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Mike Lopresti | | April 3, 2019

You know Minneapolis is a sports town, but do you know who it favors most?

Relive the Michigan State Spartans' road to the Final Four

MINNEAPOLIS — The signs around town say the road to the Final Four ends here. So to get acclimated to the local sports scene, let's guess which team has celebrated the most famous championships in this city the past 27 years -- could it be the baseball Twins, the football Vikings, maybe the hockey Stars?

Well, no. It's Duke. We'll get to that in a minute, but it gives you an idea of how recent times have been in the host city of the Final Four. Lots of memorable moments. Just not a lot of trophies.

Start with the Vikings. They went to four of the first 11 Super Bowls. Lost them all. Never led one second in any of them, trailed once at halftime 2-0, scored 34 points in all four combined. But the worst part is, they haven’t been back in the 42 years since.

If a Super Bowl parade has never been held here, know what was born in Minneapolis? A football phrase you probably have used. The Vikings were beaten in the final seconds of a 1975 playoff game by a 50-yard desperation pass from the Dallas Cowboys’ Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson.  Staubach said later that before the play he had said a “Hail Mary.” And that’s how the world came use the term Hail Mary Pass.

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This is the city where the Vikings were 16-1 in the NFC Championship game for the 1998 season, led Atlanta by a touchdown late in the game, and needed only a 38-yard field goal to clinch a Super Bowl trip. The home crowd was thunderously confident, and no wonder. Gary Anderson had not missed a kick the entire season. He missed that one, though, and the Falcons eventually won in overtime.

This is the city that was somehow home to four of the longest plays in NFL history. The 109-yard return of a missed field goal for a touchdown by San Diego’s Antonio Cromartie in 2007. The 109-yard return of a kickoff for a touchdown by Minnesota’s Cordarrelle Patterson against Green Bay in 2013. Tony Dorsett’s 99-yard touchdown run for Dallas in 1983. And Gus Frerotte’s 99-yard touchdown pass to Bernard Berrian for the Vikings against Chicago in 2008.

All in Minneapolis. But not always on behalf of the home team.

Next, pro basketball. Minneapolis was the center of the NBA universe in the 1950s with George Mikan and the Lakers. But the Lakers saw greener grass – not to mention warmer winters -- in Los Angeles and moved there to become a new dynasty.

The Timberwolves eventually came along. In 29 years, they’ve advanced in the playoffs one year. That was 15 seasons ago.   

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Or hockey. Remember the Minnesota North Stars in the NHL? They reached a couple of Stanley Cup finals. Then they moved south, dropped the word North, and won the Cup as the Dallas Stars. Now Minnesota has the Wild, who in 18 years have made it to one conference finals, and got swept.

As for college, the Minnesota football Gophers haven’t been to the Rose Bowl since 1962, the longest dry spell for any of the traditional Big Ten. The basketball Gophers have reached one Final Four, in 1997, but this March was only their second NCAA Tournament victory since then (The 1997 wins were ultimately vacated).

Then there’s baseball.

The Twins went to the World Series in 1965, took a 2-0 lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers, but were shutout three times, including Game 7 at home.

They got back to the World Series in 1987 and ‘91 and won both in seven games, going 8-0 at home. In the truly epic 1991 Series against Atlanta, they won Game 6 with Kirby Puckett’s walkoff homer in the 11th and Game 7 on Gene Larkin’s pinch-hit single in the 10th. The Metrodome was no great place for baseball, but the crowd noise pinned in by the roof was astonishing.

But, alas, the Twins have won one playoff series in the 27 years since, and currently own a rather stunning 13-game postseason losing streak.

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See the problem? But you know who Minneapolis has been good to, when it comes to championships? Yep, Duke. The Metrodome hosted Final Fours in 1992 and 2001, and both ended with the Blue Devils cutting down the nets. For that matter, all five Mike Krzyzewski championships have come in cities ending with –apolis, since the other three were in Indianapolis.

So Michigan State might have done the rest of the field a big favor last Sunday, or else Duke could have been unbeatable here, with -apolis in its corner.

The Blue Devils knew all about good karma here in 1992. This was four months after the Twins’ classic World Series title, and guess what locker room was assigned to Duke? Yep, the Twins clubhouse.

They edged Indiana in the semifinals – Bob Knight’s last Final Four game -- and whipped Michigan’s Fab Five 71-51 to repeat as national champions. They actually trailed 31-30 after the first half and received a halftime verbal lashing from – no, not Krzyzewski. Junior guard Bobby Hurley. “I thought we needed something to get us going,” Hurley would say afterward. “Especially Christian.”

As in Laettner, who responded with a big second half in his final college game.

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Duke was back in 2001 with senior Shane Battier doing the leading. The Blue Devils had to rally from 22 points behind to beat Maryland in the semifinals, the greatest comeback in Final Four history. They then beat Arizona in the championship 82-72, with a hot second half from Mike Dunleavy, who was so joyous about his shooting, he kissed the rim as he cut down the net.  “That was a basket that was good to me, and got my little piece of net and got a little kiss in, just to say `Thank you,’” he said.

The other story line in 2001 was Arizona’s Lute Olson coaching with a heavy heart, having just lost his wife to cancer during the season. The tournament run had been his escape. “The pain will start diminishing eventually, not totally,” he said that night in the Minneapolis. “So it’s a fact of life. Thank goodness for my family and great friends.”

He would never coach another Final Four game.

There have been other moments to savor in earlier rounds in Minneapolis. Little Rock shocked Notre Dame in the 1986 first round, Kentucky rolled over Utah by 31 and Wake Forest by 20 in the 1996 regional, part of a national title run of utter domination. Marquette’s Dwyane Wade had the tournament’s fifth official triple double ever here in 2003 to beat Kentucky and get to the Final Four.

Things have changed around here. The old Metropolitan Stadium where the Twins played their first World Series is long gone, now covered by the Mall of America. The location of home plate, where the Twins flailed and missed so often against Sandy Koufax in ’65, is marked by a replica in the mall floor in the amusement park area, next to the SpongeBob SquarePants Rock Bottom Plunge.

The Metrodome is gone too, replaced by U.S. Bank Stadium, on the edge of downtown. That billion-dollar angular-roofed and glassy creation includes its own Viking ship, is just across the street from Erik the Red pub and the Hennepin County juvenile justice center, and will host its first Final Four this weekend.

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Lots of things will be similar to 2001. The fans, the noise, the colors, Tom Izzo. He had Michigan State here that year, and lost by 19 to Arizona. He said this week the new stadium is “off the charts,” and he’s just glad the Spartans are staying downtown this time and not way out by the airport like in 2001. By the way, this Michigan State team had a closed-door pre-season scrimmage with Gonzaga last fall. Guess where? Minneapolis, at the Timberwolves' arena across downtown from where they'll be Saturday. The great circle.  

The chain link security fences surrounding the stadium and the concrete barricades are certainly different than 2001. Oh, and Duke’s not here. Minneapolis will be the center of someone else’s shining moment.

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