With the 2014-2015 Cardinal sports season officially in the books thanks to the "baseball Gods" enacting their revenge on a college kid in the biggest game of his life yelling at an adult man who was trying to cheat him by tipping pitches and who had to be held back from physically assaulting him by having his bullpen blow a lead and then having a foul ball called a home run, it's time to look back at one of the most eventful, roller coaster and emotionally devastating seasons in Louisville sports history. The way the Cardinal 9 lost was a fitting ending: it was a season of oh-so-close-but-just-short brutal losses in the three major sports, and the women's team even got put in UConn's region in the tournament, which effectively ended the season on Selection Monday. But was it really the baseball Gods? There has to be some explanation for how so many brutal losses ended on so many random plays. And some of the wins too: Mangok's game winner and the Miracle on Main II against UNC. Rationally speaking, these are college kids playing games in extreme conditions and without anyone really in charge. Weird stuff is statistically likely to happen. But doesn't it seem like there's got to be some meaning behind all of this?
We looked at the Top 10 Regular Season games last August, explored some emotional depths and tried to obliquely address some of life's great mysteries in this post. And looking back, I think that list was pretty good in terms of "how excited we were before every game" in relationship to the other games on the list. The FSU football game was as big of a deal as it seemed like it would be pre-season and for the most part lived up to the hype. The UK and Duke games may have been switched, and the UNC home game probably was higher than expected because of the close loss and in-season stakes. But still, overall, great list.
Coming full circle, here are the Top 10 Games of the 2014-2015 season. In a nod to how brutal, arbitrary and capricious sports are, there are no objective standards for this list. Generally speaking, these are the most "memorable" and "important" or "meaningful" games, which means losses are on there. Losses are definitely on there. Your mileage may vary.
10. Virginia Football
An amazing comeback, a huge defensive stop, one dumb mistake, and a brutal, close loss. You can draw a straight line from this UVA game to the Super Regional loss to CSF and all of Louisville sports this season roughly plot around that line.
After a beautiful opening drive, the offense stalled for the entire game, until a pair of 4th quarter TDs gave us the lead with 7 minutes to go. The defense, like it did all year, held the other team in check and gave the offense a chance to win, and forced a punt. As the game recap described it: "As James Quick settled under [the punt] for the Cardinals, a teammate bumped him and the ball came loose." UGHHHHHHHHHHH UVA hit a field goal and we lost.
UVA ended up not being terrible, and FSU went undefeated, but this game was still a tough one to swallow and in a season like the upcoming one with dreams of a Final Four berth (or really just any college football season where the margins are sooooo thing) losing these types of games can ruin a season. And while one play didn't lose it for us, Quick's fumble on the punt stands up there with Mangok's free throw and the foul-ball homer as showing how random all of this is, and how small the margins are between wins and losses. Like, if we just got blown out in the Sweet 16 or got swept in 4-run games or lost by a couple TDs to Clemson and UVa, that would be one thing. But to lose every coin flip, ughhhhhhh. Sports are dumb.
9. IU Basketball
Sports are so much fun! Montrez dunking all over fools and Terry and Chris scoring at will against Tom Crean's stupid face and obnoxious IU fans in the Garden was fun. I sat a row behind some Knicks fans who were wearing Nova gear and every time Trez dunked they would just laugh and kept saying how they never had seen a college player dominating another team like that. I was like, oh ya? We call this Tuesday. (It actually was Tuesday so they didn't get it. Also I didn't actually say that). I had not planned on going but had a work thing come up in NYC the next night so was able to make the trip work. Glad I did - first ever game in MSG, had some friends and family up there with whom we had a good time after the game, and had a good work trip. But I'll always remember Trez just dunking all over IU and the NBA fans in front of me just laughing and looking at each other in amazement. Sports!
8. UK Football Game
Sports are so dumb! After a terrible week of practice (according to an unnamed coaching source I ran into in public and bothered for a few minutes) and UK coming out acting like idiots and an adult man Bobby Petrino fighting another adult man over a game college kids are playing with an oddly shaped ball, UofL looked for all the world like we were going to suffer an unforgivable loss to our arch rivals. Then Reggie got hurt and Kyle Bolin came in and it's like, if this were a movie no one would believe it (especially since everyone loves Reggie as the hometown kid, it wasn't like he was Voodoo and Kyle was Saracen) but Kyle came in and just threw the ball up to Devante Parker again and again and Gerod tied the single season interception record on the last throw of the game to seal the win. I mean, seriously? If I had put those predictions into the pre-season post Mike would have fired me. Anyway, this was a dumb game and of course UK would have beat us if a) our starting QB hadn't gotten hurt because everyone knows the 3rd string QB is way better than the starter and 2) we didn't have Devante Parker and that means UK will beat us next year because we can't replace
Dewayne White Dave Ragone Lefors Elvis Michael Bush Brian Brohm Teddy Devante Parker.
7. UVA Basketball Games
Collectively, these games are No. 7. I think the home game might have been higher if I had actually gone but I had the kids and didn't want to go. I think it also would have been higher if Mangok hadn't missed the FT or if someone else had hit the game winning shot. Basically what I'm saying is, maybe in a couple years this will be like the Syracuse Freedom Hall final game where it's a much better memory now than it was even a few weeks later because of the way we went out of the BET and the NCAA. It's like bowling - the frames right after a strike are the most important in the moment, but unless you bowl a 300, the more time passes you can just enjoy the strikes. I don't bowl a lot but I imagine that's what it would be like to think back upon strikes and enjoy them months later.
Anyway, the road game at UVA was a great game that we came back and were in until the end against what was one of the 3 best teams in the country all season in an impossible place to play. The home game was awesome and Mangok's shot was amazing and spawned a great "But not yet" meme that set up PERFECTLY for when he hit that second free throw but oh well.
6. Clemson Football Game
Welcome to Clemson! Is everyone being nice to you? Great, we're excited to have you in the ACC. If you would like some of our tailgate food help yourself. Welcome to Clemson!
I almost wrote a long post about the experience of the Clemson game (and all of my UofL sports travels this season which were more about life and the experiences and less about UofL) but just never got to it. Maybe I will one day. I think it fell apart when I couldn't get permission to use a great picture from our group from after this game even after the faces were sufficiently obscured. Anyway, Clemson had a real problem with its water supply because of some issues in a nearby lake which are caused by pollution, and the group I was with turned this trip into a mini-reunion and it was a great trip. I saw Ted Cruz in the Greenville airport. There were long discussions about whether football would even exist in 20 years and vasectomies and before the first snap on our opening drive was the loudest thing I've ever experienced in my entire life until a few moments later when Clemson returned the punt for a TD.
Clemson, a public school, had a stadium wide prayer before the game. A couple weeks later, I went to the Boston College game and there was no pregame prayer. The guy next to us I think really wanted to fight us the whole game. We got stuck next to literally the only non-amazingly nice Clemson fan in the entire stadium. There was a young couple a few rows in front of us with a young baby in a sling and headphones on. A young baby! It's just a football game! We weren't even ranked!
Anyway, the defense played the game of their lives and we had a couple dumb mistakes (punt return TD, the fumble in the end zone) and that was the difference between winning and losing. And somehow Clemson's dumb mistake (the safety got lined up on the wrong hash) enured to their benefit as he was close enough to chase down James Quick, who should have scored. Another dumb thing as we spike the ball on 3rd down and then call a play Clemson knew was coming with ONE intended target instead of going like 5 wide or throwing a jump ball to Matt Milton or something else. Blah. Why do we care so much about this stuff? What a dumb game we should have won that still really turned out meaningless when you think about it I guess?
5. Cal State Fullerton Super Regional
Maybe this is higher because it was just last night, and at the end of the day despite how good this team was, our troubles in Omaha and how bad it seemed like we played Saturday and Monday, it doesn't feel like this loss cost us a championship. Getting to 3 straight Omahas (band name idea? Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome Three Straight Omahas performing songs from their new album, Random Wikipedia Page Game) is just as hard as three straight final fours, and with so many talented freshman, another great recruiting class and the great coaching staff, we will be back next year. Baseball is brutal, and there were so many little things that made the difference: CSF's 2nd baseman backing up that throw on the bunt, a passed ball hitting the ump instead of going to the backstop, the foul ball home run. Every little thing went against us there, and we also went 0-infinity with RISP and made some dumb baserunning errors and our normally reliable bullpen gave up some singles and walks and all of a sudden the season is over. Just like that, in the blink of an eye.
4. UNC Basketball Games
The comeback, the blown leads, Trez's alley oop finish, Wayne's "I'm Wayne MFing Blackshear" 3 in OT, the ACC tournament - all three games against UNC were meaningful and fun and awful and we get to play them again a bunch next season so that's cool.
3. Florida State Football
The hype leading up to this game was palpable, the city was abuzz, Jameis and crew had that weird practice on the great lawn and then toured the city in hilarious fashion. But no seriously they walked by Joe's Crab Shack! That actually happened!
And the game itself was awesome. Vante almost (theme alert! so close!) took it to the house on the first play of the game, and then we get stuffed on 4th and goal. We still managed to get up 21-0 and the place was rocking. Then FSU does what they do, and as soon as they scored that fucking fumble for a TD you just knew they were winning. Then we pick them off and FUMBLE THE INT RETURN and even though we stop them, you could just feel it. Ugh.
Going into the game, you knew we had to be up 2 scores late in the 4th quarter or FSU's magic luck randomness would get them the win. And that's what happened - we had our chances, we were sooooooo close to winning that game, but we lost in brutal fashion. Still, everything about that game was great, there were a ton of players on that field drafted and there will be even more from that game who will get drafted in the next 2 years. It will surpass the 2011 LSU-Bama game in terms of number of draft picks next April, which is pretty amazing.
So close. Ugh.
And of course, here's what it took for the FSU miracle run to come to an end. Have you ever seen a play like this in your years of watching all the sports? Sports are arbitrary and capricious.
2. Notre Dame Football
In politics and polling everyone knows about the margin of error. As Gore v. Bush and then Comer v. Bevin showed us, in real life elections, where there are millions of people involved in something, there's going to be human error and sometimes real life elections end up within that margin of error. There's also a "margin of theft" which means that sometimes you have to beat your opponent by enough that they can't steal it (and I've been on the wrong end of that) but that's a story for another time.
The season ND went to the BCS Championship, I watched more of their games than usual with a rooting interest against them because we were still undefeated. And every game it seemed like they pulled out with some nonsense plays. Finally it dawned on me: Notre Dame football has and has always had a Margin of Miracle at home. That is, you have to be up by enough so that they can't miraculously win. Sitting in the stands in South Bend last November, rain pouring down the entire time, surrounded by drunk people and people who were talking about everything but the game, people who were yelling after every play, people who were ND fans and people who were UofL fans, as ND got the ball back and started driving down the field only down a few points - and well within the margin of miracle - well, let's just say I knew how this story was going to end.
And then it didn't. And it reminds you, you don't believe in miracles anyway, right?
1. Michigan State Basketball
This one hurts less today than it did yesterday, and will hurt less tomorrow. If you are looking at the "pain graph" you'll notice a huge dip and leveling off right around 11 PM on April 4th. But still, 38-1 (lololololol) only dulled it. So, so, so, so close to a final four. Up 8 at halftmie, our friend group was emailing about how we'd almost rather be down 5, and debating the merits of that feeling. I still have no idea what happened in that second half, but we were ONE Trez made basket at ANY point in the 2nd half from winning that game. Or just like a foul call when there are fouls. (Funny how not calling something foul ended both our basketball and baseball seasons). Trez played so well in the first half, and I think he just finally ran out of gas. I guess? Still don't understand. Wayne played amazing in his last game. Terry struggled but his steal/scores were literally the only made baskets until late. Hell, even the foul call: if they don't call it, Trez is wide open for the put back. Should have gone to the Final 4, 3 in four years.
Turns out this was 2009: a brutal loss to Michigan State in the Elite 8, but really, waiting for us was a team from our conference that absolutely demolished us at home earlier in the season and we really weren't going to beat. And I don't know if we really could have handled a week of hype if the Final Four was UK, Duke, Wisconsin and UofL in Indy. Like, maybe in an alternate universe that happened and we played UK for the 'ship with 40-0 on the line and it started the End Times so they ran it back and Mangok actually saved the world by missing that layup? Does it make you feel better to believe that?
But that's silly. The universe is indifferent, you see. Looking back on this season it's easy to think that some higher power was at work, out to get us. How could we lose so many close, brutal games, on seemingly random plays that were so statistically improbable? One or two, sure. But so, so many close plays that went against us in so many different places, situations and sports?
Why do we have to wait so long for August to come around, so we can go through all of this again? Even the rare and special treat that is August Basketball seems so unfairly far away.
Sports help us get through tough times, help mark the passage of time, help connect you to friends, family, strangers. The email chain that started last August among our high school friend group to plan the Clemson trip has kept going to this day. That will last longer than any bad feelings from that loss, and that has been better than any win from last year.
I went to the UK football game, but was late and left early because of kids nap times. I wanted to be there when the boys woke up from naps, and I managed to get home in time to watch the end of the game with my dad. A few moments after it ended, the youngest woke up and I got to give him a hug and ask him if he had a good nap, like we always do. And as we played and he laughed and the oldest woke up and I got to hug him and ask if he had a good nap, like we always do, and as ESPN went to whatever game was next and the TV was turned off and the kids and my dad and I played and laughed and life went on, you're reminded that it's okay to believe in miracles sometimes.