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Previously, I blogged about the 5 most heartbreaking losses that I’ve experienced as a UofL fan. Now with March Madness upon us, it’s time to discuss the sunnier side of things, namely the 5 most satisfying victories that I have experienced as a Cardinal fan. Without further ado, let’s go:
#5 UofL vs West Virginia (2005 Elite 8)
This was a CRAZY game. After taking out the Washington Huskies, the #1 seed in our bracket, I was pretty confident that we could take care of West Virginia. I didn’t even know they played basketball in West Virginia. Anyone who remembers this game knows that unlike any other team I have ever seen, every single player on their team was a fairly consistent 3-point shooter. Most annoyingly there was this guy named Pittsnogle, who was listed as their center, and he was absolutely killing us in the first half. I have never seen a team hit so many threes within a half of basketball. I mean, they were banking in threes, hitting threes 5 feet away from the three-point line, it was CRAZY!! The homies and I were watching the game and look up and see that we were down by 20 points! The first seed of hatred for everything West Virginia was planted by one of the fans in the stands who held up a sign that said: “You’ve just been Pittsnogled!” It has been ON ever since. I think all of us were just sitting there in shock, not believing what we were seeing.
As the first half continued, the Cards began slowly chipping away at the lead. By halftime, the WVU lead was down to 13. I doubt that I will ever be that content with such a deficit, but with the way game had played out to that point, there was a collective sense of hopefulness. Mainly, it was felt by all that there was NO WAY West Virginia could duplicate the shooting streak that they were on, plus UofL has also been a second half team, seemingly dependent on Coach Pitino to light a fire under their butts. Much to our satisfaction, our Cardinals came out blazing, especially the hometown kid, Larry O’Bannon. He played a GREAT game and seemed to will his teammates to do what needed to be done to get Cardinal Nation back to the Final Four. Everything was looking good in our comeback attempt until the unfathomable happenened. On one of the weakest calls to ever cause someone to foul out, our best player Francisco Garcia did just that. With our comeback incomplete with a few minutes left in regulation, this was a haymaker to the gut.
With Garcia on the bench, my favorite team continued to perform at a high level. Eventually, we tied the game late and went back and forth with the Mountaineers for the rest of the game. Seeing my team’s “never say die” attitude play out before my eyes was truly inspiring. When the second half clock went to 0:00, it was a tie ballgame and this was the first time I truly got the sense that I was about to experience my team going to the Final Four for the first time of my life. We had the momentum, we had the moxy, but more importantly we could see the Mountaineers beginning to wilt. It only took a few minutes of overtime to transpire before THE PARTY WAS ON!!!!! With a final score 93-85, my beloved Cardinals were FINAL FOUR BOUND!!!
The fact that I consider this win to be in 5th place, simply says a lot about how blessed we’ve been as fans. It was simply a thing of beauty to win this game the way we did.
#4 UofL vs Florida (2013 Sugar Bowl)
According to the experts, there was NO WAY we were winning this game. Florida’s defense was too strong, and they were just way too ELITE and way too SEC for this game to even be close. The ESPN commentators were just outright disrespectful when it came to what they were saying. The narrative was set: a top-tier SEC team versus a top-tier Big East team was no contest. Florida was going to put a whooping on us. Personally, I liked our chances to at the very least, keep it close. I knew that Florida’s offense wasn’t that explosive and that they didn’t utilize the spread, which was the offense that gave us the most trouble all year. I also had confidence in our offense to the point where I thought that ANY team would be challenged to stop Teddy Bridgewater and our receiving corps, as long as we stayed balance.
Once the game began, my confidence surged even more. It seemed that my Cards were energized and prepared to seize the moment. And the crowd was amazing! They definitely let their presence be known. On their first offensive play, Terrell Floyd picked off a poorly thrown ball and took it to the house! Like the commentators said, there was no better way for a team to start the game. That being said, I think the most critical moments of the game came in the next two drives. After the pick 6, we stopped the Gators and forced them to punt, placing the ball in the hands of Teddy Bridgewater. Then, something CRAZY happened. Teddy Bridgewater got WAYLAID by Florida’s linebacker! The dude knocked his helmet off!! Dude was definitely trying to send Teddy and our entire team a message, which was ‘we’re coming to destroy y’all’! For the record, that was not a “disinterested” type of play. Clearly, Florida was there and wanting to win the game. That being said, Teddy didn’t respond by sulking, hanging his head, or cowering in fear; he responded by throwing DARTS!!! The fact that he threw so many pinpoint passes on that drive, and marched us down the field for a touchdown, on such a big stage set the tone for the rest of the game.
The rest of the game was pretty much a dream manifested before our eyes. Our defense played terrific and finally employed the aggressive style that fans had been hoping for all year. Teddy Bridgewater put on a masterful performance that placed him on the uppermost tier of college quarterbacks and into the Heisman conversation. Besides the trophy ceremony and witnessing the embrace between Charlie Strong and the man who finally gave the coach a chance, AD Tom Jurich, the sweetest thing about it all was watching how awkwardly the ESPN commentators approached their comments after the game. Those guys FEASTED on crow that night. This video basically captures all of my emotions related to this game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKNAoWqKz3s
#3 UofL vs West Virginia (2006)
This game right HEEEERE!!! What made this game so special was the set-up of it all. The previous year we went up to Morgantown and lost a heartbreaker in triple overtime. In a weird ironic twist, we knocked out their starting QB and we ended up introducing the football world to Pat White. I’ve hated the dude ever since. What truly sucks is how much that game sucked, yet it didn’t suck enough to make my Top 5 of sucky games, but clearly, I’ve digressed. Given how we lost the year before, and how we were feeling about our prospects that season, the city was percolating with excitement to play the Mountaineers in our stadium. Despite the lack of a history between the two schools, we managed to QUICKLY abhor everything about them and vice versa.
My recollection of the game is that the first half was pretty tight. It played out like a heavyweight championship fight in the early rounds. We felt the power of their offense, and they felt the power of ours, yet and still, both defenses showed they weren’t no punks in this equation, neither. As soon my Cards came out for the second half, things changed. We managed to get 2 big scores: a punt return for a touchdown and we picked up a fumble and ran it in for 6. From the point on, it was pretty much a party. :) West Virginia got a few more scores, but they never threatened. Final score: 44-34. It was SWEEEEEEET!!!!
The sweetest thing about it was the opportunity that this win provided us. Beating West Virginia placed us firmly into the national championship conversation. All we had to do was win out, and there was practically no argument to keep us out of BCS Championship Game. Of course, we would never get that opportunity due to what happened the week after, but in that moment and during that week, our Cardinal hearts were elated and poised to soak it all in. One thing that this win did do, despite what happened later, is put us on the map and into the American conscience as a football power.
#2 UofL vs Duke (2013 Elite 8)
I was not pleased with the regional bracket that my Cardinals received upon becoming the #1 of #1 seeds. I could not believe that teams such as Duke, Michigan St, and St. Louis stood firmly in our path to get back to the Final Four. Making it at all worse was the sense that two of the other #1 seeds had a FAR less difficult path. It was a head-scratcher. The only positive thing about facing Duke was the fact that the revenge factor was on our side. Playing Michigan St would’ve flipped that coin since we put them out of the tournament the year before.
Once game time came, the nervous anticipation was too much for me to watch it live, so I recorded it to watch it on the DVR. The first 10 minutes of the game was a classic back-and-forth between two high caliber teams feeling each other out. I can’t recall a time in that point of the game where either team had gained more than a 3-point lead. Overall, I was really pleased with how we were playing, but was a little uneasy that Duke was right there with us. Then, during a run of the mill play, it happened. Thornton, from Duke, shot a three-pointer and Kevin Ware went up for the block. All of a sudden, some of the Louisville players fell to the floor and upon looking back at what happened, Thornton made a face that pretty summed up how gruesome Ware’s injury must have been. I couldn’t bring myself to actually watch what happened at the time, but recently I did see it. ABSOLUTELY CRAZY GRUESOME!!! By far, the worst injury I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think I would see anything worse than the Garrison Hearst injury, but Ware’s injury is significantly more shocking and stomach-churning.
Moving on, the emotion of it all had to touch all of the true Cardinal fans. How could you watch players weep, the coaches weep, the fans in attendance weep, and not be affected. It hit me hard, personally, because I broke my leg as well while competing with teammates that I considered brothers from another mother. It was crazy. It seems like we all, as Card Nation, went through the 5 stages of grief in 5 minutes. Once we all collected ourselves, the focus became winning the game for Ware. This commitment deepened upon learning that as he laid on the court with his bone poking out of his leg, he implored his teammates, his brothers, to just “win the game”!!!
After about 10 game minutes of shakiness, it seems that my Cardinals finally composed themselves enough to seize the moment at hand. Not only did we pull away to win, we pretty much destroyed a good Duke team. I’ve never seen a Cardinal team play with so much determination and poise. The last 10 minutes of the game were the best 10 minutes I’ve seen from a Cardinal team. But this was not the reason, my chest was so full of pride for my hometown team. It was simply because they honored their fallen comrade, our fallen comrade, in the best way possible. If they got caught up in their grief and played distracted to the point of losing, who could really blame them? But no, they stepped up to the plate, collected themselves, and pulled off a masterful performance. I’ve never been prouder to be a Cardinal fan, and I’m pretty sure I never will.
#1 UofL vs Michigan (National Championship)
One of the greatest frustrations of my life was knowing that I was alive during the 1986 championship, but having NO recollection of it. Recently, my mom simply told me that I was sleep at the time, because it was a Monday night and I had to go to daycare in the morning. Really?!!! Anyway, let’s just say that knowing that I was born in the 80s and that the team I love was the team of the 80s left me unfulfilled as a fan. I hungered, I thirsted, for a championship.
After gutting out a hard-won victory over Wichita St., we had Michigan in the championship game. This was interesting because in January I was convinced that my Cards and the Wolverines were the best teams in the country. The game started out like a heavyweight championship fight (the 70s, 80s, 90s variety). Both squads were jabbing with some ferocity, while feeling each other out. Things changed once Luke Hancock pulled off his patented shot fake and drew a foul from Trey Burke. This sent Burke to the bench and this unknown kid named Spike Albrecht into the game. I was excited to start building a lead on them boys. Then, it happened. This dude, looking more like a trainer than a ballplayer, started raining 3s. When he the hit first one, I was like “OK, lucky shot.” After the third one, I was more like, “WOULD SOMEONE GUARD THIS GUY?!!!" It was NOT a happy time watching my Cards go deeper and deeper into a deficit while Trey Burke sat on the bench. When he made a sweet move and slashed the basket for a layup, I was done.
At that point, let’s just say I was a “bit” concerned about our chances. It’s one thing to come back against Syracuse and Wichita St., but Michigan seemed to be different, given how good they were offensively. Then, it happened. The run of all runs. The most important of all runs from a team known for runs. Luke Hancock, in a matter of minutes, changed our collective fortunes as Card Nation. When he hit the first 3, I had no reaction. When he hit the 2nd three, I perked up a bit. When he hit the 3rd 3, I was like, “UH OHHH!!! We’re back in this thang!" Then, in straight up heat check mode, Luke hit another one!! In state of two-thirds joy and one-third disbelief. I was on my feet, bopping!! Down by 1, that Cardinal D caused a loose ball, we recovered it and a quick pass went out to Peyton Siva who quickly lobbed it in the direction of Montrezl Harrell and BLOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!! I can honestly say that I have NEVER celebrated a single play SO HARD! I was out of breath and light-headed by the time I calmed down. The situation was just CRAZY BANANAS!!! I was all the way TURN’T UP, but then, I had the realization that there was still a half of basketball to play.
The first 10 minutes of the second half resembled two middleweight boxers going toe-to-toe in the latter part of a championship fight. Both teams were energized, yet more deliberate. Choosing wisely when to land haymakers and when to simply jab. Some of the haymakers came in the form of rim-rocking dunks, alley-oops, and critical 3-pointers. The next 10 minutes were best characterized by my Cards pulling ahead a bit and Michigan trying to play catch up. It seemed they would get very close, but like a veteran team playing with the utmost poise, my Cardinals would get the necessary or make the necessary offensive play to keep a bit of distance between them and UM. The signature moment during this time was Chane Behanan BEASTING on the offensive boards to finally score a lay-up, sending a clear message to the Wolverines about our intentions.
The last minutes of the game were crazy in the sense of an overwhelming feeling of: “I think we’re about to do this!" and the competing feeling of not ‘counting my chickens’. It wasn’t until Michigan began fouling us that I began tasting a national championship. I recall wanting to thank Michigan for waiting so long to foul us, since we were not in the bonus yet. Once we got to the foul line, Luke knocked them down. On the ensuing play, Trey Burke missed a 3-pt shot, and it was at this point that it hit me: "We’re about to win a National Championship!!!" BUT, there was still time left. After Peyton Siva made a pair of free throws, Trey Burke came down and shot another 3, and the ball went out of bounds. It was now official. The moment that I had been waiting for my entire life……..had FINALLY ARRIVED! I never got to see Pervis Ellison, LaBradford Smith, Clifford Rozier, Dwayne Morton, Dejuan Wheat, Reece Gaines, Francisco Garcia, David Padgett, T-Will, nor Earl Clark hoist that National Championship trophy. Instead it was Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, Chane Behanan, Gorgui Dieng, Luke Hancock, and Wayne Blackshear who finally got the job done. And they did it all for Kevin Ware, their fallen teammate.
Watching my beloved Louisville Cardinals win the National Championship was a dream come true. All the heartache, disappointments, and slights were recompensed fully with some change left over. My only regret is not being able to celebrate it all within the city of Louisville. But this sense of regret pales in comparison to the joy of watching the team you’ve been cheering for since you were a conscious human being make it to the mountaintop, and to do it in such dramatic fashion.
Sports shouldn’t mean this much to human beings, but tattooed on my heart is the following: Louisville First, Cards 4EVER.