Over the course of a very mad March, we’ve talked about some of our favorite forgotten NCAA tournament games in our Digging in the Crates series. With the Final Four taking place in the Dallas area this weekend, we thought we’d invite a few writers to reflect on some of the Final Four games — third-place games, women’s games, semifinals, and championship games — that they treasure or remember, or that simply piqued their interest. Below, read entries from Chuck Klosterman, Louisa Thomas, Andrew Sharp, Rafe Bartholomew, Sean Fennessey, and Chris Ryan.
Chuck Klosterman: The NCAA tournament is engineered for memory generation. It’s a perpetual reminiscing machine (the annual “One Shining Moment” montage, broadcast minutes after the conclusion of the final game, actively — and quite successfully — tries to manufacture nostalgia for events that happened just three weeks before). This whole column is comprised of incidents various people will never forget. Which is why I find myself paradoxically intrigued by something few college basketball fans seem to remember at all: For 35 years, the Final Four had a third-place game.
There was a time when third-place games were not remotely uncommon (bizarrely, even the NFL staged a third-place game throughout the 1960s). You still see them at the high school level and throughout the Olympics (simply to assign the bronze medal). But the idea of two major colleges battling for the right to be called the third-best team in the nation now seems more antiquated than the entire NIT. It has become an aberrant thing to lionize. The modern trajectory of sports culture desires a collegiate landscape that is essentially professional; at this point, any game that doesn’t play some direct role in the crowning of a singular champion is viewed as irrelevant. If the NCAA reintroduced the third-place game next season, it would be viewed only as a soulless money grab orchestrated by CBS. And this is the opposite of what it actually was: a basketball game played for the sake of basketball itself, signifying nothing except the immaterial outcome.
The winner of the inaugural 1946 third-place game was Ohio State (it defeated Cal 63-45). The finest individual performance in a third-place game was by Bill Bradley, who scored 58 against Wichita State in 1965 (that was the one electrifying upside to consolation games — there was never any bias against gunning for numbers). The closest a third-place game ever came to being “historic” was probably UCLA vs. Kansas in 1974: Bill Walton, devastated by the Bruins’ double-OT loss to David Thompson’s NC State squad in the national semifinal, tried to convince John Wooden to let him skip his final game as a collegiate. “I didn’t want to play and I told Coach Wooden that,” Walton said 40 years later. “We had a bitter argument over that, and I lost that argument, too.” Walton ended up playing an uninspired 20 minutes, taking only three shots (although UCLA still won).
The last third-place game was played in 1981, just a few hours after John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan and Alexander Haig took “control” of the White House. A Virginia team featuring sophomore Ralph Sampson defeated LSU 78-74. Jeff Lamp had 25 before being drafted by the Blazers. Proof that this happened at all can be seen below — for 11 seconds. Jodie Foster wasn’t impressed.
UConn vs. Tennessee, National Championship Game, 1995
Louisa Thomas: In 1995, if you had asked me why the championship game between UConn and Tennessee was a big deal, I wouldn’t have said, “Because UConn became the first team to go undefeated since the 1985-86 Lady Longhorns of Texas,” or “Because the Huskies won their first title, and Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma have established what will become the greatest rivalry in the history of women’s basketball,” or “Because I’m a girl, and girls need to show their support for female athletics,” or “Because I [heart] Rebecca Lobo.” I would have said, “Because it was just a really big deal.” (Fine, I probably would have said, “Duh.” It was 1995 and I was 13, OK?) The women’s Final Four seemed like the men’s Final Four — not more special, but not so much less. I’d heard the matchup discussed on SportsCenter. I’d read about it in the New York Times. I took it for granted that it was something you had to watch.
It was a fantastic game. Lobo and UConn’s point guard Jennifer Rizzotti both had three fouls early, and Tennessee started the second half with a six-point lead. Then, with 12 minutes left, Lobo quickly and emphatically took over — spinning through the lane into a layup, cutting inside and reversing hands, pulling up and draining long 2s. With two minutes remaining, Rizzotti grabbed a long defensive rebound and sprinted up the court. She beat Tennessee’s Michelle Marciniak with a deft crossover dribble and laid it in. Sports Illustrated put Rizzotti on the cover. More than 7.4 million people watched the game on TV. Lobo was named the Final Four MVP.
I didn’t, actually, [heart] Rebecca Lobo. I had wanted Tennessee to win. But I respected Lobo as much as I respected any athlete. Later, I would watch her win an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta. In the hallway at school, my friend Maura and I would repeat a catchphrase that Keith Olbermann had created to make Lobo laugh: “drooling the drool of regret into the pillow of remorse.” And in 1998, when I was an intern in the sports section of a newspaper, I nervously approached Lobo in the locker room of the WNBA’s New York Liberty to conduct my very first interview. She was the first person I wanted to talk to. She was the real thing.
Things have changed since then. Every few years a new player emerges who seems to take the game to the next level, and every few years, we’re told that the future is bright. Maybe it is — I hope it is. But attendance of women’s basketball games has gone down. Not only the WNBA but the college game has struggled to regain traction. The television audience for the women’s Final Four is about half of what it was in 1995. The talk about paying (male) college athletes in big-time sports and the dismissal of Title IX as a “problem” to be solved has reminded me that what I took for granted when I was a kid — that women’s sports can be as valuable as men’s sports — is a fiction, at least as our society defines value (money). The women’s March Madness is not like the men’s. The women are student-athletes, while the men are athletes. This is not a travesty. (The travesty is how some of the men are being exploited.) You can’t make people care. This year, another undefeated UConn team is going for the title. For the first time, so is a second undefeated team, with Notre Dame making the Final Four. Yet despite significant coverage on ESPN — with Lobo as an analyst! — the women’s tournament hasn’t gotten widespread attention.
But some kids will watch, and they won’t apologize for what they’re seeing. They’re going to think it’s a big deal. That 1995 championship game was a big deal for me. It may not be a total exaggeration to say that, indirectly, it affected the course of my life. It helped push the idea that women could be competitive and strong. It helped open new opportunities. It helped show me that women in sports could be taken seriously. It was a great game, and I cared.
Fictions can be powerful. In 2012, the 40th anniversary of Title IX, Lobo was asked about her memories of that 1995 Final Four. “It’s funny,” she answered. “Because when we made it to the Final Four in 1995, I can remember one of the things that we were most excited about was the fact that we got the same amount of meal money that the guys’ team had been getting all season long.” It’s funny. I think I know how she felt.
Kansas vs. Memphis, National Championship Game, 2008
Chris Ryan: This Bill Self speech is your usual homespun carpe diem routine …
Thank you for the ride. No coaching staff has had more fun. Naturally. Nothing to lose, so much to gain, etc. Then he gets to the part about “Danny.” I remember seeing this speech broadcast the day of the Kansas-Memphis national title game, and thinking very little of it at the time. Except for that “Danny” part. He’s talking about Danny Manning; and he’s talking about history, and legacy, and how for the rest of their lives, Brandon Rush or Darrell Arthur are going to get stopped on the street or they’ll be looking in the mirror, and they’re going to remember this game that hasn’t even happened yet.
There is no sporting event that makes you feel like you are living in history like the Final Four. When I saw Derrick Rose’s fadeaway 3-point bank shot, which Billy Packer called the shot of the tournament, I remember thinking, I am going to tell my kids about watching Derrick Rose play for Memphis. And when Sherron Collins broke Rose’s ankles in the open court, tripped, managed to heave the ball to Mario Chalmers, and …
I guess that’s a testament to the almost supernatural, instant-nostalgia, instant-historical forces at work in college basketball. I mean … now I have to tell my kids I watched Mario Chalmers play for Kansas. Madness.
UNC vs. Utah, Final Four, 1998
Rafe Bartholomew: Watch this as a way to pour out a little for Rick Majerus. Watch it to see Vince Carter lose the jump ball to Michael Doleac. Watch it to start a new drinking game, wherein you shotgun a beer for each time Billy Packer points out Utah’s phenomenal blocking out on defensive rebounds. If you really want to get sloshed, throw in a pull of the hard stuff whenever Billy complains about Ed Cota and Andre Miller palming the ball.
Watch so you can giggle at Carolina coach Bill Guthridge’s team with “six starters” and an alphabetized rotation that arbitrarily determined Shammond Williams would sit at the beginning of this game. (Had the Tar Heels won, Carter would have come off the bench in the national championship game.) Watch so you can continue giggling as Utah backs off and dares Cota and Ademola Okulaja and Makhtar N’Diaye to shoot, and they do! Watch to remember Utes like Britton Johnsen, who was overrated and ginger; Drew Hansen, who you don’t actually remember but who perfectly embodies what you imagine when you think of a Utah Ute named Drew Hansen; and Hanno Möttölä, the NCAA career leader in umlauts.
But more than anything else, watch to see Professor Miller put on one of his first master classes. He was still young here, but he already looked old and played older. Watch him push the ball up court at three-quarters speed, with his weird, slightly bent forward posture. Watch him make guys like Hansen and Möttölä look great; watch him make guys like Cota and Williams look significantly less than great. Watch him hit something like a dozen 8-foot pull-ups around the lane, all of which seem to rattle around the iron before getting a kind bounce on the way through the net. There can’t be too many players out there who can take a fairly boring team like Utah had in 1998 and make you root for them over one of the coolest college basketball teams of your lifetime (Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, Shammond Williams, Ed Cota … Ed Cota!). Andre Miller is one of those players.
Arizona vs. Kentucky, National Championship Game, 1997
Sean Fennessey: Is there a great college player with a smaller cultural footprint than Miles Simon? Simon was one half of an all-time backcourt with Mike Bibby at Arizona, where he scored 30 points in the national championship game, led his team past the defending champion Kentucky Wildcats (Mercer! Magloire! Mohammed! Padgett!), was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, and purveyed some of the silkiest up-and-under moves you’ll ever see. (R.I.P., Jared Prickett.) He was cocky, and he earned it. He was on two Sports Illustrated covers and was a first team All-American. But do you remember a single thing about his game?
At Arizona, Simon was a pro forma turn-of-the-century shooting guard — just 6-foot-3, though carved from limestone, he was strong but smooth and his game was classical. He had range and rebounded; he Euro-stepped his way past defenders or pulled back and fired. He and Bibby made for a scattering pair, two guys you could never keep up with who would shoot from unconscionable depth at the slightest twitch. He always played well and efficiently, but he was boring, and not an elite athlete. There are very few “Yo, check out this Miles Simon moment!” clips floating in the YouTube servers. He was an able Lute Olson soldier. After Miles’s college career, he went away. Never a legit NBA prospect (these scouting reports are the work of men who doomed him to basketball purgatory), he was taken in the second round of the NBA draft and floundered for one year in Orlando before becoming an icon of the since shuttered Continental Basketball Association. He accrued every honor possible during his four-year run in the CBA. Then he quit that.
The Final Four does this to players all the time — makes you believe in them by way of its varying standards of greatness and achievement. Every game creates a new context. Simon’s made him seem legendary. It lied. I look forward to rooting for Frank Kaminsky this weekend, though I know he will never be the double-pumping American Dirk I hope for. Miles Simon looked like some combination of Clyde Drexler and Dan Majerle to me. He wasn’t. Within seven years, Simon, just 29, was seated on the bench beside Olson, as an assistant coach. This is how Arizona State fans greeted him. Then he was dismissed in 2008. Did he — a second-class superstar who did great things no one can remember — deserve this fate? It hardly matters. Nineteen-ninety-seven belonged to him.
UConn vs. Duke, National Championship Game, 1999
Andrew Sharp: They played this game while I was on vacation with my family. We were staying at a house with another family, and I have vivid memories of sitting around a pool, having two days of passionate arguments with the other family’s dad about whether Duke would win this game. He was positive it’d destroy UConn.
I knew he was probably right, but refused to admit this.
I couldn’t stand Duke even then, but I also loved that UConn team. My mom (and most of my family) is from West Hartford, and that team got her into sports for one of maybe five times in her life. Plus, my best friend in the sixth grade was a die-hard Huskies fan. These were two good excuses to hop on the bandwagon. But more important, who wouldn’t love that UConn team?
- Crusty-ass Jim Calhoun cursing his way through every game
- Richard Hamilton, 160-pound scoring machine
- Khalid El-Amin, 240-pound point guard
- Jake Voskuhl, a 6-foot-11 Zack Morris who always had tremendous hair
Everyone was great.
But the guy I’ll always remember from the ’99 title game is Ricky Moore. He gave UConn 13 surprise points to carry it in the first half, and he harassed Duke’s backcourt from start to finish. I don’t know if Ricky Moore was named Most Outstanding Player, but he should’ve been.
As for Duke, that team was probably the best Coach K’s ever had. William Avery, Trajan Langdon, Corey Maggette, Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Chris Carrawell … It’s a testament to how dominant Duke was that a 33-2 UConn team was somehow a 9.5-point underdog.
The game was perfect. It was close the whole time, and Duke played well. It’s not like anyone choked. Even UConn fans will remember that game and admit that Duke team was terrifying all 40 minutes.
It ended with UConn up one with five seconds left, Duke running a play for the win … and Moore forcing Langdon into a travel, sealing the national title.
It ended for me when I was screaming out the window at the other family’s dad, and then running outside to jump in the pool fully clothed, waking up everyone in both families. Some of that’s embarrassing now that I’m not 12 years old anymore, but whatever. It all felt right in the moment. Everyone needed to know how awesome that game was.
With that said, I leave you with these words of wisdom:
“Folks, you gotta believe, because just when people say you can’t, you can. And UConn has won …”