The five NCAA tournament games that I’ll never forget
Jerry Bembry, who’s covered sports for more than 30 years, on the best moments from the games he attended
Before settling in to cover the opening round of the 1990 NCAA Midwest Regional in Indianapolis, I paused for a second to glance toward the upper deck of the cavernous Hoosier Dome. I was in my first full year as a sports writer — at the same time the year before, I was covering the Maryland legislative session — and had the opportunity to be at one of the biggest events in all of sports. It left me in awe.
Who could have imagined life without sports but, in the midst of a global COVID-19 pandemic, here we are. Which means instead of watching a Final Four this weekend in Atlanta, we’re left with memories of great moments from the past.
A friend asked me about the best NCAA moment that I witnessed live, which got me to pull out the bin in my closet that contains my old press credentials. Sifting through them brought back memories of some of the legendary coaches I’ve seen: Nolan Richardson, John Chaney, Jerry Tarkanian, Bobby Knight and Dean Smith, to name a few; the dream matchups that I attended, such as the 2008 Final Four in San Antonio, the only one to feature four No. 1 seeds; and the great players who became standouts in the NBA, including Carmelo Anthony, Alonzo Mourning and Derrick Rose.
My single favorite NCAA moment that I viewed live? For me, that’s impossible to choose.
How about the five standout moments for which I had a courtside seat:
Best overachiever: No. 15 Coppin State’s win over No. 2 South Carolina (1997)
I dare you to find a team that’s won an NCAA tournament game that’s done more with less than Coppin State with its win over South Carolina.
One of my early assignments for The Baltimore Sun sports department was covering local college hoops, so I had quite a bit of knowledge about Coppin State.
The school’s athletic budget was minuscule. The team was made up of players nobody wanted, including one of the stars of that ’97 team, Terquin Mott, who came to Coppin State from a Pennsylvania high school for juvenile delinquents where the student body is locked down. Just east of the West Baltimore campus was a neighborhood so depressed that coaches gave specific driving directions to the parents of recruits so they would avoid seeing the extreme conditions that gripped the area.
But coach Ron “Fang” Mitchell was able to build a program that major schools began to avoid, especially after Coppin State’s 1989 win over Maryland. Terps forward Jerrod Mustaf said: “It’s embarrassing. All I thought about Coppin State was they had a girls team.”
Few gave Coppin State a chance entering that 1997 game against South Carolina, for the simple fact that up to that point only two No. 15 seeds had beaten a No. 2 seed. But Coppin State was a talented group going against a South Carolina team that, while highly ranked as the SEC regular-season champion, had little star power. I wrote in my pregame scouting report:
“Coppin could have faced more difficult first-round opponents. The Eagles will be able to make this competitive if they remain cohesive.”
Coppin State remained competitive in that game, and the fans at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena jumped on the bandwagon. The players from the tiny black school fed off the love and won the game in a rout 78-65.
I’ll never forget the moment Mitchell, a coach known for his tough demeanor, experiencing complete joy as he hugged his star guard, Antoine Brockington, at center court. “When I took this job 11 years ago, my dream was to win a game in the NCAA tournament,” Mitchell said after the game. “I just watched my dream come true. And wasn’t it beautiful?”
Yes, it was.
Best Buzzer-Beater: UCLA’s Tyus Edney goes coast to coast
There’s a lot to remember from my first and only trip to Idaho: witnessing Bobby Knight direct a hissy fit at a tournament moderator at the start of his postgame news conference — which earned him a $30,000 fine — and me sidestepping the numerous fights that broke out when the bars closed on Main Street.
But my most vivid memory is of the game-winning shot by UCLA guard Tyus Edney at the buzzer to beat Missouri and advance the Bruins to the Sweet 16.
The scene: UCLA, the No. 1 seed and top-ranked team in the nation, was on the verge of elimination after allowing a layup that gave Missouri a 74-73 lead with 4.8 seconds remaining. After a timeout, Edney, who stands 5 feet, 10 inches, received the inbounds pass just in front of the opposing free throw line and dribbled past half court. A behind-the-back dribble past half court created separation from his defender, and just as Edney was met by Missouri’s 6-foot-9 center Derek Grimm, he hoisted a shot as the buzzer sounded. The shot caught the backboard before falling through the net.
UCLA won the game 75-74, which was overshadowed a bit by superstar Michael Jordan’s return to basketball that same day after a two-year hiatus. Two weeks later, UCLA won the national title — the program’s last NCAA basketball championship.
Edney played four seasons in the NBA and had a lengthy professional career in Europe, where he was a two-time All-EuroLeague selection and the EuroLeague Final Four MVP.
But he’ll always be remembered for the shot that remains one of the most memorable in tournament history.
Most anticlimactic result: UNLV vs. Duke in the 1990 championship game
It’s no surprise that UNLV won the championship — the Runnin’ Rebels began the season as the nation’s top-ranked team with the addition of Larry Johnson.
But no one expected the 103-73 thrashing of Duke in the 1990 title game at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, which remains the most lopsided margin of victory in a final.
There’s never been a team that was more aptly named. Its coach, Jerry “Tark the Shark” Tarkanian, was always under NCAA investigation and had just ended a 13-year battle with the governing body of college sports. His players, including Johnson, Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon and Anderson Hunt, played with a combination of power and speed that made the game truly a battle between men and boys.
Poor Duke. Even with Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Alaa Abdelnaby and Brian Davis, the Blue Devils were overwhelmed. UNLV used its press to score 18 straight points over a span of three minutes in the second half. My sidebar story the next day was about Hunt, who had a hand in 16 of the points (12 points and two assists) during that 18-point outburst while helping hold Hurley without a field goal.
Added significance of that game: It marked the last time a team from a non-Power 5 conference won an NCAA title. The Runnin’ Rebels’ road to a repeat the following season fell short in the national semifinals. The team that stopped them: Duke.
Of the Final Fours that I’ve attended, it’s the only title game I’ve seen not played in a dome. McNichols had a capacity of 17,000 and the sightlines were great. That’s not the case today.
Most transformational team: The Fab Five (1993)
Michigan didn’t look like a championship team in its Sweet 16 win over George Washington in Seattle, and the Wolverines were a bit edgy during the Saturday off-day media session. I remember Chris Webber getting more and more irritated as he was asked about the team’s eight-point win the previous night. “The more you keep asking us about our play,” Webber said, “the worse you’re making it for Temple.”
Temperamental. Stylish. Trendsetting. That pretty much summed up the Fab Five, who were on a mission of redemption after being destroyed by Duke in the 1992 championship game. In my first visit to Seattle, I was looking forward to seeing how all that youthful swagger would fare in the regional final against a group from Philadelphia that was coached by Chaney and featured four future NBA players (Eddie Jones, Rick Brunson, Aaron McKie and William Cunningham).
Temple repped Philly, so they had no fear. “I’m not caught up in that Fab Five stuff,” McKie said before the regional final. Late in the game I was close enough to Chaney to hear him yell to his freshman center, Derrick Battie, “If they won’t call it, put him on the floor.” Chaney, of course, got a technical.
The Fab Five would win a hard-fought game 77-72 to advance to the Final Four. While the Fab Five would disband in losing the championship game in dramatic fashion the following weekend, their black sneakers, black socks and baggy shorts established basketball fashion trends that affected future generations.
Best Individual Performance: Donte DiVincenzo (2018)
Memories of my second Final Four in San Antonio: the redhead who couldn’t miss.
If Villanova was going to win the national title, you’d assume it would be Jalen Brunson, the National Player of the Year, or Phil Booth, who had 20 points in the 2016 national championship win over North Carolina, who would lead the way.
So on a night when 3-point shooting from both teams appeared to be affected by the depth perception of playing in a dome — Michigan shot 13%, the Villanova starters shot 25% — Donte DiVincenzo (aka “The Big Ragu” and “The Michael Jordan of Delaware”) scored a game-high 31 points off the bench (hitting 10 of his 15 shots, including 5-of-7 from 3-point range) to lead Villanova to a 79-62 victory.
My memory from that night was of constantly nudging my colleague, Bill Rhoden, as DiVincenzo lit up the Alamodome. His 31 points were the most by a player off the bench in an NCAA championship game.