What’s the best major I’ve ever seen? My ultimate golf bracket

Major championship golf returns Thursday morning, and the first major since July 2019 has fans like me feeling the most excitement and anticipation there’s been for any golf tournament in a long time.

Thinking about other exciting majors I’ve been fortunate enough to witness made me realize I’ve seen the last 64 majors, dating back to the 2004 Masters, the day I discovered and fell in love with the game of golf.

The 102nd PGA Championship begins Thursday at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, the first major championship contested in 13 months. (pgachampionship.com photo)

The number 64 always lends its way to thinking about a bracket, and the end of the longest drought since World War II without a major contested is the perfect time to do one of the best major championships I’ve seen. The fact I’ve watched 16 of each tournament makes it easy to organize – each of the four majors is a quadrant of my bracket. Each of the 16 years between 2004-19 was placed in those bracket quadrants in randomized order.

In writing this, I’ve admittedly had to look up some of the majors to refresh my memory on some of the details – a fun nostalgia trip back to the majors played throughout my childhood, teenage and college years and beyond – and fondly remembered the drama and excitement of the majors in years gone by.

FIRST ROUND

MASTERS BRACKET

2010 (Phil Mickelson) def. 2016 (Danny Willett)
The emotions of Phil’s “win for the family” were more pleasant than in Jordan Spieth’s back-nine collapse.

2004 (Phil Mickelson) def. 2013 (Adam Scott)
Both were the end of a long quest for a maiden major, but Phil’s is what got me into golf.

2019 (Tiger Woods) def. 2008 (Trevor Immelman)
Sorry for the tough first-round draw, Trevor.

2017 (Sergio Garcia) def. 2015 (Jordan Spieth)
Spieth’s Masters was fun, but not as dramatic as Sergio’s long-awaited major win.

2011 (Charl Schwartzel) def. 2006 (Phil Mickelson)
April 10, 2011 was one wild afternoon of golf: eight players led on Sunday – five simultaneously – before Schwartzel birdied the last four holes to separate himself.

2005 (Tiger Woods) def. 2007 (Zach Johnson)
2007, with a 1-over winning score, lacked the roars Augusta is known for; ’05 had one of the biggest ever.

2009 (Angel Cabrera) def. 2018 (Patrick Reed)
2009’s three-way playoff after Tiger and Phil’s charges fell short is often forgotten.

2012 (Bubba Watson) def. 2014 (Bubba Watson)
I’m sure Bubba would agree his first Masters win came in the better overall tournament.

PGA CHAMPIONSHIP BRACKET

2009 (Y.E. Yang – Hazeltine) def. 2011 (Keegan Bradley – Atlanta Athletic Club)
Both winners are somewhat unheralded, but Keegan Bradley’s didn’t come head to head against one Eldrick Tont Woods.

2019 (Brooks Koepka – Bethpage Black) def. 2008 (Padraig Harrington – Oakland Hills)
Harrington’s third title in a six-major span is topped by Koepka’s fourth in eight majors.

2014 (Rory McIlroy – Valhalla) def. 2017 (Justin Thomas – Quail Hollow)
Both had “good major” characteristics — leaderboard, excitement, quality winner — but 2014 edges 2017 in each category, and had controversy too.

2007 (Tiger Woods – Southern Hills) def. 2016 (Jimmy Walker – Baltusrol)
A mundane Tiger win beats any other mundane major.

2004 (Vijay Singh – Whistling Straits) def. 2012 (Rory McIlroy – Kiawah Island)
Whistling Straits’ first PGA is an underrated one, with a Hall of Famer beating two perennial Ryder Cuppers in a playoff after a crowded leaderboard in regulation.

2018 (Brooks Koepka – Bellerive) def. 2006 (Tiger Woods – Medinah)
Koepka beat a charging Tiger in 2018, and Koepka’s first Wanamaker beats Tiger’s fourth here.

2010 (Martin Kaymer – Whistling Straits) def. 2005 (Phil Mickelson – Baltusrol)
I still roll my eyes at “Bunkergate”, but many fans rolled their eyes at a Monday morning finish in ’05.

2015 (Jason Day – Whistling Straits) def. 2013 (Jason Dufner – Oak Hill)
Day vs. Spieth, both at their peak, on a soft track was entertaining, even if 20-under won.

U.S. OPEN BRACKET

2012 (Webb Simpson – Olympic) def. 2009 (Lucas Glover – Bethpage)
The ’09 tournament never really felt like a major until the final round, by which point few were watching because it was Monday.

2008 (Tiger Woods – Torrey Pines) def. 2018 (Brooks Koepka – Shinnecock Hills)
2018 was a fine tournament, but Brooks Koepka didn’t have a broken leg.

2015 (Jordan Spieth – Chambers Bay) def. 2010 (Graeme McDowell – Pebble Beach)
As bad a venue as Chambers Bay was, few tournaments have had as much late drama.

2007 (Angel Cabrera – Oakmont) def. 2019 (Gary Woodland – Pebble Beach)
Cabrera beat Tiger and Jim Furyk in quintessential U.S. Open conditions.

2013 (Justin Rose – Merion) def. 2005 (Michael Campbell – Pinehurst)
Many thought a modern U.S. Open at venerable Merion couldn’t be pulled off; Rose pulled off the win over a loaded leaderboard.

2017 (Brooks Koepka – Erin Hills) def. 2014 (Martin Kaymer – Pinehurst)
Erin Hills wasn’t great as a host site, but at least it gave us a finish.

2006 (Geoff Ogilvy – Winged Foot) def. 2011 (Rory McIlroy – Congressional)
Phil Mickelson may disagree ’06 was the better tournament after the most heartbreaking of his six U.S. Open runner-up finishes.

2004 (Retief Goosen – Shinnecock Hills) def. 2016 (Dustin Johnson – Oakmont)
Nothing too special about ’04, but at least Goosen knew where he stood down the stretch without a penalty in limbo.

THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP BRACKET

2019 (Shane Lowry – Royal Portrush) def. 2005 (Tiger Woods – St. Andrews)
Great as Tiger’s majors are, some lack the novelty of the ’19 Open: an Irishman wins The Open in the event’s first trip to Northern Ireland in six decades.

2009 (Stewart Cink – Turnberry) def. 2008 (Padraig Harrington – Royal Birkdale)
There’s never been an event – in any sport – like the 2009 Open. And that has nothing to do with Cink, but instead the runner-up: Tom Watson.

2007 (Padraig Harrington – Carnoustie) def. 2006 (Tiger Woods – Royal Liverpool)
Tiger’s first win after his father’s death is an iconic moment, but Harrington’s playoff win over Sergio was a better overall event.

2015 (Zach Johnson – St. Andrews) def. 2011 (Darren Clarke – Royal St. George’s)
Spieth narrowly missing the third leg of the Grand Slam made way for a three-way playoff at the home of golf.

2013 (Phil Mickelson – Muirfield) def. 2018 (Francesco Molinari – Carnoustie)
Molinari’s bogey-free final round would beat most here, but not the round of Mickelson’s life.

2017 (Jordan Spieth – Royal Birkdale) def. 2014 (Rory McIlroy – Royal Liverpool)
McIlroy played tremendously at Liverpool. Spieth recovered tremendously after a tee shot that might’ve landed in Liverpool.

2012 (Ernie Els – Royal Lytham & St. Annes) def. 2004 (Todd Hamilton – Royal Troon)
The sting of watching Adam Scott’s late collapse was lessened by the popularity of the man inheriting the title.

2016 (Henrik Stenson – Royal Troon) def. 2010 (Louis Oosthuizen – St. Andrews)
Louis was a class of his own at St. Andrews, while two players separated themselves in a great duel at Troon.

SECOND ROUND

MASTERS BRACKET

2004 (Phil Mickelson) def. 2010 (Phil Mickelson)
As special as 2010 was for the Mickelson family, Phil birdieing five of the last seven to beat Ernie Els for his first major is hard to top.

2019 (Tiger Woods) def. 2017 (Sergio Garcia)
As has happened a few times in real life, here Tiger beats Sergio head-to-head.

2005 (Tiger Woods) def. 2011 (Charl Schwartzel)
Tiger’s best non-final-round charge was still a Sunday one, in the completion of the third round in 2005. Later that day came the early favorite if I ever do a bracket of the best shots I’ve seen.  

2012 (Bubba Watson) def. 2009 (Angel Cabrera)
Speaking of if I ever do a best shots bracket… 2012 has two of them! Louis Oosthuizen’s double eagle set the stage early in the final round, before Bubba’s hook from the pine straw sealed his first major. 

PGA CHAMPIONSHIP BRACKET

2009 (Y.E. Yang – Hazeltine) def. 2019 (Brooks Koepka – Bethpage Black)
In both events, a Superman looked human. Koepka, the 2019 Superman, still won; in 2009 Y.E. Yang pulled off the biggest upset in recent history.

2014 (Rory McIlroy – Valhalla) def. 2007 (Tiger Woods – Southern Hills)
With all due respect to him, Woody Austin doing the chasing in ’07 doesn’t compare to Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson being outdueled by Rory seven years later.

2018 (Brooks Koepka – Bellerive) def. 2004 (Vijay Singh – Whistling Straits)
Simply put, there was more excitement as Tiger chased and Koepka held him off than there was when the winner shot 76 on Sunday.

2010 (Martin Kaymer – Whistling Straits) def. 2015 (Jason Day – Whistling Straits)
Whistling Straits was a more worthy venue in 2010, and produced a Kaymer-Bubba playoff a shot ahead of Zach Johnson and McIlroy – although controversy surrounded Dustin Johnson’s penalty.

U.S. OPEN BRACKET

2008 (Tiger Woods – Torrey Pines) def. 2012 (Webb Simpson – Olympic)
Simpson beating Furyk et al at Olympic wasn’t a bad major. But just the storyline of Rocco Mediate making it to a playoff against the greatest ever is enough to advance 2008. I’ll discuss the winner later.

2015 (Jordan Spieth – Chambers Bay) def. 2007 (Angel Cabrera – Oakmont)
Some may say it’s blasphemous to put anything at Chambers Bay over anything at Oakmont. But it is where Spieth got halfway to the Grand Slam after another Dustin Johnson near miss.

2013 (Justin Rose – Merion) def. 2017 (Brooks Koepka – Erin Hills)
Merion was a real U.S. Open; Erin Hills hosted one in name only.

2006 (Geoff Ogilvy – Winged Foot) def. 2004 (Retief Goosen – Shinnecock Hills)
The Phil Mickelson runner-up tour continues with these two; 2006, though, was the far more dramatic defeat, the worst of his career.

THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP BRACKET

2009 (Stewart Cink – Turnberry) def. 2019 (Shane Lowry – Royal Portrush)
Sometimes I think about the 2009 Open and still think “seriously, a 59-year-old man had a putt to win The Open?”

2007 (Padraig Harrington – Carnoustie) def. 2015 (Zach Johnson – St. Andrews)
Speaking of putts to win, the lip was unkind on Sergio’s at Carnoustie.

2013 (Phil Mickelson – Muirfield) def. 2017 (Jordan Spieth – Royal Birkdale)
The final six holes of both victor’s triumphs were exceptional, although I don’t know if Spieth considers the final round the best round of his life. Phil does.

2016 (Henrik Stenson – Royal Troon) def. 2012 (Ernie Els – Royal Lytham & St. Annes)
If the phrase “The Duel in the Sun” weren’t already taken by the 1977 Open, it might be used to describe Stenson’s duel with Mickelson four years ago.

THIRD ROUND

MASTERS BRACKET

2019 (Tiger Woods) vs. 2004 (Phil Mickelson)
As much of an affection as I have for 2004 and how it changed the direction of my sporting life, for golf fans of a certain age the emotions of 2019 will likely never be topped.

2005 (Tiger Woods) def. 2012 (Bubba Watson)
“In your life, have you seen anything like that!?!” could have been said about Bubba’s shot off the pine straw, too. But the chip that phrase was said about is too iconic a moment to pass up, although you could make a compelling case that ’12 was the better tournament.

PGA CHAMPIONSHIP BRACKET

2009 (Y.E. Yang – Hazeltine) def. 2014 (Rory McIlroy – Valhalla)
Tiger is 14-for-15 when holding a 54-hole lead in a major. The one he lost deserved to go far here, especially since the player who beat him fell off the planet not long after.

2018 (Brooks Koepka – Bellerive) def. 2010 (Martin Kaymer – Whistling Straits)
Tiger didn’t win at Bellerive – although it took a cold-blooded performance by Koepka to hold him off – but that day confirmed to any doubters who remained that Tiger could win a major again. He won the next one.

U.S. OPEN BRACKET

2008 (Tiger Woods – Torrey Pines) def. 2015 (Jordan Spieth – Chambers Bay)
I’ve touted the drama of the 2015 final round, but 2008 had two full days of that level of drama, in the final round then in the 19-hole playoff.  

2006 (Geoff Ogilvy – Winged Foot) def. 2013 (Justin Rose – Merion)
I’ve already twice referenced Phil’s collapse at Winged Foot, but it’s often forgotten that Jim Furyk bogeyed the 72nd hole and Colin Montgomerie double-bogeyed it, both to miss a potential playoff by a shot.

THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP BRACKET

2009 (Stewart Cink – Turnberry) def. 2007 (Padraig Harrington – Carnoustie)
Tom Watson, already having won The Senior Open three times, was not outscored by anyone over the 72 regulation holes at Turnberry, beating 154 players with prime Lee Westwood and Luke Donald among the contenders. The one he tied, Stewart Cink, ultimately denied him Claret Jug No. 6.

2013 (Phil Mickelson – Muirfield) def. 2016 (Henrik Stenson – Royal Troon)
Phil nearly won two Opens – Stenson stopped him from that in ’16 – but many thought he’d never win one, sometimes including even himself. His ’13 win was the most unlikely of his 44 PGA Tour victories.

QUARTERFINALS

MASTERS BRACKET

2019 (Tiger Woods) vs. 2005 (Tiger Woods)
2005 was significant in Tiger’s career, his first major in nearly three years. 2019, though, was his first in 11 years, fused back and all.

PGA CHAMPIONSHIP BRACKET

2009 (Y.E. Yang – Hazeltine) def. 2018 (Brooks Koepka – Bellerive)
Both Yang and Koepka beat Tiger, but Yang was a more unlikely winner and came from behind to topple a still-in-his-prime Tiger. There was a real shock factor that afternoon.

U.S. OPEN BRACKET

2008 (Tiger Woods – Torrey Pines) def. 2006 (Geoff Ogilvy – Winged Foot)
As dramatic as 2006 was, it was dramatic because of great players’ failures. 2008 is remembered because of the greatest player’s accomplishment. For all the dramatic and dominant wins in his career, playing 91 holes on a broken leg well enough to win the U.S. Open might be Tiger’s greatest single-week achievement.

THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP BRACKET

2013 (Phil Mickelson – Muirfield) def. 2009 (Stewart Cink – Turnberry)
Age 43 is a lot different than age 59, but nonetheless, in 2013 the aging legend actually won, and came from way back on Sunday to do so.

SEMIFINALS

2019 Masters (Tiger Woods) def. 2009 PGA (Y.E. Yang – Hazeltine)
21st-century majors are often viewed through the red-tinted lens of Tiger’s performance. 2009 was his only loss from in front, and though we didn’t know at the time it marked the end of his prime and foreshadowed the struggles to come. Through the next 10 years, major chances were more rare and he never could complete major No. 15 – then it looked like No. 15 would never come due to injury. Then, one magical April afternoon 11 years after No. 14, No. 15 happened, as Tiger beat Dustin Johnson, Koepka and others to do it.

2008 U.S. Open (Tiger Woods – Torrey Pines) def. 2013 Open Championship (Phil Mickelson – Muirfield)
As much as Phil’s Muirfield win came from nowhere and has become legendary, Tiger’s third U.S. Open win is – despite being far more expected (“expect anything different?!?”) – that much more iconic. And in addition to Tiger’s theatrics, both in the golf and health sense, Rocco Mediate was the perfect foil, matching Tiger shot for shot over 72 holes, then again for the 18 of the playoff, before losing in sudden death.

FINAL

2019 Masters (Tiger Woods) def. 2008 U.S. Open (Tiger Woods)
Simply put, these are the two greatest golf tournaments I’ve ever witnessed, and are two of Tiger’s greatest wins (the other three I’d put up there – the 1997 and 2001 Masters and the 2000 U.S. Open – were before the time frame for this bracket). They will also forever be linked, as the 2019 Masters was Tiger’s first major since the 2008 U.S. Open – a fact that was unthinkable on June 16, 2008. All that transpired in his life in the 3,954 days between these two events made Tiger’s “return to glory” what it was – what Nick Faldo called “the greatest moment in golf, ever.”

An Open Letter to Bubba Wallace

Bubba,

As relieved as I am that the noose hanging in your Talladega garage stall was not directed at you, I still want to express how sorry I am for what happened over the last few days.

I’m sorry that you had to experience the negative emotions you must have had. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like on Sunday night when you were informed of the noose, as NASCAR considered the possibility that it had been placed as a hate crime because of your race. You must have angry and disgusted — or even scared on some level — particularly as the assumption was made that because of restricted access during the COVID-19 pandemic it had to have been placed by someone within the NASCAR industry.

It is understandable that you and your team members may have been on high alert for this race, given your existence as the only Black driver in what has traditionally been a Southern and very-predominantly-white sport; your outspokenness from that position on broader issues of race and equality, particularly recently; the sport’s recent confederate flag ban, after you had requested for such a ban to be implemented; the race being the first with general-admission fans in attendance since that ban (the first since March 8); and the race being in the heart of the Deep South in Alabama.

I’m also sorry about how many people are being critical of you after the investigation was closed. The people on social media accusing you of somehow staging this for the attention, or comparing you to Jussie Smollett, are completely wrong. I’m afraid those unfair criticisms will, unfortunately, follow you for the foreseeable future, given the attention on this story and the fact that some taunts don’t seem to go away quickly in the social-media age.

You have every right to be, as you said in an interview Tuesday, “mad because people are trying to test my character; they are trying to test my integrity.” Just remember that these people that are questioning you are ignorant of what happened, and most fans understand that you did nothing wrong. You were simply told of the incident and reacted — and did so with grace and resolve.

That reaction is one of the positive things that has come from this. So is what happened before the race Monday.

Fellow competitors stand behind Bubba Wallace’s car after pushing it to the front of the grid before Monday’s NASCAR Cup Series race in Talladega, Ala. (Bubba Wallace photo/Twitter)

Even as the event that led to it turned out not to be what we thought it was, the NASCAR industry’s show of solidarity towards you may have been the most moving thing I’ve ever seen in 20 years of watching the sport. By pushing your car to the front of the grid and standing with you during the national anthem, your fellow competitors made it clear they see no place for racism in NASCAR, and that while they are competing against you on the track they also have your back.

I can’t imagine what your emotions must have been. Even as my eyes were misty, the tears flowing from yours spoke volumes to the meaningfulness of that moment.

In this era of racial tensions and calls for social justice, that image will endure far longer than the discussions over the presence of the noose. Your buddy Ryan Blaney was right when he said Monday he didn’t feel it was a bad day for the sport, but a good day because when something bad happened (or at least was thought to have) you all overcame it together.

The moment of “every man on every crew” congratulating Dale Earnhardt after the 1998 Daytona 500 is one of the great images in NASCAR history. In time I think Monday’s every-man-on-every-crew moment may come to be even more of a defining image, because this was something bigger than someone winning a race. This was about humanity.

So while, as I said, I’m sorry about what has happened, I’m also proud that this situation produced something positive that has transcended the sport. I hope it made you feel as welcome in NASCAR as you have ever felt.

Sincerely,

A lifelong NASCAR fan who will always support you

Column: Sports’ best qualities on display in NASCAR’s return

After a 66-day period with no major sports that for many of us has felt like 66 years, the process of resuming the sports calendar began this week as NASCAR staged two Cup Series events, plus one for the second-tier Xfinity Series, in Darlington, S.C.

The events were a welcome sight for competition-starved fans, including some who haven’t ever watched NASCAR before. And while NASCAR is vastly different from stick-and-ball sports, the events those fans have watched this week still featured many of the things that people love about sports.

Sure, one of the biggest elements is missing — fans in the grandstands. That will come back in due time, once the COVID-19 pandemic slows and it’s safe for thousands of people to congregate shoulder-to-shoulder. But as the sports world watched from their homes, what they saw served as a reminder of the qualities that make sports so fun to watch in the first place.

Competition

At the center of this is the competition. All three events this week were competitive throughout, with various drivers taking turns in the lead and battles for position persisting throughout the field.

Drivers race on the opening lap of Wednesday’s Toyota 500 in Darlington, S.C. (NASCAR Photo)

In the two Cup Series events, no organization or manufacturer has stood out as the one having the most speed, with Stewart-Haas Racing (Ford), Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) and Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet) all showing strength in the two events.

Stewart-Haas’ Kevin Harvick won Sunday’s race for his 50th career victory and Clint Bowyer won two stages in Wednesday’s sequel, while Chase Briscoe won for the team in the Xfinity Series. Gibbs’ Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch finished first and second Wednesday. And while Hendrick didn’t have as strong of results, three of its cars held the first three spots at one point Sunday, and the other team car was in position for a strong finish before a late incident Wednesday (more on that in a moment).

Unpredictability

That parity helped to create another great sports element — unpredictability. Things happened in all three races no one could have anticipated; the unscripted nature of sports has always been one of its biggest appeals to me.

Who could have ever guessed seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson would spin out from the lead on the final lap of a stage (or, for that matter, that he’d be dominating the stage after a 99-race winless streak)? Bowyer had never won multiple stages in a race before Wednesday, and Thursday’s Xfinity race had it’s own set of wild circumstances (more on that below).

Even the weather followed along with that unpredictability — Wednesday’s Cup Series race was delayed by rain; the Xfinity Series race was postponed Tuesday and started four hours late on Thursday. The abundance of rain delays was just about the only unwelcome thing about NASCAR’s return.

Strategy

The weather, though, helped to emphasize the strategic elements of the races. In both Wednesday’s Cup race and the Xfinity event, teams had to tailor their strategy not just to the advertised distance of the race, but also to the current moment, as the possibility of rain persisted through both events. In NASCAR, an event can be rain-shortened if over half the laps are completed — and Wednesday’s race ultimately was ended 20 laps early when the rains returned.

But weather-related plans were not the only strategy employed by the teams. Tire management was a consideration throughout each event, particularly on a track like Darlington where tire wear is so conspicuous. Cars on different strategies created comers and goers in the pack, only adding to the competitiveness of each race.

There are strategic elements to every race, but particularly at a place like Darlington. The unique track is an egg-shaped, 1.366-mile circuit with the turns banked most heavily on the outside, meaning that the fastest way around the track is also the trickiest — inches from the wall.

Tradition

The difficulty of “the track too tough to tame” is simply part of the track’s rich tradition. The venue opened during NASCAR’s second season in 1950, and the Southern 500 (set to run as scheduled Sept. 6) was the series’ first speedway race. This week, some 70 years after helping to launch the sport, Darlington was host to its rebirth.

Auto racing is among the most tradition-rich sports, and while few tracks can match Darlington there, one that can is Charlotte, where the sport heads next. Sunday will mark the 61st Coca-Cola 600 — the 59th run on Memorial Day Weekend. NASCAR’s longest race is typically one of three major motorsports events on the holiday weekend, but COVID-19 caused the Indianapolis 500 to be moved to Aug. 23, and Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix to be canceled for the first time since 1954.

While it will be different from previous years, NASCAR will still continue it’s annual observance of Memorial Day surrounding the 600. In addition to special pre-race ceremonies — done virtually — each car will feature the name of a fallen U.S. service member across the top of its windshield.

NASCAR will continue to showcase some of its traditional venues after the Charlotte events, with Bristol, Martinsville, Atlanta and Talladega among the tracks scheduled for the coming weeks on NASCAR’s reworked schedule.

Conflict

The sport’s heritage includes some of the great Richard Petty-David Pearson duels and Dale Earnhardt-Darrell Waltrip feuds — and Wednesday’s race featured some hostility as well.

Chase Elliott spun after he was hooked by Kyle Busch while the two battled for second late in the race, as Busch tried to move into the space between Elliott and fourth-place Kevin Harvick and misjudged that gap, hitting Elliott’s left-rear and sending him into the inside wall.

Elliott pointed his middle finger at Busch as the latter drove by on the next lap, and his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, had an animated discussion with Busch, the 2019 Cup Series champion, after the race.

Quotes from both in the two days since suggest that they’re ready to move on — and Elliott has stated he now understands Busch’s move was simply a mistake and had no malicious intent — but that hasn’t prevented the conversations among fans and the media to continue, as they likely will until the next event Sunday.

Redemption

Busch’s admitted mistake in Wednesday’s race presented an opportunity to redeem himself in Thursday’s Xfinity Series race, where he was the heavy favorite, and after starting 26th he led the race by lap 48. Then, after winning the second stage, Busch was issued a pit road speeding penalty and was mid-pack once again — presenting an even bigger redemption opportunity.

Busch battled to fifth, then after a late caution picked off the leaders one-by-one up to second, and battled head-to-head with Briscoe in the closing laps.

Busch got all the way back to the top spot, leading the penultimate lap by a few inches, and battled door-to-door with Briscoe all the way back around to the checkers. But the opportunity for redemption for Busch was upstaged when fate had other plans for his competitor.

Emotion

Among the best qualities of sports is the raw human emotion on public display by competitors. The events Sunday and Wednesday included some amount of that from Harvick and Hamlin in victory — including Hamlin’s odd mask featuring his his own smile — while others showed their disappointment, including Elliott’s one-finger salute.

But the most clear display of emotion came from Briscoe. The 25-year-old and wife Marissa learned Tuesday they’d lost their expected baby, as Chase watched in Darlington through FaceTime when Marissa attended a routine 12-week checkup and it was discovered the baby had no heartbeat. Returning to the track Thursday after the postponement gave Briscoe an escape, though he said there were still times during the race he had tears in his eyes.

Briscoe, in his second Xfinity Series season, earned his fourth career win by beating the sport’s best driver, saying later he felt God was driving his racecar in the closing laps because he was an emotional mess. He keyed the radio moments after beating Busch by .086 seconds, but couldn’t speak and instead sobbed audibly; his crew chief told the driver the win was for him and his wife and baby. Briscoe remained overcome when he got out of the car.

“This is more than a race win,” he said. “This is the greatest day of my life, after the toughest day of my life.”

The emotions of victory — and often of defeat, too — are among the most magnetic qualities sports presents. Celebrating a win is one of the best parts of any competition, and sometime’s the participant’s life circumstances make it even more meaningful.

Any human, not just racing fans or more general sports fans, can relate on some level to the emotions shown, and Briscoe’s win was the perfect way to end the week of racing and put a bow on NASCAR’s return.

Column: The checkered flag at the end of the rainbow

Chase Elliott’s win in Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was incredible for anyone watching, as the 23-year-old from Georgia overcame a mid-race accident, came back through the field to take the lead with six laps to go and claimed his sixth career NASCAR Cup Series victory, then did a burnout at the very spot he had hit the wall an hour earlier.

But for me, this win had even more meaning. It was a checkered flag at the end of a rainbow.

But to understand what made Sunday afternoon special for me, you must first understand the road to get there.

From an early age, my aunt Terri taught me that if someone asked “who’s the best driver?” I was to answer with the name Jeff Gordon. That sparked an interest in NASCAR, and by Gordon’s championship season of 2001 I had joined her as a diehard fan.

She and I attended a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway eight times between 2002-12, witnessing 2,219 laps of racing, with everything from Mark Martin winning a million-dollar bonus at our first race, to Dale Earnhardt Jr. running out of gas leading on the final lap, to the time we thought we were on Noah’s ark through a day and a half of rain ending in David Reutimann’s first career win.

After Jeff Gordon retired (we watched the final race of his last full-time season together at a race-viewing party at the NASCAR Hall of Fame), we both became Chase Elliott fans the following year when the son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott took over the drivers seat of the No. 24 Chevrolet.

In September 2016, two-thirds of the way through Elliott’s rookie season, Terri died unexpectedly.

In the three years since, I had not been to Charlotte Motor Speedway until Sunday. I wasn’t avoiding the track, but simply never made it to a race there, between being busier than ever and, for a time, further away from Charlotte than ever, and attending races at other tracks.

She was on my mind Sunday — when we got to our seats, which weren’t too far away from where we sat during that rainy Coca-Cola 600; during the invocation and national anthem; when Gordon made a cameo on the track’s massive video screen.

As the race unfolded, by the middle of Stage 2 it was clear Elliott had the best car on the racetrack, and he led 28 laps over the middle portion of the race and won the stage. At some point I gave a thought to how personally meaningful an Elliott win could be.

But on a restart on lap 65 of the 109-lap event, Elliott locked up the brakes and his car wouldn’t turn, resulting in him hitting the tire barrier where the drivers turn off from the traditional oval into the infield portion of the “roval” track.

Since he drove the car back to pit road, I figured he would be able to continue and would not be out of the race, but I also assumed his chance to win was gone. The car’s hood appeared to be damaged, and I questioned if there could be damage inside the hood as well.

But the damage was minimal, and Elliott drove his way from around 30th back towards the front, even briefly leading again at lap 78 during a cycle of green-flag pit stops. With his driving through the field and the help of some timely cautions, Elliott was up to third by the final restart.

Within one lap after the final restart, Elliott had taken the lead again — clearing Kevin Harvick right in front of me in the frontstretch chicane.

Over the final laps, as Elliott pulled away from second-place Alex Bowman, I began to reflect, all while nervously hoping the race would stay green.

I thought about the times spent with Terri at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I thought about the fact that the driver I was pulling for, be it Gordon or Elliott, had never won a race I attended.

I thought about the fact that she would have been 60 two days later — today.

And then, in the midst of all of these thoughts, just as Elliott was coming to the white flag to signify the final lap, a rainbow appeared over the racetrack.

Rainbows are often used in a symbolic way, and in this case felt like further confirmation that what was happening on the track simply felt meant to be.

Furthermore, the symbolism of a rainbow specifically connects back to Terri and racing: Jeff Gordon’s Dupont-sponsored car was, for many years, painted with a rainbow, a scheme that was so iconic his pit crew became known as the Rainbow Warriors.

Chase Elliott navigated the 17 turns of the final lap under that rainbow, and at the end of that 109th lap of the afternoon found his pot of gold in the form of a checkered flag.

Chase Elliott on the final lap of Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Take note of the rainbow in the upper left, which the photo does not do justice. (Photo: Chris Stiles)

And as Elliott crossed that finish line, I lifted my hands up in celebration but also briefly glanced to the heavens in reflection. My friend Jackson, who I was attending the race with, gave me a high-five. After standing for the closing laps, I sat down to take a deep breath, and simply took in the moment.

I don’t mean to elevate my circumstances over those of anyone else — during the race I even had the thought that if another driver won it would be just as meaningful to one of their fans — but some things just feel meant to be.

I know it was just a race, and not one that I was a participant in. But sometimes sports outcomes can be more meaningful because of the underlying circumstances.

Now, a couple of days later, I’m grateful. Grateful for the experience, for the chance to reflect and to remember a special person in my life.

I went to a NASCAR race Sunday. I never expected to find a personal pot of gold.

Column: Buckner should be remembered for more than one play

When the name Bill Buckner is mentioned in any game of word association, where participants say the first thing that comes to their mind, one thing immediately comes to mind in Boston, New York and, frankly, worldwide.

Bill Buckner’s career had progressed solidly and steadily before one certain play in the penultimate game of his 18th MLB season, and continued for four more years before he retired. But he’s most remembered for what happened on the final pitch of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

Buckner died Monday at age 69 after battling Lewy body dementia, 33 years after that fateful play.

To the outsider or even the casual fan, Buckner’s career was defined by one trickling ground ball on Oct. 25, 1986 that somehow got through his 36-year-old legs, allowed Ray Knight to score the game-winning run for the New York Mets and is perceived to have extended the Boston Red Sox World Series drought, which dated back to 1918 and eventually ended in 2004.

But Buckner was so much more than “The Buckner Boot”; anyone who played 22 seasons would have more depth to their career than the three seconds it took for a baseball to travel from Mookie Wilson’s bat to between Buckner’s legs.

“His life was defined by perseverance, resilience and an insatiable will to win,” Red Sox owner John Henry said in a statement Monday. “Those are the traits for which he will be most remembered.”

Buckner wasn’t a Hall of Fame-caliber player — only 2.1 percent of the electors voted for Buckner in his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot — but he was what I like to call a “Hall of Very Good” player. Anyone who sticks around the big leagues for 22 years does so because they’ve proven to be a noteworthy player.

Buckner earned 2,715 hits, hitting for a .289 lifetime average in a career that touched four different decades. He was a true “professional hitter” who only struck out 453 times in his entire career, and never more than twice in a single game.

He hit over .300 in seven seasons, including a .324 season in 1980 that won him the National League batting title while with the Chicago Cubs.

He was only an All-Star once, in 1981, but twice finished in the top 10 in MVP voting, in 1981 and 1982.

Buckner is mostly remembered for his time with the Red Sox — that’s where the error occurred, after all — but he had a pair of strong eight-year stints with NL clubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cubs.

With the Dodgers, he was part of the 1974 team that won the NL pennant and lost the World Series to the Oakland Athletics. With the Cubs, he was part of the 1984 NL East-championship team that ended a 39-year playoff drought, though he was traded away at midseason.

While known for the error in the 1986 World Series, he was actually part of another of the most historic and frequently-replayed moments in baseball history, though as more of a footnote. When Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run to top Babe Ruth’s all-time record, Buckner was the left fielder who tried to climb the fence in an attempt to make a play on the ball as it sailed over his head and into the Braves bullpen.

When Buckner participated in the 1986 World Series, he had made 8,996 major-league plate appearances (on his way to 10,037). His experience at age 36 was valuable to the Red Sox, and he hit third in their lineup, but his ankles were showing their age and Dave Stapleton was often used as a defensive replacement at first base in the late innings when the Red Sox led.

In Game 6, they took a 5-3 lead in the 10th inning after Dave Henderson homered and were three outs away from their first championship in 68 years. Manager John McNamara left Buckner in the game.

After Calvin Schiraldi got the first two outs he allowed three straight singles to the never-say-die Mets. Bob Stanley replaced Schiraldi and — in an important detail that’s oft-forgotten in the narrative blaming Buckner for the Red Sox’ loss — allowed Kevin Mitchell to score the tying run on a wild pitch earlier in Wilson’s at-bat.

The Buckner play became the enduring memory of Game 6 because it ended the game and forced a Game 7, one which the Red Sox lost despite two hits and a run by Buckner.

But three things should be remembered: First, if Schiraldi and/or Stanley did their job more efficiently the Buckner play would have never existed because the Wilson at-bat would have never happened. Second, if the Red Sox don’t also blow the lead two nights later in Game 7, Buckner’s error would be a moot point because the Red Sox would have still achieved their goal of winning the World Series.

And third, Buckner’s career was far more than one game. He played in 2,539 other major-league games (including postseason) and was an impactful player.

Unfortunately, those things were largely forgotten over the years in much of the discussion about the ’86 Series, among fans and the media alike — especially before the Red Sox’ 2004 championship season.

Buckner was released by the Red Sox in mid-1987 but came back to the team in 1990, his final season.

Over the last four years of his playing career, Buckner was heckled both in Boston and around the rest of the league, both while still on the Red Sox and in short stints with the California Angels and Kansas City Royals. Even after his retirement, Buckner’s error never stopped getting media attention — even to this day, in some ways — though it subsided as the Red Sox began winning championships; they’ve now won four in the last 15 years.

Buckner, who grew up in California, moved to Idaho after his playing career, in part to escape the constant reminders of that one ill-fated play. For several years, he declined invitations to appear at Fenway Park in Boston, but he accepted the Red Sox’ invitation to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day 2008 as part of the team’s celebration of their 2007 championship.

“I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media for what they put me and my family through,” Buckner said that day. “So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”

Buckner even appeared at autograph-signing events with Wilson, who commented on Buckner’s death in a statement Monday.

“We had developed a friendship that lasted well over 30 years,” Wilson said. “I felt badly for some of the things he went through. Bill was a great, great baseball player whose legacy should not be defined by one play.”

But even in his death, Buckner’s career still is being most remembered for one error. Every story on Buckner Monday mentioned the error or included a clip of the play, while far less mentioned his 1,208 RBIs. Some of the famous photographs of his dejected stare in reaction to the play have topped obituaries rather than images from any of his 718 extra-base hits.

The word association with Buckner’s name remains “error,” even as “good player” and “professional hitter” would a more appropriate reflection as his life is remembered in the coming days.

SportsShorts: Indy 500 win comes full circle for Pagenaud, Chevrolet and France

In 1920, French-born driver Gaston Chevrolet won the Indianapolis 500, becoming the third Frenchman to win in the first eight editions of the event.

Little did anyone know it would be 99 years before a French driver would again win at the greatest spectacle in racing.

Sunday, some 36,154 days later, the day belonged to Poitiers, France native Simon Pagenaud. The 2016 IndyCar Series champion won the race’s 103rd edition from the pole, earning triumph over 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi in a riveting final-laps battle.

Pagenaud soaked in the win for himself and his country, stopping on the track at the start-finish line and delaying the traditional victory-lane celebration and milk-drinking to celebrate with his team, family and friends. Perhaps Chevrolet had done the same nearly a century earlier.

If you’re wondering if Gaston Chevrolet has something to do with that Chevrolet, you’d be correct — as I found out in some brief research after Sunday’s race.

His brother Louis Chevrolet founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company in 1911 after moving to the United States. Gaston, Louis and brother Arthur co-founded the Frontenac Motor Corporation in 1916, a racecar manufacturer, and all three competed in the Indianapolis 500 multiple times, including Gaston’s 1920 victory.

Frontenac also won the 1921 Indy 500 with driver Tommy Milton before the company folded later that year. Chevrolet, of course, has become one of the largest auto brands in the world and is heavily involved in many forms of auto racing, including IndyCar.

Chevrolet eventually earned their first Indianapolis 500 win as a manufacturer with Rick Mears in 1988; Sunday was their 11th.

Hopefully Pagenaud’s fate after his 500 victory is better than that of Gaston Chevrolet: While his 500 triumph helped propel him to the AAA National Championship in 1920, he was killed in the season’s final race in Los Angeles.

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.

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: Tyler Trent won

Tyler Trent, the Purdue superfan whose cancer battle inspired millions, died Tuesday. He was just 20 years old.

It will be said in the coming days that Tyler Trent “lost” his battle with the rare bone cancer osteosarcoma. But that statement utterly misrepresents Trent’s battle, even if it ended in his death.

Tyler Trent won.

tyler-trent
Purdue University superfan Tyler Trent died of cancer on Tuesday. He was 20. (Photo: Purdue Athletics)

Yes, he won spiritually — if you believe what I do and what he did, you understand what I mean by that. But beyond that, physically on this earth, Tyler Trent won by the positive way in which he battled, the faith and hope he showed each day and the inspiration he provided to all who followed his story.

The late ESPN anchor Stuart Scott once said “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and the manner in which you live.”

By that criteria, no one won their cancer battle bigger than Tyler Trent.

Trent first fought cancer in 2014, then battled recurrences diagnosed in 2017 and last March. His story was familiar locally, but be became a pseudo-celebrity nationally — possibly the face of the disease in mainstream America — after the Purdue-Ohio State football game on Oct. 20.

ESPN featured Trent’s story on College GameDay that morning, and Trent predicted his Boilermakers would upset Ohio State.

The first miracle came when Trent, who had been so sick earlier in the week his family wasn’t sure he would live more than a few days, became well enough to travel from his Carmel, Indiana home to Purdue’s West Lafayette campus to attend the game.

The second came when Purdue upset the then-No. 2 Buckeyes in a 49-20 blowout. As the Boilermakers team left the field, many players and coach Jeff Brohm spoke to Trent — and some even credited their victory to his inspiration.

“His prediction that Purdue was going to beat Ohio State, as crazy as that may have sounded…I think he got everybody really believing that that could happen,” said New Orleans Saints quarterback and Purdue alum Drew Brees. “It’s amazing just how one person can make that type of impact on, not just a football team, but an entire university and everybody who has any type of affiliation with Purdue. I think that there’s some divine intervention at work here.”

From that point, Trent’s story had national attention and he received visits, letters and social media messages from dozens of current and former athletes and coaches around the country and even President Donald Trump. He made numerous television appearances and was awarded the Disney Spirit Award at ESPN’s College Football Awards show and the Sagamore of the Wabash, Indiana’s highest civilian honor.

He became the honorary team captain for the Purdue football team, lifting the Old Oaken Bucket trophy when the team beat Indiana and, despite his grave condition, traveling to Nashville for the team’s bowl game on Friday. The team’s official Twitter account posted on Tuesday night “Forever our captain” after news of Trent’s death.

Trent’s courage and spirit inspired so many who heard his story, and it’s estimated his story resulted in millions of dollars in donations to cancer research.

Trent, whose career goal was to become a sportswriter, penned a book before his death called “The Upset,” in which he tells the story of his cancer battle, Purdue’s inspired victory over Ohio State, and the future upset he hopes will happen when a cure for cancer is found. The book’s goal is to continue raise even more money for cancer research through its proceeds.

“My drive revolves around the legacy I leave,” Trent said on the book’s website. “The chances of my living to see cancer eradicated, or our finding a cure, are pretty low, but hopefully one hundred years down the line, maybe my legacy will have an impact towards that goal.”

Trent’s perspective changed over the course of his battle, helping lead to his moving final months. According to a column published Tuesday night by Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel, when Trent was diagnosed a second and third time he was determined that, if it was his fate to battle cancer, he would use his battle for good.

“I wanted to make a difference,” Trent said. “I didn’t think I’d made a difference the first time (I had cancer). That’s what I prayed for: If I’m going to have cancer, use me to make an impact.”

And have an impact he did.

“He was only 20 years old,” said SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt on Tuesday night. “But in those 20 years he made a mark and a dent, and left a legacy that’s going to outlive us all.”

Trent’s life may be over, but the finality of his battle doesn’t equate to a loss or a surrender to this horrible disease.

Because in every way, Tyler Trent won.