than this one. If Duke hadn't proven their status as a blue-blood program by that night, they had the opportunity to join the club a weekend later. Standing in the way was one of the two biggest programs through the decades.

We know about Kentucky's fall from their lofty perch. We know about Christian Laettner's prowess as the best player in the game. We know about Duke's hunger to be the first back-to-back champion since the UCLA dynasty. All of the potential storylines merged at Philadelphia's Spectrum that night. They all delivered ... and then some.

January 4, 2006: Rose Bowl, Southern Cal vs. Texas

The textbook definition of a player that carries his team on his back and outshines the star-laden opponent. The defending-champion Trojans were stacked. They had that season's Heisman Trophy winner (despite later sending the award back, Reggie Bush did win it). They were led by the previous season's Heisman Trophy winner. Under Pete Carroll's tutelage, they had won 34 straight. Texas didn't have the overall star power, but they were just as dominant during the 2005 season.

Both teams secured a three-point road win over a top-ten opponent (UT at Ohio State, USC in the famed "Bush Push" game at Notre Dame). Both teams scored 50 or more seven times during the season, each hitting the 70 mark once. Statistically, the Longhorns ended up having the better scoring offense and defense than the Trojans that season. Maybe the better team did win.

July 6, 2008: Wimbledon Gentlemen's Final, Nadal Survives Marathon Against Federer

Rafael Nadal is the undisputed King of Clay. By this date, he was the four-time defending champion at Roland Garros. But that was all he was known for. He continually got better on other surfaces, but had not won a Grand Slam at a different venue. Roger Federer now has a reputation as the King of Grass. On this date, he was the five-time defending champion at Wimbledon. The two previous years, he held off Nadal in that tournament's final match.

Nadal got the upper hand, winning the first two sets. But, always game for a fight, Federer came back to grab the next two sets in tiebreaks. That set everything up for a thrilling final set that went "extra time." Thanks to a couple short rain delays, the match ended with Nadal on his back in victory and illuminate by flashes cutting through the darkness. This match proved to be the turning point in Nadal's career. And it may have ushered in what some are calling the Golden Age of Tennis.

April 4, 2016: NCAA Men's National Championship, Villanova vs. North Carolina

Okay. My recency bias starts now. The 1992 East Regional Final is, by most accounts, the best game in NCAA history ... but nobody won the title. There are memorable championship games littered through the years. This one, though, may have been the best of them all.

It did not have the drama of the 1957, triple-overtime classic (North Carolina d. Kansas and Wilt). It did not have the historic prowess of 1966 (Texas Western d. Kentucky). It did not showcase the stunning result of 1983 (N.C. State d. Houston) or 1985 (Villanova d. Georgetown). It did not have the "everyman" quality of 2010 (Duke d. Butler).

All it had going for it was a tough, tight battle between two of the best programs over that season, a never-say-die Tarheel backcourt (Marcus Paige and Joel Barry II combined for 41 points and 10 assists), a Wildcat hero off the bench (Phil Booth outscored the Carolina bench by 14), and the best finish in the history of the title game. Better than 1982. Better than 1983. Better than 2010. The absolute best, period.

June 5, 2017: Women's College World Series, Championship, Game 1, Oklahoma vs. Florida

This is the first of two contests that virtually nobody would think of. I enjoy watching collegiate softball. Sure, there are similarities to its smaller, denser counterpart. However, there are differences between the action on the softball and baseball diamonds. The speed of the game feels faster. The aggression on the base paths is definitely more pronounced. And because of the rules regarding player entry, more strategies are available in the fast-pitch arena.

The Gators were the top team in the country. The Sooners were the defending champs and, as always, had that hometown vibe playing just a handful of miles from campus. Florida had yet to give up a run during the entire WCWS, but Oklahoma found themselves up 2-1 and one strike away from victory. In that bottom of the 7th, the Gators turned a pop up into a game-tying run that sent the match into extra innings. Oklahoma took a two-run lead in the top of the 12th, only to have Florida tie it again ... being down to their last strike (again). A three-run homer in the top of the 17th proved to be too much for the Gators, as they could only get one back. The Sooners claimed a 7-5 victory. OU won 5-4 the next night to repeat as national champs.

March 30, 2018: NCAA Women's National Semifinal, Connecticut vs. Notre Dame

Over the past 10-15 years, no matchup has been more important to women's college basketball than the Huskies and the Fighting Irish. The two programs have met during and after their time as conference rivals. However, they've made prime appearances for one another in the postseason tournaments. Twice, UConn has bested Notre Dame for a national championship. In that penultimate game, though, history sees things differently.

As of the current day, the Huskies and Irish have matched up six times in the national semifinals. UND holds a 5-1 edge in that round. The 2018 edition was the best of them all. This was the second game in what could arguably be called the best Final Four in the history of the men's or women's tournament. UConn was still stinging from losing their 111-game winning in the 2017 Final Four. The Huskies only played six-deep, but five of those players scored in double figures. It took a phenomenal game from Jackie Young (32 points, 11 rebounds), an all-around effort from Jessica Shepard (15 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists), and the first of two buzzer-beating daggers from Arike Ogunbowale to stave off the Huskies in overtime. The second of Ogunbowale's buzzer beaters that weekend was reserved for the title clincher over Mississippi State.

April 14, 2019: Masters Final Round, Tiger Completes His Comeback

It had been a decade since Tiger Woods was the dominant force on the PGA Tour (on the course). There were so many comebacks that in injury. There were a couple of big scandals that damaged his reputation. But nearly 11 years after his last major victory, he was there, in contention on the final nine at Augusta. There was a crowd of contenders.

Francesco Molinari was in the lead. He outplayed Tiger head-to-head the Sunday of the 2018 British Open, and it was enough to win the Claret Jug. Brooks Koepka shared second with Woods after making Tiger the runner-up at the 2018 PGA Championship. Could Tiger exact sweet revenge and emerge from a group including major winners Jason Day and Bubba Watson, as well as rising stars Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Jon Rahm, and Tony Finau?

There was the twenty minutes of chaos at the par-three 12th, where four of the final six players wound up in Rae's Creek. There was the flurry of strokes gained at the infamous par-fives (13 and 15). And then, there was Tiger, coolly slipping through the chaos and emerging with a two-stroke lead after 17. This day mirrored Jack Nicklaus' famed win in 1986, with much of the same building (and watery) drama. And I still believe that victory created the bigger moment for the sport. But if you pull in the totality of the story, the field, and the day, this was a golfing final round that will be hard to top ... ever.

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