Continuing last week’s countdown of the Best Games of 2018. Here are the Top 5:
5.) NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Final Four Semifinals -- Virginia Cavaliers vs. Auburn Tigers (April 6) & NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball National Championship Game -- Virginia Cavaliers vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders (April 8)
One year after becoming infamous for being the first No. 1 seed in NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament history to fall to a No. 16 seed in the first round, the Virginia Cavaliers once again entered the 2019 NCAA Tournament as a top seed. After struggling early in a first-round game against Gardner-Webb, it appeared the plodding, defensive-minded Cavaliers might again bow out early. But Virginia survived this time, advancing to the Elite Eight, where they faced Purdue in Louisville. That’s where the Cavaliers withstood a 42-point barrage from Boilermakers’ star Carsen Edwards that put Purdue up by three with 20 seconds to play. After Virginia point guard Ty Jerome made the first of two free throws to pull the Cavaliers within two, he missed the second one, but the ball was tapped into the backcourt. Virginia’s Kihei Clark retrieved the ball and then fired a pass back into the frontcourt, where an unlikely hero, Mamadi Diakite hit a 15-foot turnaround jumper with 0.4 seconds left to force overtime. Virginia would then go on to prevail 80-75 in overtime, sending the Cavaliers to their first Final Four in 35 years. In the semifinals in Minneapolis, Virginia was matched up with the upstart Auburn Tigers, who were making their first-ever trip to the Final Four, and that contest would perhaps exceed the drama of the Elite Eight. Moments after what appeared to be an obvious double-dribble violation by Jerome that went uncalled by officials, Auburn led 62-60 with a second remaining. Needing a bucket to win or force OT, Virginia’s Kyle Guy launched a three-pointer from the left corner. The shot missed, but the referees blew the whistle this time, calling Auburn’s Samir Doughty for making slight contact with Guy. The junior guard then calmly drained all three free throws to give the Cavaliers a controversial 63-62 win. Needing one win to capture the program’s first national championship, the Cavaliers faced Texas Tech in the title game two nights later. Both teams struggled to score early against the opponent’s relentless defense as Virginia took a three-point lead at 32-29 into halftime. The Wahoos would eventually push their lead out to 10 late in the second half before the Red Raiders rallied to take the advantage. The lead changed hands several times in the final minutes of regulation with a Jarrett Culver layup putting Texas Tech in front with 35 seconds to play. With Virginia later trailing by three, star forward DeAndre Hunter buried a tying three-pointer with 12 seconds to play to square the contest at 68-all. Texas Tech had a chance to win in regulation, but Culver’s game-winning shot attempt was blocked by Braxton Key. Texas Tech took an early lead in overtime, but the Cavaliers went on an 11-0 scoring run while taking advantage of clutch shotmaking from Hunter and Guy, who combined for 51 points. Virginia’s 85-77 championship victory enabled coach Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers to finish off their 35-3 redemption tour and stake their claim as one of the greatest defensive squads in college basketball history.
4.) National Football League NFC Championship Game -- Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints (Jan. 20) & National Football League AFC Championship Game -- New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs (Jan. 20)
In one of the most memorable days of football in NFL history, both 2019 conference championship clashes would end up on the NFL Network’s list of Top 100 Games in league history. In the NFC, the Drew Brees-led New Orleans Saints were hosting the Los Angeles Rams while trying to make the Super Bowl for the first time in nine years. Meanwhile, the Rams were trying to become the first L.A. squad to qualify for the Super Bowl since 1983. With the New Orleans crowd at a fever pitch in the Superdome, the Saints jumped out to a 13-0 advantage through one quarter. But the Rams would adjust to the crowd noise and slowly get back into the game, scoring their first touchdown on a six-yard Todd Gurley touchdown run just before halftime to make it 13-10. New Orleans would again go up by 10 in the second half, but the Rams narrowed the gap to 20-17 late in the third quarter. The Rams finally tied the contest for the first time on a Greg Zuerlein field goal with five minutes to play, setting up Brees to put on the late game heroics that have made him one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history. With the Saints facing 3rd-and-10 at L.A.’s 13-yard-line, Brees threw a pass intended for receiver Tommylee Lewis along the right sideline. Rams’ corner Nickell Robey-Coleman got to the receiver too early and knocked Lewis to the ground, but the NFL officials didn’t throw a penalty flag. The egregious no-call meant the Saints were forced to settle for a field goal to put New Orleans up 23-20 with 1:26 remaining rather than be able to run out the clock. The Rams, led by quarterback Jared Goff, then drove the field themselves, and Zuerlein made a clutch 48-yard field goal with eight seconds left to send the game into OT tied at 23-all. In overtime, Brees made perhaps the worst mistake of his career, throwing a high floating pass into the arms of Rams’ safety John Johnson. Five plays later, Zuerlein bombed a 57-yard field goal to give the Rams a 26-23 victory. The critical missed pass interference call in regulation would eventually lead to the NFL changing the rules to allow for possible pass interference penalties to be reviewed. But the NFC dramatics merely set the stage for the AFC nightcap in Kansas City. Led by 2018 NFL MVP, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs were playing in their first conference title tilt in 25 years against the superpower New England Patriots, seeking their sixth Super Bowl title in 18 years. In a relatively uneventful first three quarters, the visiting Pats played outstanding defense while taking a 17-7 lead into the final period. But what onlookers didn’t know at the time was that they were about to witness one of the most thrilling periods of football in history. On the opening play of the fourth quarter, Mahomes found Damian Williams for a one-yard score to trim the Chiefs’ deficit to 17-14. The Chiefs then momentarily took command of the game, stopping the Patriots on downs and then intercepting Tom Brady. Mahomes’ second TD pass to Williams gave Kansas City a 21-17 lead with 7:45 left in the game. However, New England retook the lead moments later on a Sony Michel touchdown run. But then Williams found the end zone on the ground with just over two minutes left in regulation to put the Chiefs in front again 28-24. The Chiefs appeared to be on the way to their first Super Bowl in 49 years when defensive back Charvarius Ward intercepted Brady, but Chiefs’ linebacker Dee Ford was flagged for lining up off-sides, enabling the Pats to keep the ball. New England’s Rex Burkhead ran for a four-yard score with 39 seconds to play, but the Chiefs’ Harrison Butker booted a 39-yard field goal with six seconds to left to tie the score at 31-all heading to overtime. But the Chiefs’ hopes were short-lived in OT. New England won the coin toss and marched 75 yards in 13 plays for the winning touchdown, a two-yard run by Burkhead, to give the Pats a hard-fought 37-31 win. Two weeks later, the Patriots would go on to beat the Rams 13-3 in Super Bowl LIII
3.) Major League Baseball World Series Game 7 -- Washington Nationals at Houston Astros (Oct. 30)
Without franchise slugger Bryce Harper, who signed with the rival Philadelphia Phillies shortly before the 2019 season, the Washington Nationals entered the 2019 World Series seeking the franchise’s first World Series title in its 51-year history. Meanwhile, the Houston Astros were looking to cement a mini-dynasty with their second title in three years. The underdog Nationals, who needed a 10th-inning grand slam by veteran second baseman Howie Kendrick to topple the heavily-favored Los Angeles Dodgers in the Divisional round, stunned the 107-win Astros by sweeping the first two games in Houston. But leading 2-0 and halfway to a world championship, Washington hit a stumbling block at home, losing three straight home games by a combined score of 19-3. Game 5 was particularly depressing as Washington ace Max Scherzer was scratched from his start due to neck spasms. Facing elimination, the Nationals turned to their 2019 postseason hero Stephen Strasburg in Game 6 to cool down the Astros’ hot bats and force a deciding Game 7. Strasburg was more than up to the task, leading Washington to a 7-2 win while pitching into the ninth inning. In a winner-take-all Game 7, Scherzer got the start for the Nationals against Astros’ star Zack Greinke. Greinke outpitched Scherzer as the Astros took a 2-0 lead into the top of the seventh inning. That’s when the Nationals’ Anthony Rendon, a Houston native playing in what turned out to be his final game in a Washington uniform, blasted a homer to leftfield off of Greinke. After the next hitter, Nationals’ 20-year-old phenom Juan Soto, walked, Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch controversially elected to remove Greinke from the game with a 2-1 lead. Instead of putting in star pitcher Gerrit Cole, who was warming in the bullpen, Hinch chose veteran reliever Will Harris, who promptly yielded a two-run homer to Kendrick that hit the netting next to the rightfield foul pole and put the Nats’ up 3-2. Washington would go on to add three more runs while Nats’ relievers Patrick Corbin and Daniel Hudson would hold the Astros scoreless for the final four innings for the 6-2 win. The Series victory would be the first for a Washington baseball franchise since 1924 and the 2019 Series would be best remembered as the first playoff series in major North American sports history in which the road team won all seven contests. Strasburg, who re-signed with the Nationals in the off-season, would receive the World Series MVP award, the first time a No. 1 overall draft pick had ever earned the honor.
2.) Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final -- Novak Djokovic vs. Roger Federer (July 14)
In one of the finest tennis matches in the history of the sport, two of the greatest men’s players of all time, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, engaged in a battle royale on Center Court at Wimbledon. In what was the longest Wimbledon final in history at 4 hours, 57 minutes, Djokovic, who has topped Federer in every marathon match between the two, took the five-set classic 7-6 (7-6), 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 13-12 (7-3). Djokovic lost more games than Federer in the match, but prevailed in all three tiebreaks, including the first fifth-set tiebreak in Wimbledon singles history. Djokovic went up a break at 4-2 in the deciding fifth set, but Federer managed to square the match and he eventually took an 8-7 lead. With Federer serving for the championship, Djokovic heroically staved off a pair of match points to re-tie the contest at 8-all. Both legends held serve until it was 12-12, setting up the final tiebreak. Djokovic sprinted out to a 4-1 advantage in the breaker, seizing on a couple of untimely misses by Federer, and held on for the championship win. It was the first time since 1948 that a Wimbledon men’s champion has overcome being down match points in a title match. Federer was seeking his record-breaking eighth Wimbledon title and looking to extend his all-time Grand Slam record to 21. But it was instead Djokovic, capturing his fifth Wimbledon title, who edged ever closer to Federer’s record total of 20 with his 16th Slam. Federer, who dropped to 22-26 (0-4 in 5-setters) all-time against Djokovic, lost despite having 40 more winners than the Joker (94 to 54) and 15 more aces (25 to 10). Tennis Magazine later called the match the greatest men’s tennis match of the decade.
1.) The Masters Tournament (April 11-14)
The 2019 Masters was one of the most anticipated majors of all time because of the late-season return to form of Tiger Woods in 2018. Tiger finished in the top 5 at the British Open and the PGA Championship before winning the final tournament of the 2018 season, The Tour Championship, for his first victory in more than five years. But that win in Atlanta was a mere appetizer for what would take place about two hours east at Augusta National Golf Club in April 2019. After a first-round 70, Woods finished the second round just one-stroke off of a five-way tie for the lead with a Friday 68. But despite a Saturday 67, Woods entered Sunday’s round two strokes off the lead thanks to the reigning Open champion, Italy’s Francesco Molinari, who reeled off four straight birdies in the middle of the back nine to seize a two-shot advantage. With thunderstorms slated for late Sunday afternoon, Masters’ officials moved the tee times up and opted for threesome groups, enabling Woods to walk alongside Molinari in the final trio with Tony Finau. As Woods played roller-coaster golf, with three birdies and three bogeys over his first 11 holes, Molinari played steady, maintaining his lead. But at the historic 12th hole at Amen Corner, everything changed. Molinari was one of four players in the final two threesomes, to hit the ball into Rae’s Creek off the tee, leading to a double bogey. With Woods and Molinari sharing the lead with others in the groups ahead, the two both birdied 13 and parred 14, leading to more dramatics at the 15th. After a poor second shot layup, Molinari clipped an overhanging branch, and his ball found the pond in front of the 15th green, causing his second double bogey of the back nine. Meanwhile, Woods made birdie at the 15th, enabling him to take his first solo lead of the tourney. Minutes later, Woods hit one of the most memorable shots of his legendary career, nearly acing the par-3, 16th on the fly en route to a kick-in birdie and a two-shot advantage. After a par on 17, Woods escaped a poor drive on 18 with a bogey to finish his final round 70 with six birdies and four bogeys and win what is arguably golf’s most prestigious title by a single shot. Woods’ emotional victory, his first come-from-behind win in a major, put the finishing touches on one of the greatest personal comeback stories in sports history. The win also moved him within three major wins of the all-time record total of 18 by Jack Nicklaus and within one of Nicklaus’ record total of six Masters’ triumphs.