Column: Last year’s upset now part of Virginia’s Final Four redemption story

Last year, Virginia was the victim of the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history when they became the first-ever No. 1 seed to lose a first-round game to a No. 16 seed, UMBC.

What a difference a year makes.

Saturday, 379 days after losing to UMBC, Virginia defeated Purdue 80-75 in an overtime epic to win the tournament’s South Regional and advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1984.

While the memory of the UMBC defeat will still be an unpleasant one for coach Tony Bennett, his Cavaliers and their fans, Saturday’s victory changes the narrative of that loss. In a bubble, the loss was the worst thing that could have happened to a college basketball team. But in the bigger picture, the loss becomes the beginning of one of the great redemption stories ever seen in sports.

This is not to suggest that Virginia’s loss last year was a “good thing” — to do so would disrespect both the accomplishment of UMBC and the Virginia seniors from last year who experienced that heartbreak and haven’t experienced this year’s Final Four run.

Virginia players celebrate after advancing to the Final Four on Saturday. (Photo: Virginia Athletics)

But now, a year and a program-record 33 wins later, coach Tony Bennett and his team can begin the story of this year’s success with that loss and recall how they overcame the humiliation and noise that came from it, only to come back better and reach the Final Four the following March.

A year after going to his knees in despair as time expired against UMBC, senior Kyle Guy finished the win over the Boilermakers on his knees as well — but this time he was overcome with jubilation.

“I was definitely flashing back to when I was on my knees last year, and I did it again,” Guy said. “And that was just, you know, just overflowing with joy. So happy for my teammates and my coaches and for myself to be able to break through in the way that we did this year. Not only did we silence (Bennett’s) critics, we silenced our own and we’re so grateful for our fans that traveled and have always believed in us.”

Bennett’s Virginia team reaching the Final Four — on the 10th anniversary of his hiring, no less — also helps change the overall narrative around the program. Even before last year’s upset loss, many saw the Cavaliers as a team that played great in the regular season but couldn’t win in the NCAA Tournament.

“There were a lot of people that didn’t think we would make it this far in the tournament,” sophomore Jay Huff said. “After last year, a lot of people were thinking similar would happen, there would be an early exit in the tournament. Obviously, we don’t go out just to prove people wrong, but it is fun knowing they’ll have to eat their words a little bit.”

That perception wasn’t completely unfounded. Since Virginia’s run of success began in the 2013-14 season, the team lost in the Sweet 16 in 2014 and the second round in 2015 after a pair of first-place finishes in the ACC. In 2016 the Cavaliers blew a double-digit lead in the final minutes of their Elite Eight game against No. 10-seed Syracuse, before a 2017 second-round loss to Florida.

Every loss except the one to Florida came as the higher seed (either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in each case), and against the Gators the Cavaliers could only muster 39 points.

“You think of all the guys that came before us and just the teams that were so close and showed you just how difficult it is to get to the Final Four,” Jerome said after Saturday’s game. “And how many times Coach Bennett has been a 1-seed or a 2-seed and has had so much regular season success. To be the team that gets him to the Final Four, I think that’s what means the most.”

Then came UMBC. Virginia — a program known more than anything else for a staunch defense — allowed 53 second-half points in a 20-point loss to the Retreivers. They weren’t just the first No. 1-seed to lose to a No. 16; they were routed. The narrative about postseason struggles intensified exponentially.

After that loss Bennett told his team they had to own it. He said they had no choice but for that loss to be a part of their legacy — it was going to be in the record books no matter how much the team disliked it — and that the best way to respond would be to come back and add a successful 2018-19 campaign to that legacy.

And did they ever add to that legacy. This group of Cavaliers — the upperclassman leaders Guy and Ty Jerome, the star forward De’Andre Hunter, the sixth-man-turned-postseason-starter Mamadi Diakite, the big New Zealander Jack Salt, the small but quick Kihei Clark and a solid-though-seldom-used group of reserves — will now become the Virginia players in 35 years to play in the Final Four, and could become the first Cavaliers to win a national championship.

“The quote we use is ‘If you learn to use it right, the adversity, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way.’” Bennett said. “I didn’t know if that meant we’d get to a Final Four … I just knew that would deepen us in ways on the court, off the court and what we believe and mark us for the right stuff. And that, I think, is what took place.”

After failing to execute in their previous tournament failures, the Cavaliers made the big plays on Saturday night. Guy made five second-half threes en route to a 25-point night, Hunter hit the layup with 28 seconds left in overtime that gave the Cavaliers the lead for good and Clark hit the free throws in the final seconds to ice it.

And then there was the biggest play in the game, in the tournament and in Virginia basketball history: Trailing by two in the final seconds, Diakite tipped the rebound of a missed Jerome free throw out past half court, Clark ran it down and frantically passed the ball back to Diakite, who threw up a 15-foot prayer — one which was nothing but net and sent the game to overtime, where Virginia eventually won.

These clutch plays helped to ultimately change the outcome of the game and perhaps the tournament. They helped change the perception of an entire program.

And they helped change this group of Cavaliers’ tournament legacy, from that of the event’s most notable losers to that of Final Four-bound redeemed regional champions.

Advertisements

Column: 16-seeds more confident after one of their peers pulled it off

Think back to when you were growing up and faced the daunting task of doing something new, scary and daring.

If you’re like me, you may have been more likely to feel comfortable enough to go for it if you saw one of your peers finish the task first — whether it was riding a bicycle without training wheels, diving into the deep end of the pool or riding on the zip line at summer camp.

For 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona as they entered the 2019 NCAA Tournament, last year’s UMBC team may very well have been that peer.

Fifty-two weeks ago the Retrievers shocked the world by becoming the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the tournament’s first round when they beat Virginia 74-54, a feat previously thought by some to be impossible.

While none of this year’s 16-seeds were able to repeat the feat, Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona each played their top-seeded opponent extremely well for the first half of their games against Virginia, Duke and North Carolina and avoided being thought of as just an also-ran when fans and pundits recapped the first round outcomes. (Sorry, Fairleigh Dickinson, this column isn’t about you.)

Sure, the Cavaliers, Blue Devils and Tar Heels posted dominant second halves to win and advance (Virginia beat Gardner-Webb 73-58; Duke topped North Dakota State 85-62; North Carolina defeated Iona 88-73). It should be expected that this would happen in these games considering the talent gap between these No. 1 seeds — by definition the best teams in the country — and their 16th-seeded counterparts. The ability of great coaches to make halftime adjustments — and UVA’s Tony Bennett, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams all fit that description — is also a factor in the games turning back towards the favorites, even after two of these three No. 1 seeds trailed at halftime and the other was up by just four points.

But as Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona each played on Friday there was a sense that the teams had a new sense of confidence never seen before in 16-seeds, knowing now that beating a No. 1 seed was not just something that hypothetically could happen, but something that has happened.

(Photo: Gardner-Webb Athletics)

It started in mid-afternoon as Gardner-Webb held a 28-14 lead on Virginia — the very team that lost to UMBC last year in the tournament’s ultimate upset — before the Runnin’ Bulldogs led 36-30 at halftime. Surely thoughts of last year’s game and all the noise surrounding it since had to creep into the heads of the Cavaliers, though Bennett’s club responded with their typical stanch defense, holding Gardner-Webb to 20 second-half points.

North Dakota State led 12-5 early and was tied with Duke as late as the 2:13 mark of the first half before trailing 31-27 at the break. Duke — the No. 1 overall seed and the tournament’s largest betting favorite in four years — used a 33-10 run to start the second half and put the game out of the Bison’s reach, scoring 54 second-half points en route to the second round.

Iona hit 10 threes in the first half to take a 38-33 halftime lead over North Carolina. The Tar Heels outrebounded the Gaels 52-26 for the game and Iona made just five of 20 threes in the second half, instigating a 30-9 UNC run that allowed them to cruise to the win.

While each of these three No. 16 seeds lost in the end, they all have nothing to hang their heads about and can be proud of the way they competed. Each of them took their best shot at an excellent opponent and provided them with a stiff first-round test — something that has often not been the case in past 1-vs-16 matchups, as the average margin of victory by 1-seeds over 16-seeds since 2015 is 26.8 points, with nearly half those games decided by 30-plus points.

While any reasonable pundit won’t expect 16-seed-over-1-seed upsets to become a normal occurrence, this year’s crop of three compelling games and three legitimate upset attempts could be a sign that the days of pushover 16-seeds may be history.

Because while facing a No. 1 seed is a daunting and scary task, they’ve now seen one of their peers finish the job.

Column: A true Duke-UNC game

Over the last week, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to cover the 250th and 251st meetings of Duke and North Carolina on the basketball court.

But while last Saturday in Chapel Hill I covered a collegiate basketball game between Duke University and the University of North Carolina, it wasn’t until Friday night at the ACC Tournament in Charlotte that I truly saw a Duke-UNC game.

Don’t get me wrong, the game at the Smith Center was quite an experience. Emotions were high — not just because of the rivalry but because of Senior Night for three likable players who have spent their careers endearing themselves to the UNC fan base — and the atmosphere was terrific. The cheer for the first UNC basket was the loudest cheer I’d heard to that point in the four UNC home games I covered this year, and only got louder from there, especially as the Tar Heels pulled away in the second half and held on for the 79-70 win.

But Friday night at the Spectrum Center in uptown Charlotte I witnessed a game truly befitting of the Duke-UNC rivalry, and one that none of the Spectrum Center-record 20,116 in attendance will ever forget.

It was (despite some poor shooting numbers) a game played at an exceptionally high level, a game that every possession — especially in the second half — felt immensely and increasingly important. A game with two teams so evenly matched they changed the lead eight times and neither team led by more than five points over the last 15:15 of breathtaking action.

And it was a game that one Zion Lateef Williamson came to play.

The Duke freshman phenom — injured 36 seconds into the first meeting and absent in the second, returning to action just this Thursday — scored 31 points with 11 rebounds, including nine of the last 11 points the Blue Devils scored, and gave Duke the lead for good on a putback of his own miss with 31 seconds left, securing a 74-73 victory.

While the season’s first two meetings were remarkable in their own right — as Jay Bilas says, Duke-UNC always delivers — their drama and tension paled in comparison to the marvel of the tertiary game.

That was partially due to the heavyweight-bout-like game unfolding in front of a boisterous bipartisan crowd. It was partially due to the highest stakes these teams have had in any game all season, seeking a berth in the championship game at the granddaddy of all conference tournaments.

And it was partially due to the sheer presence of Williamson.

In the first two meetings, with Williamson missing, it was clear as could be that the Tar Heels were the better team. Nine- and 16-point wins were the result.

Friday night, with Duke finally near full strength (sans Marques Bolden) and UNC seeming to peak at the right time, as Roy Williams’ teams so often seem to do, the two teams put on a performance that was worthy of a national final, far above the expected level for a conference semifinal.

And who knows, with the skill levels of the two teams and the March pedigrees of the two programs perhaps a fourth meeting in the national final, or at least the late stages of the NCAA Tournament, isn’t too far-fetched.

But unless that happens — and even if one of the teams cuts down the nets in Minneapolis in three weeks — one of the clear and enduring memories of this season for fans of both teams will be Friday’s game, one of the greatest chapters in a Duke-UNC book full of legendary installments.

“That was obviously a great game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Vintage ACC, Duke-North Carolina, you know, both teams played so hard and well.”

In many ways it was a perfect storm: the greatest rivalry in college basketball being played on a neutral floor in the state of North Carolina’s largest city, with ACC championship aspirations on the line along with UNC’s wishes of a three-game season sweep of Duke for the first time since 1976, all in what will very likely be the only real appearance in the rivalry for the most explosive and dynamic college basketball player in many years.

“The guy that’s been hurt came back and put on his Superman jersey again and was incredible,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “It’s such a blend of strength and power and quickness that we couldn’t stop him getting the basketball inside and going to the basket.”

Duke-UNC transcends the realms of a typical college basketball game. Williamson transcends the realms of a typical college basketball player — even of a typical college basketball star.

The result was a game that a couple of columnists that have covered the ACC for many years called the greatest and second-greatest games they’d ever seen live (with one ranking the 2017 UNC-Villanova national final first).

Sure, I saw Duke and North Carolina play last week. But Friday night I was truly introduced to the rivalry, as I saw an absolute classic that will live on in Duke-UNC lore.

Column: Zion or not, UNC deserves credit for win at Duke

The entire narrative of the season’s first meeting between North Carolina and Duke changed a half-minute into the game on Wednesday night. Duke star Zion Williamson’s shoe came apart as he tried to plant his left foot, and his slide on the floor resulted in a mild sprain of his right knee, from which he didn’t return.

Quickly after the injury, I thought about what would happen if North Carolina won the game without Williamson on the floor for Duke for all but the game’s first possession, and I could immediately imagine how much the national sports media would use the injury as the exclusive reason for the game’s outcome should UNC win.

Zion Williamson (Photo: Duke Athletics)

The Tar Heels did win, earning an 88-72 victory for their fifth win in the last eight games in the rivalry, giving UNC coach Roy Williams a record eighth win over an AP No. 1 team.

There’s no question Williamson’s injury changed the game. It would be impossible for the loss of a national player of the year candidate to not be felt.

But consider who UNC did beat on Wednesday night: a Duke team that still featured three exceptional players in Tre Jones, Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett, the latter two of which are projected as top five picks in the NBA Draft.

The last time Williamson went out with an injury, missing the second half at Florida State, Duke still found a way to win over the Seminoles, who six weeks later have the ACC’s longest winning streak at eight.

Yet Wednesday, UNC beat the Blue Devils handily on their home floor, in arguably the hardest building in college basketball to win in as a visitor.
“We knew coming in how good they were – and they were that good tonight,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

The Tar Heels outscored Duke 62-28 in the paint, assisted on 20 of their 38 made field goals and held Duke to 25-for-72 from the floor (34.7 percent).
UNC’s Luke Maye scored 30 points with 15 rebounds – becoming the sixth Tar Heel with five career games of 30-plus points and 10-plus rebounds – and Cameron Johnson scored 26 points with seven rebounds and four assists.

Maye’s performance was likely aided at least some by the absence of Williamson on the interior. But the fact is, both Maye and Johnson played tremendous games, something even Coach K acknowledged.

“They played well – especially their two veteran guys, they played really great,” Krzyzewski said.

There’s no question Duke did not play well – they shot 8-for-39 (20.5 percent) from beyond the arc, committed 20 turnovers and only had nine assists.

Some of their issues, particularly in the post, can be at least partially blamed on Williamson being absent from a game after the Blue Devils game planned under the assumption he’d be playing.

But anyone who asserts that Williamson’s injury is the only reason North Carolina won didn’t watch the game closely enough. UNC led by as many as 22 points and Duke was never closer than 13 over the game’s final 17:25.

The Tar Heels went to Cameron Indoor Stadium and beat the No. 1 team in college basketball. Duke is the top-ranked team because of more than just one player and is probably still a top-five-caliber team without him.

UNC deserves credit for earning the victory, and doing so convincingly. Even while beating a weakened Duke team, it’s still the Tar Heels’ best win so far in a very strong season.

Column: Don’t mourn for Pitino

Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino was placed on unpaid leave on Wednesday (with the expectation that he will be fired once his contractually-required 10-day notice expires) after the Cardinals program was among several implicated by an FBI investigation into bribery and corruption in college basketball.

Pitino is a Hall of Fame coach with great on-court success at multiple stops throughout his career, but that has all come to a very blunt ending.

3392553078_9caee79491_o

Louisville head basketball coach Rick Pitino, who was placed on unpaid leave on Wednesday. (Bradjward/Flickr)

Yet there’s no need to mourn for the legacy Pitino has lost, as his impending termination is the end of a long, winding and, to be frank, disgraceful road that got him here.

Yes, Pitino is the only coach to lead two different schools to national championships, winning them in 1996 at Kentucky and 2013 at Louisville.

Yes, he has seven Final Four appearances, and is the only coach to take three schools to the Final Four, also doing so at Providence.

Yes, he has 12 conference tournament championships (one at Boston University, five at Kentucky, six at Louisville), and been to 21 NCAA Tournaments, including 19 of the last 21 years his team was eligible.

Yes, Pitino has 770 collegiate wins, and may have 900 if not for six seasons as an NBA coach with the New York Knicks, who he took to the playoffs twice, and the Boston Celtics.

But with the revelation of the scandal that has brought Pitino’s career to a crashing end, real questions exist about Pitino’s on-court accomplishments, as the legitimacy of his players, their amateur status and their reasons for coming to Louisville (or Kentucky, Providence or Boston University) is now under a black cloud of doubt.

The FBI alleges that the family of a highly-ranked recruit (the overwhelming consensus is that the player, unnamed in the FBI report, is Louisville commit Brian Bowen) agreed to be paid $100,000 by Adidas executives–who were working in conjunction with a Louisville assistant coach–for the recruit play at Louisville. As part of the agreement, the recruit would represent Adidas when he turned professional.

This scandal reaches far beyond Louisville, as 10 individuals, including four Division I assistant coaches, were arrested in the case on Tuesday. But it’s Pitino who has the highest profile of anyone implicated in this case, even as he was not directly named in the FBI report (though he reportedly was listed as “Coach 2”).

Pitino was already suspended for five games this coming season as the result of his program’s previous scandal, in which former assistant coach Andre McGee had paid for the services of prostitutes and strippers for players in the team dormitory.

The program self-imposed a postseason ban for the 2015-16 season, and Pitino was suspended by the NCAA for “lack of institutional control.”

Pitino has also admitted to an extramarital sexual encounter in 2003, in which he impregnated his mistress and paid for her abortion.

In each previous case, Pitino’s job has seemed bulletproof. He downplayed both his affair and the escorts scandal, and claimed ignorance regarding the escorts.

With Pitino’s habitual refusal to accept any responsibility, and the pattern of athletic director Tom Jurich–who was also fired–releasing a passive statement of support (which he’s also done in regards to the football program’s issues), I assumed we would see the same movie this week, and Pitino would be pacing the sidelines of the KFC Yum! Center this winter.

Yet this scandal, which figures to bring down more than just Pitino over the coming months, finally ousted a man who could have, and should have, been out of college basketball years ago.

From purely an on-the-court perspective, Rick Pitino can legitimately say he has had a good career.

But don’t shed a tear for Pitino’s career coming to an end the way it did.

He’s done plenty to deserve this.

Fans Week Roundtable, Part II: Sports Heroes and Hysteria

In Part I of my Stiles on Sports Fans Week roundtable discussion with Justin Kenley (Cardinals, Panthers, North Carolina fan), Ryan Pittman (Cubs, Packers, South Carolina fan) and Garrett Black (Clemson fan), we discussed both exciting wins and heartbreaking losses they’ve experienced as fans.

In Part II, I asked more about their fan experiences, including who they admire on the field and the crazy things they’ve done and seen as a fan.

 

SOS:  Who is your favorite player, and why?

Justin:  For the Panthers it’s hard, but I’ve got to say Luke (Kuechly).  And not even just from that fandom perspective; I just love how he brings it every single play.  The dude is everywhere.  And I guess that’s something that, as a fan, you appreciate a guy going all out.

For the Tar Heels, it’s hard man.  I love me some Marcus Paige, though.  I just love his story.  Kind of a guy that not a lot of people knew, coming out (of high school), and “is he really going to be that good,” and to carry the team the last two years the way he did, that was just, I love Marcus Paige.

And Cardinals, good gosh, if this was six years ago, I would’ve said (Albert) Pujols, without even a wink, definitely.  I don’t know, man, I like so many of them, for different reasons.  There’s very few guys that we’ve had in the last few years that I said, “man, I just don’t like that person.”  If I had to say my top ones, I love Molina (Yadier Molina), because I was a catcher, and I think he’s just amazing at what he does.  I love the way Carp (Matt Carpenter) plays, I love the way Waino (Adam Wainwright) pitches, and then… it’s hard to narrow that one down.

Ryan:  There are three.  Jason Grilli is probably my favorite player of all time.  I met him when I was 10 years old at a baseball camp in Toledo.  He actually taught me how to bunt.  He’s a relief pitcher, and he was a nobody then, and I guess he’s kind of a nobody now, but he’s had some times where he’s been closer with the Pirates, he’s been closer with the Braves, and the occasional game saved for the Blue Jays now.

I met him 12 years ago when he was nobody, and I’ve watched him ascend throughout the major leagues, and he’s almost 40 now and still pitching.  It’s kind of cool to be like, hey, I’ve got his autograph right there.  It’s kind of cool.

Another is Omar Infante.  I just watched him growing up, and he played the same position I did, and he played for the Mud Hens in Toledo.  He played shortstop, then moved to second base; I played shortstop, then moved to second base.  And it was kind of cool.

Carlos Pena is also on that list.  There was one time I called him over to sign his baseball card, and they asked everyone to stand for the national anthem.  He’s holding my pen and my baseball card, and he says “Hold on,” and puts it on the railing, turns to put his hand over his heart for the national anthem, then he grabs the card, signs it, and then runs over to first base to play.  He went from me to first base to start the game, and it was just really cool.

And then he went on the next year, two years later, to hit 40-something home runs for those same Rays that I described earlier, the ’08 Rays, and he became a huge power hitter, and I still remembered that fond memory as a kid.  Kind of changed the way I think about professional athletes.

Garrett:  I’m gonna have to go with Hunter Renfrow.  Not only did he catch the winning touchdown, but he’s got the story and the character to go behind it, and it’s just great to see a former walk-on catch a touchdown and then be vainly tackled by three future draft prospects.

 

SOS:  Who is a “role player” you’ve always liked, and why?

Justin:  Easily Skip Schumaker.  Just a guy that comes, and didn’t matter where he was playing, he was going to bring it, every day.

I’ll never forget in 2013, we went to St. Louis for my graduation present, and the Dodgers were playing, and it was the first time Skip had come back to St. Louis after he got let go, and man, Skip Schumaker, who a lot of people wouldn’t know his name, he got a standing ovation from like 40,000 people in Busch Stadium, and it was awesome.  It was just really, really cool.

If you know the Cardinals, you appreciate what he did.  Because he could play second base, right field, pinch hit.  You knew he was going to do something.

Ryan:  I’ve always been a fan of utility players in baseball.  Currently Ben Zobrist fits that, and I guess there are so many now.  It used to be a lot more rare.

Guys like Martin Prado, who’d play every infield position and every outfield position, and I appreciate that, they might not have a set position that they’re best at, but their bat is valuable enough and their leadership is valuable enough their team can’t take them out.  So they might not have an everyday spot, but they play everyday.

Garrett:  I really have to appreciate Cole Stoudt.  Can we call a backup quarterback a role player?  Because he was never gonna be the guy.

I mean, he was a starting guy, but the expectation was never to win a championship with Cole Stoudt.  But I think he provided leadership to keep the team together, in the Tajh (Boyd) to Deshaun (Watson) handoff, and got hurt just in time for Deshaun to come.  But I think the kind of leadership he provided for the team, in that transition year between Tajh and Deshaun truly taking over, kind of kept that team together.

SOS:  That’s interesting, because that’s not necessarily a popular opinion in Clemson fan circles.

Garrett:  Here’s the thing:  at any other school that wasn’t swimming in quarterback prospects, like Clemson has been lately, Cole Stoudt could’ve started.  I mean, he wasn’t great, and to be fair we kind of got spoiled with Tajh, so we kind of expected we’d get that kind of production, and to be fair we got better later on, but we should’ve known it was going to get worse before it got better.

 

SOS:  Besides your favorite teams’ known archrivals, who is one team you can’t stand?

Justin:  I really don’t like the Reds, but I feel like that falls in that rivalry a little bit.  There’s a couple of NFL teams I don’t like.  Really, the AFC North.  The Ravens, the Bengals, and (my fiance) Courtney would kill me because Courtney is a Bengals fan, but just, the way they play just irks me.  There’s not one team—I hate the Patriots, obviously, but I feel like everybody hates the Patriots, so I feel like that doesn’t really count.

I will say in basketball, I really don’t like Kentucky.  Kentucky just, I love beating Kentucky.  I don’t mind the whole one-and-done movement to an extent, but I kind of hate the way they’ve done it, and I just, I don’t really like Kentucky.

Ryan:  Typically because of fantasy sports, I don’t hate any team, because I need their players.  That’s tricky.

I don’t like the Mets.  I really don’t like the Royals either.   I feel kind of bad saying it, but like the kind of players they had that have now since passed who were frustrating to watch, you know, Yordano Ventura was just annoying… rest in peace.  He was trying to cause fights, and they seemed to be getting into fights with other teams because they didn’t think they were getting the respect they deserved, and I was like, “come on, play the game, earn the respect,” and that was really frustrating recently.  But yeah, the Mets.  The Mets just always beat my team, knocked us out.

Garrett:  Everyone hates Alabama, but we just beat them so I don’t have as much hatred in my heart anymore.  I’m probably going to have to go with Florida State next, although that’s a division rivalry.  It’s hard to hate Pitt (laughs).

I loved beating Ohio State (in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl).  That felt good.  Because everyone was telling us how Urban Meyer’s like the best coach ever, and to be fair, he’s a great coach, but it feels good to topple the big guys.

 

SOS:  Who is one team you wish you had been alive to watch or old enough to remember?

Justin:  I would have loved to seen, and I don’t have a pinpoint year, but I would’ve loved to have seen Stan Musial play for the Cardinals.  Just because he meant so much to my grandpa; I mean, that was my grandpa’s dude.

Ryan:  Actually there’s two.  The Yankees, back when they were with Babe Ruth, and Joe DiMaggio, and those Yankee greats, I’d love to see one of those Yankee teams play.  And then, more recently, but still before me, was the Big Red Machine.  Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan

SOS: Pete Rose

Ryan:  Yeah, I’d love to go back and watch them, because they were a dominant team, but they weren’t in a big city.  They were small market Reds winning games, pretty cool.

Garrett:  ’81 (Clemson), obviously.  That was the other golden era.

 

SOS:  Do you have any strange superstitions when your favorite teams play?

Justin:  If I go to one game, and what I wear works, I wear the same thing again.

Two years ago in the (NFL) playoffs, the first day we went it wasn’t that cold, so I wore my Luke Kuechly jersey, and just a hat or whatever, but then the next game it was really cold, it got colder, and I didn’t care, I just wore the same thing.  We won in this last time, I’ll win in it again.

I’ve never been like a crazy superstitious kind of guy.  I will always, though, if I’m watching my team play, I’m going to wear something of that team.  I will do that, even if it’s just sitting on the couch.

Ryan:  Sometimes, in a game that really matters, in football or baseball playoffs, something like that, if my team is struggling, say, two-thirds of the way through the game, and I’m not wearing any gear of that team, I’ll go track down a Cubs hat or a jersey or a Packers t-shirt, just to see if (it helps), just supporting.  Never the opposite, though.  If I’m wearing gear and they lose, I don’t take it off, but sometimes you’ll get halfway through a game and go, “oh shoot, I’m not supporting my team,” so you do whatever you can to make them get back in business.

Garrett:  I have a mechanical tiger that plays Tiger Rag.  He used to dance, but the wheels broke.  Every time we score any points, I always click his paw and make him play the Tiger Rag song, and while this probably has more to do with Dabo (Swinney) and Deshaun (Watson), it has only been wrong, like, three times in the last four seasons.

SOS:  What do you mean, “it’s only been wrong”?

Garrett:  Like, whenever I hit the button every time when we play, we always win.  Again, that probably has more to do with the players, but I like to think I’m contributing.

 

SOS:  What is a crazy or unique experience you’ve had while watching a game?

Justin:  I remember, it was so funny, because my dad is not a guy to like freak out on TV.  At the game, he’ll freak out and stuff, and yell, but on TV he just doesn’t.  And I vividly remember when Marcus Paige hit that shot (to tie the game) against Villanova last year, the shot that no one will ever remember except Carolina fans, my dad jumped off the couch and just screamed his head off, and was pumped.

And I remember, it was just so funny, because obviously I was caught up in the moment, freaking out, but it was just funny to me, because I was like, “my dad never gets this into it in a game.”

The Seahawks game two years ago in the playoffs (was crazy).  We made that huge run, 15-1, divisional playoffs, and I kid you not, the upper deck where we were sitting at, we did not sit down for the entirety of that game.

Like, we were up at first half, at kickoff, when they came out of the tunnel, and then we sat down at halftime, and then when the clock hit zero we left.  And it was just crazy.  Because like, I’ve been at games where you stand a lot, but just the way that season was rolling, and the electricity in the air, you didn’t want to sit down, and so that was pretty crazy.

I about hit Courtney in the face this year, when Luke Maye hit that shot against Kentucky.  I really did.  I was punching the air, I was going nuts.

I will say, I am really weird about, like—regular season, and I can just sit on my couch and chill, but like, if it’s the playoffs, I bring a chair, and I sit probably as close as me and you to the TV, and I’m in it.  I’m in it.  Because it’s every pitch.

Ryan:  I was at Wrigley Field in 2003 when Barry Bonds, in batting practice, hit a baseball over Sheffield, through a window across the street, and that video’s kind of gone popular now, a cool “I didn’t do it,” you know, that was pretty funny though, just to—I don’t think he even noticed that it was out there, and it was like “did he just…?”  Yeah, he just hit one across the street, through a window.  That stands out.

I seem to have been to a lot of games where Top 10 plays happen on SportsCenter.  You were at one where Andrelton Simmons made that sick play against the Mets that we didn’t see because people (standing in the aisle) blocked us.

SOS:  I kind of saw it.  You were a little more blocked.  The best play I’ve ever seen live.

Ryan:  It’s kind of cool, you see it in person and then the next day it’s #1 on SportsCenter.  I was at a Hawks and 76ers game and a dunk made #1 on SportsCenter, and I was sitting right there watching it.  That’s pretty sweet.

Garrett:  The year of the “Kick Six” in the Iron Bowl, we were sitting in a beach house, and the Iron Bowl was taking a little long to finish that year, so we had the Iron Bowl going on here (on one TV), and the Clemson-(South) Carolina game going on here (on another TV).

And I would much rather see us win and Alabama win—I don’t like Alabama, but I’d rather–I’d trade an Alabama win for a Clemson win, if that makes sense—but I was incredibly ecstatic watching, what’s his name, Chris Davis run that kick, that (missed) field goal back for a touchdown, but then my joy quickly turned into despair when Tajh Boyd proceeded to throw like six interceptions.

 

Tomorrow, Fans Week continues with a look at some of the crazy things I’ve ever heard and seen from fans at sporting events. 

Fans Week Roundtable, Part I: Gratifying Wins and Gut-Wrenching Losses

Most of us aren’t members of any team or coaching staff in any pro or college sport, but there is one position we all hold:  fan.

This week, Stiles on Sports will glimpse at the admiration for our favorite teams and players, the exciting wins, and the heartbreaking close calls that are all a part of fanhood.

Welcome to Fans Week.

To start, I talked to three friends (and fellow recent graduates of Anderson University) who are as big of sports fans as I am in a roundtable discussion about their experiences as a fan.

All three have had one or more teams they pull for win championships in recent years, and all have had agonizing near misses too.

Justin Kenley is a St. Louis Cardinals, Carolina Panthers and North Carolina Tar Heels fan.

Ryan Pittman pulls for the Chicago Cubs, Green Bay Packers and South Carolina Gamecocks.

Garrett Black is a Clemson Tigers football fan.  While he only has one team he is a diehard fan of, following that team has been a roller coaster ride over the last few years.

Our conversations covered the full gauntlet of fanhood:  Part I of this two-part roundtable includes discussion on joyous championship occasions and agonizing losses.

 

SOS:  What is your best win as a fan?

Justin:  It’s got to be Game 6 (of the World Series) in 2011.

It was on a Thursday night, and I had a cross country meet Friday morning, and I had to run at 7:30, so we had to be at the meet at 6:15.  Our coach was the kind of guy that you’re in bed by 9:00 on those nights, and I was like, “nah, I can’t go to sleep.”

I was sitting on the edge of our ottoman, and my mom and dad were in there, and I remember thinking we were really done.  And when David Freese hit that triple, I lost my stinking mind.  I just went crazy.  And then, obviously, the next inning, Josh Hamilton hits a home run (for Texas), and then Lance Berkman ties it up again, and then obviously the home run in the 11th.

Honestly, the home run in the 11th, I didn’t freak out nearly as bad as I did for the triple and the single, because it was just the moment, with two strikes, down to your last pitch, but yeah, it’s got to be that.  Game 7 was kind of a letdown too–well, not for me, but as a game.

Ryan:  Probably South Carolina baseball in, I think it would’ve been 2011, they played UConn in the Super Regional, and it was at Carolina Stadium, and I was actually able to go, and I was there when they clinched it to go to Omaha.

As a fan, actually being there for that, seeing the celebration–you know, you watch other teams win on TV and stuff, but actually being there and watching them make the dogpile in the middle, that’s a priceless moment.

And obviously, my greatest sports thing as a fan ever was when the Cubs won the World Series last year.  I’ve never been happier in my life.  I was watching a team that I thought never could win win, and that was pretty spectacular too.

SOS:  Garrett, as a Clemson fan I guess yours is pretty obvious.

Garrett:  Well, let me tell you about a game that happened this past January… (laugh)

SOS:  What was that like as a fan?

Garrett:  I lost my mind.  My younger brother actually took a video of my reaction.  I go in and out of the frame multiple times because I spent the next 30 seconds to a minute just kind of screaming and running around the room.

 

SOS:  What is your worst loss as a fan?

Justin:  I’ve gotta go with the Super Bowl loss…not to the Patriots but to the Broncos.  Villanova (beating North Carolina in 2016) sucked, but just growing up in Charlotte, and loving the Panthers, and just to see the electricity that that team was bringing to Charlotte, and to be on such a roll, and then to just fall short, that hurt.

I was awful mad that night.  Because I had to drive back two-and-a-half hours from my home, because we had a Super Bowl party, and that was not a fun ride back.  Because I still think, and call me a biased fan, but I still think if we play them 10 times, we win seven of them.  I really do think that, especially that year, and they just didn’t play good, so that sucked.  Villanova’s up there, but that one really sucked.

Ryan:  I’ve got to go back to the Packers when they were playing the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.

They had the huge lead in the fourth quarter (19-7), and the Seahawks got a miraculous touchdown with like, what was it, 30 seconds or a minute left, and then freaking, was it… Bostick, Brandon Bostick, decided not to block, decided to be a hero and field the onside kick, and he ended up becoming the villain, and the Packers lost that game, which I thought was a game they should have easily won, and been in the Super Bowl that year.  And that was painful.

Garrett:  I’m probably going to have to go with the Orange Bowl loss (to West Virginia in 2012, 70-33).  Just, I remember me and my dad watching it, and I think we were down two or three scores, and we’re like, okay, now’s the time to buckle down and get with it, and I think we allowed another two touchdowns within—I mean, West Virginia was scoring all over the place that game.  So we just turned the TV off, and we didn’t speak for the rest of the night.  It was tough.

 

SOS:  What non-playoff win stands out in your memory?

Justin:  Two years ago, we were playing the Cubs in the regular season, and it was just one of those frustrating nights, the ball didn’t seem to bounce our way, nothing really happened, and then the ninth inning with two outs, Jhonny Peralta hits a line drive over the left-center field wall in Wrigley Field.

And it was just awesome to see Wrigley Field so pumped and excited, and then the air was let out of that place.  And I think if I remember correctly, they went on to win it in the 10th.  Which, it’s kind of funny that that’s a baseball game, because one out of 162, but that one stuck out in my mind.

Another one I remember… I was at Bank of America Stadium the year before we made the big run, and we went 12-4, and it was when we played the Saints, in the monsoon game.  And literally, I was up in the upper deck and couldn’t even see the field, because the rain was so bad.  It was that bad.  But that kind of like Cam (Newton)’s emergence, leading us to a division title and stuff, and that game sealed the NFC South for us.  That was awesome.

Ryan:  This is going to be a little off the grid…

SOS: That’s the point of the question.

Ryan: I think it was two or three years ago, South Carolina basketball was in the SEC Tournament as like a 13-seed, and all of a sudden they won a couple of games and made it to the quarterfinals and lost there.  It wasn’t a great season, but those two wins, I think were against Auburn and another crappy team in the SEC, but it was like—in my opinion those wins were big, because I was like, “hey look, we’re winning in the tournament.” It was symbolic to the fact that it was going to get better.  So at the time, obviously, it’s not a huge deal when a 13-seed beats a 12-seed, or something like that, it’s not a big deal…

SOS: But the next day beat a 5-seed, I think.  I want to say it was Arkansas.

Ryan: Yeah, it’s like wow, here we are, it’s a game that didn’t really matter but it gave me hope as a fan.

Garrett:  When Deshaun (Watson) snapped the losing streak against (South) Carolina, and he was playing on, what, a torn ACL, and it was a home game, in fairness, but five losses in a rivalry that heated, in a row, that was like being able to breathe air again.

 

SOS:  What non-playoff loss stands out, or “still stings”?

Justin:  Any time we lose to Duke, I hate it.  I almost treat the Duke games like playoff games.  And obviously there’s playoff losses that sting, but just regular season games—there’s always a game that where like, “man, we had that.”

I also hated when (the Panthers) lost to Atlanta, when we went 15-1.  That really stung.  Because I really thought, “we’re going to go undefeated this year.”  Only two games away from doing it, and then to win in the fashion we did in Week 17, it would’ve been nice to have won in Week 16.

Ryan:  This is going to go way back.  Wow, it must have been ’03 or ’04.  The Cubs were playing the Brewers at Miller Park.  Craig Counsell hit a leadoff home run, and the Brewers won the game 1-0.

I watched that entire game as a 10-year old, like, come on, come on, let’s get a run, like, can we score a run, because the pitching was great, and that game still stands out, because, like, the first inning home run, you can get so much time to come back, you’ve still got 24 outs to work with, and…. no.  That loss stands out.  It didn’t affect anything, but that’s a non-championship, non-playoff loss that stands out.

Garrett:  The one that’s freshest on my mind is the loss to Pitt this year, because we were the better football team, we were at home, we should’ve won that game.

But we were kind of resting on how good we were supposed to be, and not actually playing to our full potential, and I think had we won that game we wouldn’t have won the national championship.

 

SOS:  Who is one team that didn’t win a championship that you are particularly fond of?

Justin:  I loved the 2013 Cardinals.  I thought that team was loaded.  I still think we were the best team that year.  I loved our bullpen, going seventh, eighth and ninth, with (Kevin) Seagrist, (Carlos) Martinez and (Trevor) Rosenthal; I was like, “man, you get us in the seventh inning with the lead, it’s ballgame.”

I loved that team, and I hate that—I feel like it was one of those things that we just didn’t play well in the World Series, and it happens.  I loved that team, and obviously the Panthers two years ago.  That was a fun team to watch.  Cam (Newton) doing Cam things that we’d never seen before, that was a lot of fun.

But that Cardinal team was good, man.  I remember going into the World Series, and obviously, 2011 was different, because we snuck in to the Wild Card and just got hot at the right time, but 2013 I was like, “man, this is the best team I’ve seen us put together in a while.”  So just, it just kind of sucked to lose it, because I felt like we were so good, but that happens, man—sports.

SOS: Yeah, to win a World Series you’ve got to play well for a whole month.  You have an off week, you’re done.

Justin: It happens.

Ryan:  Does it have to be a team that’s my favorite team?

SOS: Not necessarily.

Ryan:  Because, there’s a handful of those teams that I just… I think the Tampa Bay Rays, back in 2008, when they made the World Series.  It was with their low-payroll, low-everything, no really big superstars, but they found a way to win games, and it was kind of cool to watch that small market team that hadn’t been in the league that long just kind of come out of nowhere with guys that were fun to watch and just enjoying the game.  That’s probably my favorite non-championship team.

I could say the 2015 Cubs, too, (once the rebuilding team was respectable), but there wasn’t that connection yet with those players.  It was still bits and pieces, and like it wasn’t quite there yet.  It was all magical anyway, we shouldn’t have even been in the playoffs that year.

Garrett:  I’d have to give it to the ’15 Tigers, the ones that lost the championship game.  They’re the ones that kind of finally shed the underperforming label, because we could’ve won the ACC as many times as we wanted to and that would always just be “all you can do is win the ACC.”

I remember, like in the 24 hours after we lost that game (to Alabama), I saw probably three or four different think pieces on how much respect people had for Clemson after that game.  It just was like the perception of who Clemson was and what we could accomplish kind of just changed overnight after that game.

 

Tomorrow in Part II, our roundtable will discuss the panelists’ favorite players to watch, who they wish they could’ve watched, and crazy things they’ve done and seen as a fan.