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Stan Becton | NCAA.com | February 11, 2022

NCAA Video Vault: The track comeback to end ALL comebacks

Watch the stunning finish to USC's improbable 2018 track title

It was the final event of the 2018 NCAA outdoor track and field championships. 12,998 fans braved the weather to see the final major event at the historic, 99-year old Hayward Field before it would be destroyed and rebuilt. And what an event the women’s 4x400 meter relay was.

As we go inside the NCAA Video Vault, we’ll take a look at one of the greatest comebacks in track and field — and sports overall — history by the Southern California (USC) Trojans.

Stakes

With the 4x400 meter relay as the final event of the day, Georgia women’s track and field sat one point (52) in front of Stanford (51) for first place in team scoring. Since neither the Bulldogs nor the Cardinal was participating in the relay, Georgia was in a prime position to bring home the title. 

Only one thing could stop the Bulldogs, USC winning the 4x400.

After scoring just one team point before the final day of the championships, the Trojans were on a remarkable run scoring 42 points during day four. USC trailed Georgia 52-43 entering the final race and could get the national championship-winning 10 points if the Women of Troy finished in first.

Competition

Winning the women’s 4x400 is never an easy task, especially against a loaded field like in 2018. The favorite entering the event was Kentucky, led by star Sydney McLaughlin. The Wildcats ran the fastest time of any participating relay team during the season, and McLaughlin was the fastest woman in 400 meters, owning records in the indoor 400 meters and outdoor 400 meter hurdles.

Elsewhere in the 4x400 field were the Oregon Ducks after setting an NCAA championship record in the event just one year prior, finishing with a time of 3:23.13.

Among a stacked group, USC faced a tall task to win the 4x400 meter relay; the season’s best time in the event for the Trojans entering the race sat behind five different programs.

Here are the previous 4x400 times entering the race:

Lane School Season's Best Time Qualifying time
1 Ohio State 3:31.02 3:31.02
2 Florida 3:27.30 3:30.64
3 Kentucky 3:25.99 3:29.24
4 Oregon 3:28.01 3:28.01
5 Southern California 3:29.44 3:29.44
6 Purdue 3:26.71 3:29.54
7 Baylor 3:30.03 3:30.03
8 LSU 3:28.02 3:30.55

The race

The 4x400 meter relay started like any other race, with all of the runners on the first leg remaining in their lanes for the first 400 meters. After the first leg, Oregon nabbed the lead from lane four, followed by Purdue, LSU and USC. 

On leg two, Purdue’s Breonna Thomas took the lead at the cut mark, staying in front through the next handoff. After two legs of each relay team, the order of the race was Purdue, Oregon, Florida and USC.

The third leg of the women’s 4x400 meter relay is where the action picked up. While Purdue and Oregon maintained their spots in front, respectively, for another lap around the track, the middle of the pack reached its closest point.

Ohio State evened with USC on the backstretch before falling behind on the far turn.

Florida maintained its spot in third until the homestretch, where the Trojans passed the Gators to move into third. By the time Florida reached the handoff, Kentucky also caught up after an impressive showing.

When Kentucky’s McLaughlin received the baton, she was in sixth place about 40 meters behind the lead. Yet with a 50.03 split, the Wildcats were just a few steps behind third at the final handoff.

It’s at that final handoff where the 4x400 meter relay almost turned into chaos.

Handoff stumble

On the handoff between the third and fourth leg, USC’s Deanna Hill tripped, bumping into Florida’s Nikki Stephens. Kentucky also got caught in the mix-up on the tail end of things. Luckily, no one was injured during the chaos and every team continued the race.

What was the result of the chaotic scene? Kentucky jumped to third as it took the least damage during the handoff, USC stumbled out slightly behind the Wildcats while Florida, after bumping into Oregon’s third leg, fell to fifth place.

The pass

Seconds after the chaotic handoff, another close call involved the Trojans. This time it featured USC’s fourth leg Kendall Ellis and Kentucky’s fourth leg ​​Kayelle Clarke. Ellis passed Clarke on the inside to move from third to fourth before the near turn. No call was made for any incidental contact on the pass, but it was a close call nonetheless.

Final leg

After all of that, there still was one more leg to run. A stumble and a close pass had USC in third, but entering the backstretch, the Trojans trailed Purdue by 30 meters and Oregon by 15 meters.

As the Boilermakers exited the far turn, a significant gap remained. Even the announcers remarked on Purdue’s lead.

“I just don’t know if Purdue is going to get caught,” said Jill Montgomery.

“No. There’s no way unless they drop the baton,” replied Dwight Stones. “Purdue is going to win this, which we certainly didn’t see.”

However, less than a second after those statements, USC entered the homestretch of the race.

Homestretch

When USC entered the homestretch, Ellis was within strides of Oregon and second place. Yet, second place wouldn’t be good enough for a team national title. 

Ellis passed Oregon quickly after the turn but to many watching — including the announcers — Purdue’s lead seemed insurmountable. But Ellis hit a final gear as Purdue’s Jahneya Mitchell appeared to be losing steam. The gap tightened, and the Trojans were right behind Boilermakers.

With the amount of track running out before the finish line, the announcers exclaimed “Oh my goodness,” as they couldn’t believe the comeback they were witnessing. Ellis burst through the finish line, passing Mitchell and winning the race.

In what is one of the greatest comebacks in sports history, USC won the 2018 NCAA women’s 4x400 meter relay by .07 seconds. It was a photo finish.

“I almost had a heart attack,” said Montgomery in disbelief.

“It just doesn’t get better than that,” followed Stones.

Not only did USC’s 4x400 women’s team pull off a remarkable comeback, but it also shockingly snatched the 2018 team title from Georgia.

See the complete results from the 4x400 meter relay below:

Place School Time Athletes
1 Southern California 3:27.06 Kyra Constantine, Anna Cockrell, Deanna Hill, Kendall Ellis
2 Purdue 3:27.13 Chloe Abbott, Brionna Thomas, Symone Black, Jahneya Mitchell
3 Oregon 3:28.36 Briyahna DesRosiers, Shae Anderson, Venessa D'Arpino, Hannah Waller
4 Kentucky 3:30.52 Faith Ross, Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, Sydney McLaughlin, Kayelle Clarke
5 Florida 3:30.73 Taylor Manson, Sharrika Barnett, Nikki Stephens, Taylor Sharpe
6 LSU 3:32.08 Rachel Misher, Kymber Payne, Zakiya Denoon, Cassondra Hall
7 Ohio State 3:32.25 Karrington Winters, Maggie Barrie, Beatrice Hannan, Syaira Richardson
8 Baylor 3:32.63 Victoria Powell, Taylor Bennett, Aaliyah Miller, Kiana Horton

RESULTS: See the complete results for every event in the 2018 championships

Breaking down the comeback

Purdue moved into first after the 4x400 meter cut, leading the race until the finish line. USC sat in third after the cut, but fell to fourth by the handoff as Kyra Constantine and Anna Cockrell combined for a split of 1:44:29. 

While Deanna Hill closed the gap with a split of 53.28, troubles with the exchange left the anchor leg trailing Purdue by nearly two seconds.

Ellis' heroics

Kendall Ellis' heroics saved the day after the collision. Ellis ran a 50.05 split to win the race; the split would have won the individual 400-meter championship in every year since 1984.

Overall, USC's 4x400 championship-clinching race sits as the fourth-fastest time in Trojan history and will forever be remembered for the title it won.

What did they say?

The director of USC track & field Caryl Smith Gilbert after the comeback win: "We talk about mental toughness all the time. We talk about how to finish. One major theme that I have been focusing on this year is that it doesn't have to be perfect to still get it done. I did that because sometimes in this generation if it's not going exactly the way they think it should be, we don't give 100 percent. I've been telling them that life doesn't have to be perfect. Things can go adversely, but you can still be successful. You can still get to your outcome if everything along the way isn't perfect."

Anchor leg Kendall Ellis on when she knew she could win the relay:  “The second I got the baton."

Assistant coach Quincy Watts to Ellis before the race: "If there’s a 10-meter gap, you can close it."

🏆: USC women win program's second title in dramatic fashion

Champions

USC's win in the 4x400 meter relay gave the Trojans the 10 points needed to secure the 2018 women's outdoor track team national championship. The Trojans finished with 53 points, beating Georgia's 52 points and Stanford's 51 points. The 2018 championship was one of the closest in NCAA history, with the top three teams finishing within two points of each other for the first time.

With the win, USC brought back its second team title in program history, its first since 2001. The Trojans became just the sixth women's track and field program to win multiple team titles. 

USC claims Women's DI 2018 Outdoor Track & Field Title

How the world reacted

USC's remarkable comeback drew attention across the sports world. Los Angeles sports legend Kobe Bryant and Olympian and former Trojan Allyson Felix were some of the athletes to tweet their reaction to the race.

The recognition for the Trojans continued after the season as the 4x400 meter relay team won an honorary ESPY for its achievement.

Watch the race again

Below, you can watch the Trojans comeback in the 4x400 meter relay one more time.

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