2016: The Year of Champions (And Blown Leads)

2016 Championships

Feb. 20, 2017

by Chase Gage

 

 

JONESBORO, ARK. — In the past year, we have witnessed some of the greatest championship games in recent memory. With the championship on the line, many came down to the final play.

Let me start by apologizing for my lack of sports-related articles since the Super Bowl. In case you missed it, the Patriots won (as I predicted) and I finished with a playoff prediction record of 8-3. Not too shabby, right? So if you go with my pick, you will be right 73 percent of the time. I would take those odds any day. So now, let’s get to the good stuff.

Since April of 2016, we have had several great championship games, perhaps the greatest string of them we have ever seen in a calendar year. For the sake of this article, I will be looking at the NCAA Final Four championship, the NBA Finals, the World Series, the College Football Playoff championship, and the Super Bowl. It seemed as if after every one of these, we thought to ourselves, “wow, that might have been the best championship I have ever watched,” only to be outdone by the next one.

NCAA Basketball:  Let’s start with the first great championship of the year. The NCAA Basketball National Semifinal round was actually an uneventful one. Second-seeded Villanova defeated fellow two-seed Oklahoma by a score of 95 to 51. In the other semifinal, top-seeded North Carolina defeated tenth-seeded Syracuse 83-66. Neither game was very competitive. However, the championship game made up for it.

On April 4th, 2016, the Tar Heels faced off against the Wildcats for all the marbles in Houston, Texas. The first half was very back-and-forth with neither team ever truly taking control of the game. The largest lead in the first half was 7 by North Carolina. At halftime, the Tar Heels held a 39-34 advantage. The Wildcats took over the second half. Villanova built up a 10-point lead with just under five minutes remaining. With a score of 67-57, the Wildcats thought they had the game wrapped up and were ready to celebrate their championship. The Tar Heels had something else in mind.

With under two minutes left in the game, North Carolina cut the lead to three points. On the next possession, Villanova turned the ball over, resulting in the Tar Heels cutting the lead to one. This was the beginning of the greatest minute of college basketball of the entire season.

Villanova held onto a three-point lead with just 13 seconds remaining in the game. North Carolina took the ball down the court and after a failed steal attempt, hit an off-balance three-point shot to tie the game with only 4.7 seconds left. The fans erupted. The players celebrated. But Villanova wasn’t done yet. The Wildcats inbounded the ball and raced to the other end of the floor. Ryan Arcidiacono, the shining star of the night, found Kris Jenkins open behind the three-point line. He passed him the ball as time was about to expire. He launched the triple as the horn sounded. Ball game.

Image result for villanova championship
image via SBNation.com

Villanova won the championship on a buzzer-beating three after one of the greatest comeback attempts in college basketball in recent memory. How can you beat that?

NBA Finals: That had to be the best championship of the year, right? Well, not so fast. Not if LeBron James has anything to say about it.

The Golden State Warriors broke the regular season record for wins, passing the 1996 Chicago Bulls. With a 73-9 record, they were already the presumptive champions and were on a course to be the first team to repeat as champions since the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013. The first ever unanimous MVP, Stephen Curry, broke his own single-season three-point record in historic fashion. His old record was 286 from the previous season. He beat that record by 116. No one had ever hit 300 triples in a season before 2016. Curry had 402. Wow, right?

The Cleveland Cavaliers were the presumptive champions of the East, though they only finished with a 57-25 record. They fired their head coach midway through the season and promoted assistant coach Tyronn Lue to the head coach position. Everyone thought James was getting old and could no longer compete at a championship level. He had been dethroned as the world’s greatest by Curry. King James was king no more.

The Warriors faced a bit of trouble in the playoffs after Curry reinjured his ankle. They were still able to advance to the Western Conference Finals fairly easily, though, where they would face the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder, led by Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, were primed and ready to advance to the championship for the second time, the first since 2012. In fact, the Thunder seemed to be the inevitable Western Conference champions when they took a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Warriors. The Warriors then won Game 5 at home which set up a Game 6 in Oklahoma City. The Thunder could win at home and advance to the Finals…but they didn’t. The Warriors came back from being down 3-1 to win the series in Game 7. This team looked unbeatable. How on earth do you beat a team if they can come back from being down 3-1?

The Cavaliers danced through the Eastern Conference with relative ease. They started 10-0 before losing at Toronto in the Eastern Conference Finals. They got out of the East with a 12-2 playoff record and were waiting to see which team came out of the West. The general consensus was that if the Thunder beat the Warriors, the Cavs had a chance, but if the Warriors beat the Thunder, the Cavs would be playing for second place. The Warriors won and set up a rematch of the 2015 Finals, which the Warriors won in six games. The rematch would be different, though, as the Cavs were without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in 2015. Now, they were all healthy and ready to go. James averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the 2015 Finals and still fell short of the championship. In fact, he was the first player ever to lead both Finals teams in all three of those categories. Could he duplicate that success? If he can’t, do they even stand a chance?

Game 1 showed some promise but ended up not being very close. The Cavaliers took a 68-67 lead, only to then be dominated thanks to a 29-8 run by the Warriors. Curry and Klay Thompson combined for only 20 points, but still pulled off the victory. How can you beat the Warriors when their two stars struggle and they still beat you 104-89? James picked up right where he left off in the 2015 Finals by posting 23 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, falling just short of a triple-double.

Game 2 was even more dismal for the Cavaliers. After taking a 28-22 lead in the second quarter, they fell victim to yet another great run by the Warriors. This time it was to the tune of a 20-2 run to finish the first half. The second half was not much better for the Cavs, as the Warriors took the victory, this time by a score of 110-77. James managed only 19 points but had eight rebounds and nine assists.

Game 3 gave the Cavs a breath of hope, though not much. When they returned to Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, they did so with a victory. The Cavs held Curry to 19 points and added their own blowout victory in the process. After losing by a total of 48 points over the span of the first two games, they posted a 30-point victory, 120-90. James had 32 points and Irving added 30 more. The Cavaliers then had a chance to tie the series at home in Game 4.

Well, they had a chance. Game 4 seemed like the end for the Cavaliers. Curry finally showed up when the Warriors needed him the most. He scored 38 points to lead Golden State to a 3-1 series lead. This was the first close game of the series, however, as this one was decided by a score of 108 to 97. Despite James’ best efforts (32 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists), Cleveland faced a seemingly insurmountable task. No team had ever come back in the Finals from being down 3-1.

Game 5 is when the Finals really turned up a notch. It took herculean efforts from James and Irving, but with their backs against the wall, they pulled out the win on the road 112-97. James is always at his best when elimination is on the line. He and Irving both posted 41 points each, but James added 16 rebounds and seven assists as well. Draymond Green of the Warriors was suspended for this game, which may have played a part in the win for the Cavs.

Game 6 was held in Cleveland. The Cavaliers again had their backs against the wall. If they lose, the season is over. The Warriors were 48 minutes away from winning yet another championship on Cleveland’s home floor in six games. Down the stretch in this game, James scored 18 consecutive points for the Cavs from the end of the third quarter into the fourth. Curry was later ejected from the game after fouling out and then throwing his mouthpiece into the stands resulting in a technical and ejection. James scored 41 once again and added 11 assists on the way to an 115-101 victory. The Cavs became the third team in NBA history to come back from being down 3-1 to force a Game 7. But they can’t win a Game 7 on the road, can they?

Game 7. All the cards were on the table. The former King versus the new kid. One game. 48 minutes. A champion will be crowned. Who will it be?

image via huffingtonpost.com

Fun fact. This was the first time in NBA history that both teams entered the game scoring the same amount of points through the first six games (610 each). With two minutes left in the game, they were again tied in total points.

After 20 lead changes and 11 ties, the game came down to the last few seconds. With the game tied at 89 with just under two minutes left, James delivered what may end up to be the signature play of his entire career with “The Block” on Andre Iguodala. Then, Irving made what could end up being his career-defining play with his three-point shot over Curry with 53 seconds remaining to take the lead. James was then fouled on what would have been the greatest dunk in Finals history and made one of two free throws to put the Cavs up 93-89 with 10.6 seconds left. The Warriors inbounded the ball leading to a missed three by Curry as the final buzzer sounded. The Cavs were champions.

The Cavs became the first team to ever come back from down 3-1 in the Finals, and they did so against the greatest regular-season team of all time in the 73-9 Warriors (giving rise to the still-popular “Warriors blew a 3-1 lead” jokes). LeBron James became the first player in Finals history to lead both teams in scoring (29.7 PPG), rebounding (11.3 RPG), assists (8.9 APG), steals (2.6 SPG) and blocks (2.3 BPG). He finished Game 7 with 27 points, 11 assists, and 11 rebounds. He became only the third player in NBA history to record a triple-double in Game 7 of the Finals. How can you beat that?

World Series: Cleveland was fresh off of its first championship in 52 years thanks to the Cavaliers win in the NBA Finals. Now they had a chance to make it two for the year, as the Indians made it to the world series. They would face off against the Chicago Cubs, who had gone 108 years without a World Series title. A few years ago if you said these two teams would reach the World Series, people would have laughed at you. Now it is a reality.

The Indians had home field advantage for the series thanks to the American League winning the All-Star Game. Early on, Chicago looked flat and it seemed as if Cleveland was going to make an easy run for the city’s second championship of the year. After a 6-0 victory in Game 1, the Cubs answered with a 5-1 win in Cleveland. However, the Indians managed to win the next two games by a combined score of 8-2 to take a 3-1 series lead.

Wait..this sounds familiar. A few blowouts, only one close game, Cleveland, a 3-1 lead, championship drought..hmm. NBA Finals or World Series?

Well, the pattern doesn’t stop there. Chicago managed to win a tight Game 5 by a score of 3-2. The series would then go back to Cleveland where the Indians had a chance to win the World Series at home. In fact, they had two chances as the last two games (if necessary) would be played at Progressive Field. They did not take advantage of their home field in Game 6, however, as the Cubs won in dominating fashion, 9-3. This set up a winner-take-all Game 7.

Everything was on the line. Thanks to a lead-off home run to start the game, Cubs carried a 1-0 lead into the third inning when the Indians tied it up. Then the Cubs reeled off two runs in the fourth and fifth innings (making it 5-1 at the time) and one in the sixth to stretch their lead to 6-3 with just three innings left. That lead lasted until the bottom of the eighth. The Indians then scored on a double, bringing the game to a 6-4 score. The next batter then hit a heroic home run to tie the game at 6-6 with just one inning to go.

The ninth inning of the World Series. Tied 6-6. How could you draw it up any better? I’ll tell you how: neither team scores. That’s right. With the World Series on the line, the defenses held tight and kept the other team from scoring a single run in the biggest inning of the season. Extra innings.

After a rain delay, the teams again took the field for the final inning of the season. The Cubs came out firing, scoring two quick runs to take the lead, 8-6. In the bottom of the tenth, the Cubs retired the first two batters before walking the third. With two outs, the Indians held on to hope. Cleveland scored, bringing the game within one run with the tying runner on first and the winning run at the plate.

Image result for cubs world series
image via usatoday.com

The Cubs weren’t going to let them make a comeback this time. The next batter hit an infield grounder and was thrown out at first. Chicago had its first World Series championship since 1908. How can you beat that?

College Football Playoff:  Ah, the greatest sport known to man. College football. Too bad Alabama is going to win by default, right?

The 2016 college football season was one of many story lines and more upsets than we can count. I could write for days and days about college football, but for the sake of this article, I will (unfortunately) only be looking at the “final four” of the sport. For the third year, the college football season was decided via the College Football Playoff.

Only four teams make the cut. Alabama was a given. Clemson was a near-lock. The other two spots were up for debate. Do they include Ohio State even though they didn’t win a conference championship? Does Michigan squeak in? How much did Oklahoma’s Big 12 title boost them in the rankings? Was Washington a strong enough candidate to earn a spot? The debate raged on, but the four spots were decided. 1 Alabama, 2 Clemson, 3 Ohio State and 4 Washington would compete for a championship.

The first round proved to be rather uneventful, much like the basketball Final Four. Alabama did not have much trouble handling Washington in the first game, winning 24-7 despite not producing much offense. Clemson had a field day with Ohio State, dominating from the opening kickoff until the final whistle. The Tigers held the Buckeyes scoreless, winning 31-0. This set up the first rematch in a college football championship game since it was introduced in 1998.

The Crimson Tide were favored in the game, though not by much. It had all the makings of a historic game. And that it was.

Alabama came out firing, going up 14-0 in the second quarter. Clemson finally answered with a rushing touchdown by Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson to cut the lead to seven. The first half ended with Alabama leading 14-7.

The Tigers received the second-half kickoff and looked to tie the game. However, a lost fumble instead ultimately resulted in an Alabama field goal, extending the Tide’s lead to 10. Watson and the Tigers answered later in the third, getting within a single score once again. The score was 17-14, though that wouldn’t last long. The Tide answered with a 68-yard touchdown to regain a 10-point lead, 24-14, with just under two minutes left in the third quarter.

Now the fun begins. It’s the fourth quarter of the NCAA National Championship game. The Tigers are down 10 points with 15 minutes left to play. Can they pull off a comeback and get their revenge on the Alabama team that denied them a National Championship the year before?

Clemson was able to score on the third play of the fourth quarter to again cut the lead to single digits. With the scoreboard reading 24-21, Alabama fans began to feel a little nervous. The Tide failed to score, leaving the door wide-open for Clemson. The Tigers took full advantage. With just under five minutes left to play, the Tigers took their first lead of the game thanks to a one-yard touchdown run, 28-24. Alabama got the ball back on their own 32-yard line. Just 70 yards and five minutes away from winning back-to-back championships. On a crucial 3rd and 16, the Tide came up one yard short, resulting in a 4th and 1 situation. If the Tigers could get a stop, they would be starring the championship dead in the eyes. They couldn’t. Alabama converted and later scored a touchdown on a 30-yard run by freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts to regain the lead, 31-28.

Ever heard of the two-minute drill? Apparently, Clemson had practiced it a few times. The Tigers got the ball back with 2:01 left on the clock and 64 yards to the end-zone. After multiple great throws paired with spectacular catches in the holes of the Alabama secondary, Clemson found themselves inside the Alabama 10-yard line with 14 seconds left.

On 1st and goal, Watson threw the ball into the end-zone. Incomplete. On 2nd and goal, there was a pass-interference call on Alabama, resulting in the ball being placed on the 2-yard line with six seconds left. On the very next play, the Tigers asserted themselves into the history books forever. Watson threw a touchdown pass with only one tick of the clock left to put the Tigers up 35-31. After a successful onside kick and a kneel down, the Tigers could celebrate their championship at the hands of the Goliath of college football. How on earth can you possibly top that?!

For the full final drive, click here.

Image result for clemson championship
image via latimes.com

Super Bowl LI: The most recent championship that we have witnessed was the Super Bowl. The grandest football game of them all. The final domino that falls before the terrible spring and summer drought of the America’s favorite sport.

The Patriots faced off against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. The top offense versus the top defense for the third time in four years. The defensive team had won both previous battles. That was the Patriots. The team in white had won 11 of the last 12 Super Bowls. The Patriots were in white. Hmm..

At first, this game looked like it would be a blowout. Atlanta jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first half thanks to two Patriots turnovers (including a pick-six from Brady) and some magic from the powerful Atlanta offense. They extended the lead, taking a 28-3 advantage by the middle of the third quarter. No team had ever come back from down more than 10 to win the Super Bowl. Could it happen this year?

Tom Brady wasn’t going to give up. On the next drive, he led the Patriots 75 yards for their first touchdown of the game, cutting the lead down to only 19 points after a missed extra-point attempt.The Patriots attempted an onside kick but were unsuccessful. It truly looked like the end for New England. Even though they managed to score, nothing was going their way.

Then Lady Luck intervened a little. The Falcons had great field position and were looking to score once again to put the game even farther out of reach. But fate had different plans. With the ball at the New England 32-yard line, the Falcons were called for a holding penalty, knocking them out of field goal range. Then on the next play, Matt Ryan was sacked, forcing the Falcons to punt. There was still a sliver of hope left for the Patriots. With 15 minutes left to play (in regulation), the Pats had the ball, down 19. Could they do it?

On the first drive of the fourth quarter, the Patriots were held to a field goal after a long drive. This cut the lead to 16. Just two touchdowns, both paired with successful two-point conversions, in the Super Bowl, are needed to TIE the game. Doesn’t seem too hard, right?

On the next drive, New England forced a fumble at the Atlanta 25-yard line. They recovered and managed to score. They also converted the two-point try to bring the score to 28-20 with just under six minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Who likes controversy? Well, I have some for you. Atlanta had the ball with six minutes to kill to win the Super Bowl. They were up eight. Another score and they would dance the night away with confetti in their hair. Julio Jones made one of the greatest catches (but not THE greatest) of the game to get Atlanta down to the New England 22-yard line with 4:40 left on the clock. Just take care of the ball, run a couple plays up the gut, kick the field goal and win the Super Bowl. That’s all you have to do.

Well, they should have taken my advice. My hindsight is pretty perfect. On the next play, Atlanta ran the ball for a one-yard loss. Nothing devastating. However, for some inexplicable reason (reminds me of the Seattle decision to throw the ball on the one-yard line when they had Marshawn Lynch in the backfield…), they decided to pass on second down. Matt Ryan was sacked for a 12-yard loss. On third down, there was a holding penalty that resulted in a 3rd and 33 from the New England 45-yard line. After an incomplete pass, they were forced to punt. New England got the ball on their own nine-yard line with three and a half minutes left.

Tom Brady knows how to win games. He’s done it a time or two. In fact, 200 times or so. More than any quarterback in the history of the NFL. But could he somehow win this game? Thanks to possibly the greatest catch in the history of the Super Bowl (Tyree catch, anyone?), the Patriots were in a position to make a run at a Super Bowl crown. With just 50 ticks left on the clock, James White plunged into the end zone on a one-yard run to get the score within two. After the two-point conversion was successful, the game was tied at 28.

The game went to overtime. It was the first Super Bowl to ever do so. What a fitting end to this string of championship games. The Patriots won the toss and elected to receive the kickoff. Brady drove 73 yards down the field, and thanks to a penalty, the Patriots had the ball at the two-yard line. Brady pitched the ball to White and the rest is history. The Patriots did not lead for a single second of the Super Bowl, yet walked away with their fifth Lombardi Trophy since 2001.

Image result for super Bowl 51 confetti
image via outdoorblog.it

So was this the greatest year of sports in terms of championships and blown leads? I don’t see how you can argue against it. Despite all the trophies and celebrations, I believe that we are the real winners here (okay, that was a terrible pun). Check back in soon for more non-sports content until something exciting in sports happens (March is right around the corner..hint hint).

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