March Madness: A look at Phoenix's top sports moments as host, ahead of its first Final Four
One Shining Moment, meet the desert.
Arizona has zero history hosting the Final Four, but that’s about to change, in University of Phoenix Stadium. Not that the state is a stranger to championship sporting events. The New England Patriots played Super Bowls there, the New York Yankees a World Series, the unbeaten Miami Hurricanes national championship Fiesta Bowls.
Wait a minute. All those teams lost, and in compelling ways. So fair warning to North Carolina, because this has been the place where traditional powers go to fall. Does the first Final Four in the West in 22 years add a victim? That’s what the next few days are for.
Some memorable Arizona sports moments, and how they echo to this Final Four:
Super Bowl XLII:
The Patriots had one cleat in the history book as only the second unbeaten champion ever. Then came the New York Giants’ final drive, and receiver David Tyree pinning the football against his helmet to make a catch and Eli Manning throwing a touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left to win 17-14. The four teams will be playing somewhere near that end zone this week.
Game 7, 2001 World Series:
The Yankees were three outs from a fourth consecutive championship, with a 2-1 lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks and Mariano Rivera out there to close it out. Sure thing, right? Rivera had not blown a postseason save in 23 chances over four years. Wrong. Luis Gonzalez punched a soft liner that barely got to the outfield grass, but scored the winning run and brought down an empire. “A storybook ending for this team, from front to back,” Gonzalez said. Who will be this week’s Gonzalez? Or is that Kris Jenkins?
Fiesta Bowl, 2003:
The Miami Hurricanes had a 34-game winning streak and heard the fireworks for a second consecutive national championship. Literally. When an Ohio State fourth down pass fell incomplete in the end zone in overtime, the game was over, the bombs went off and the Canes began to party. But hold on. Penalty flag. Pass interference. The Buckeyes scored, forced another overtime, and won the game and the national title 31-24. “It’s a funny-shaped ball,” Miami’s Matt Walters said afterward. “It bounces different ways sometimes.” Let’s hope the confetti falls on the correct heads next Monday night.
Game 6, 1993 NBA Finals:
Michael Jordan’s bid for his first threepeat with the Chicago Bulls was coming off the rails. The Phoenix Suns and Charles Barkley had a 98-96 lead with only seconds to go, and the victory would force a Game 7 on the Suns’ floor. Home teams seldom lose Game 7. But reserve guard John Paxson hit a 3-pointer with 3.9 seconds left to save the Bulls the trouble. Paxson’s basket was the only non-Jordan scoring in the fourth quarter for the Bulls. Now, here comes Jordan’s school to the Final Four.
1987 Fiesta Bowl:
Miami was unbeaten with an offense that had been unstoppable, But Penn State stopped the Hurricanes, intercepting Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde five times in a 14-10 upset for the national championship. Defense in many ways is what loaded this Final Four.
2012 Phoenix regional:
It came down to Louisville and Florida. More precisely, Rick Pitino and the man he once coached and mentored, Billy Donovan. The Gators took an 11-point lead, but the Cardinals rallied and won 72-68. Pitino savored a return trip to the Final Four, but deeply regretted having to beat Donovan to do it. “I have six children, and I really consider him the seventh.” The closest this Final Four comes to that is Roy Williams and Mark Few have played poker together.
Super Bowl XLIX:
The ultimate talk show fodder. The Seattle Seahawks were at the Patriots’ 1-yard line, trailing 28-24 with less than minute left. With NFL touchdown leader Marshawn Lynch in the backfield, a run seemed in order. Pete Carroll instead opted for a pass, which Malcolm Butler promptly intercepted. The second guessers numbered in the tens of millions. “The worst result of a call ever,” Carroll said. Then again, this is the 25th anniversary of Pitino’s decision not to guard Duke’s inbounds pass to Christian Laettner.
2007 Fiesta Bowl:
No championship on the line, but quite possibly the most entertaining bowl game in history. Boise State and Oklahoma scored 22 points in the final 86 seconds of regulation to go to overtime, then the Broncos won it 43-42, gambling on a 2-point PAT with the Statute of Liberty play. Ian Johnson ran the ball in, and then with the TV cameras rolling, raced over and proposed to his girlfriend, the Boise State cheerleader captain. Teammate Marty Tadman: “He’s a little different guy. When you think of Ian Johnson proposing to his girlfriend, you got to think of the weirdest circumstance that he could possibly do it. I think this was it.” This Final Four can only hope for such a folk tale.
1999 Phoenix Open, final round:
This was the height of the Tigermania era, and Tiger Woods’s shot landed behind a huge boulder. Trouble. After consultation with the rules’ people, it was determined the boulder was technically a “loose impediment” and could be moved out of the way. Only, it’d take, like, a dozen people. No problem. A platoon of fans gathered round and hauled it away, something even Arnie’s Army never did. Woods birdied the hole, but finished third. If Tiger can lose here with the masses carrying boulders for him, any Final Four contender can.
Yep, Phoenix has been a dangerous place for the marquee teams, including basketball. DePaul was ranked No. 1 in the nation in the 1980, and lost its first NCAA tournament game to UCLA in nearby Tempe. Down the road in Tucson, they still talk about the time Michigan’s Fab Five had to come from 19 points behind to beat UCLA in overtime in the 1993 second round, the Wolverines surviving on Jimmy King’s last-second putback. Or go even further back to the second round in 1974, when unheralded Dayton took John Wooden and Bill Walton and the UCLA dynasty to triple overtime before losing 111-100.
Something bizarre could happen, then. It has before in Arizona. Just never at a Final Four.