Im­prob­a­ble does hap­pen

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY GE­ORGE J. TANBER Correspond­ent

Sports gives us the chance of see­ing some­thing rare. But this spring it’s been hap­pen­ing time and time again — from UVA’s hoops ti­tle, Tiger’s win at the Masters, and two matches that stunned the soc­cer world.

We watch sports for many rea­sons, in part be­cause we never know when you might see some­thing that just doesn’t hap­pen.

Whether it’s the “Mir­a­cle Mets” win­ning the 1969 World Se­ries, or the Amer­i­can hockey team’s “Mir­a­cle on Ice” at the 1980 Olympics or the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots’ mad rush from a 28-3 deficit to win the Su­per Bowl in 2017, you name it, the truly his­toric mo­ments seem to be highly iso­lated events.

Or are they?

“I can’t be­lieve what I just saw,” broad­caster Jack Buck fa­mously adlibbed af­ter Kirk Gib­son’s mem­o­rable one-legged home run stole Game 1 of the 1988 World Se­ries.

But over 39 days lead­ing up to last week, seven sim­i­larly mirac­u­lous out­comes oc­curred in high-pro­file sport­ing events around the world, from golf and the NHL to col­lege bas­ket­ball, the NBA play­offs and pro­fes­sional soc­cer.

We’ll call it: the Spring of the Im­prob­a­bles.

MARCH 30: VIR­GINIA VS. PUR­DUE, ELITE 8

Vir­ginia came into the NCAA tour­na­ment as the over­all No. 1 seed for the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year, still branded with the great­est hu­mil­i­a­tion in the his­tory of the event by be­com­ing the first No. 1 to lose to a 16 seed the year be­fore.

The Cava­liers won their first two games eas­ily, but strug­gled to beat Ore­gon in the third round, set­ting up an Elite 8 matchup with Pur­due.

Pur­due led by two with 17 sec­onds to play, with guard Ryan Cline at the free-throw line to seal the game. He made the first missed but the sec­ond, leav­ing the Boil­er­mak­ers up 70-67.

With five sec­onds left, and Pur­due fans al­ready cel­e­brat­ing their ap­par­ent trip to the Fi­nal Four, Vir­ginia’s Ty Jerome stood at the line for a one-and-one.

Jerome made his first shot, then in­ten­tion­ally banked the sec­ond off the front of the rim. It came straight back to team­mate Ma­madi Di­akite, who bat­ted the ball back past the half-court line.

Seem­ingly out of nowhere, speedy Vir­ginia guard Ki­hei Clark reached the ball with three sec­onds to go and ri­fled a pass back to Di­akite. The ball left his hands a mil­lisec­ond ahead of the buzzer and fell through the net for the tie.

A stunned Pur­due kept the score close in over­time but even­tu­ally lost by five. Vir­ginia, given a re­prieve, moved on to their next im­prob­a­ble ad­ven­ture the fol­low­ing week in Min­neapo­lis.

APRIL 4: VIR­GINIA VS. AUBURN, FI­NAL FOUR

As if the Pur­due game wasn’t enough ...

Up 10 with 5:27 to play, the Cavs blew all of their lead in three min­utes and sud­denly trailed Auburn by four with 9.5 sec­onds to play. This time three things hap­pened.

First, Vir­ginia’s Kyle Guy made a three to cut the lead to one. Clark then fouled Auburn’s Jared Harper, an 83 per­cent foul shooter. Harper made the first but missed the sec­ond, putting Auburn up 62-60. Auburn fouled twice in­ten­tion­ally, leav­ing two sec­onds on the clock.

A third foul, com­mit­ted by Samir Doughty dur­ing Guy’s des­per­a­tion three, was not in­ten­tional. Guy coolly made all three foul shots. (Auburn alum­nus Charles Barkley, work­ing as a CBS an­a­lyst, was vis­i­bly dis­traught.)

As for the Cava­liers, they val­i­dated their two un­canny wins with a vic­tory over Texas Tech for the na­tional cham­pi­onship. Nat­u­rally, the game went to over­time.

APRIL 12: TIGER WOODS, MASTERS

We all know the story. One of the two great­est golfers ever had not won a ma­jor in 11 years, his life torn about by scan­dal, his body scarred by in­jury and end­less surg­eries. In 2017, he told his fam­ily and friends he was through. One fi­nal back surgery fol­lowed by a long re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion gave him one last shot.

Woods re­turned to the PGA Tour last year and tour­na­mentby-tour­na­ment grad­u­ally found his form. Go­ing into the Masters, how­ever, he was con­sid­ered more of a sen­ti­men­tal fa­vorite than a bet­ting one (14-1.) Woods hung around the leader­board the first three days and found him­self in the fi­nal group on Sun­day with Francesco Moli­nari, con­sid­ered the hottest player in the world.

True to form, Moli­nari main­tained a two-shot lead on Woods go­ing into the No. 12, a nar­row par 3 guarded by water and fickle winds. In­ex­pli­ca­bly, both Moli­nari and Brooks Koepka, who com­bined had won the last three ma­jors, found the water.

Sud­denly, Woods was tied for the lead. He then birdied 13, 15 and 16. His, yes, im­prob­a­ble vic­tory led many sports pun­dits to call it the great­est per­sonal come­back in the his­tory of sports. The fi­nal word goes to Jim Nantz, who has called 34 Masters for CBS: “It’s the best event I’ve ever cov­ered.”

APRIL 15: LOS AN­GE­LES CLIP­PERS VS. GOLDEN STATE WAR­RIORS

Of the seven im­prob­a­bles, this one fell un­der the radar. In part be­cause it in­volved a sin­gle game in a se­ries in which an un­der­manned Los An­ge­les Clip­pers faced the two-time de­fend­ing NBA cham­pion Golden State War­riors in Round 1 of the NBA play­offs. It also took place on West Coast time so most of the coun­try didn’t see it.

The War­riors, play­ing at home, eas­ily took Game 1. Two days later, Game 2 headed the same way. Even af­ter los­ing cen­ter DeMar­cus Cousins to a quad in­jury early in the game, Golden State breezed to a 23point half­time lead. (Many peo­ple in the East, in­clud­ing me, said good night.)

Steph Curry and his team­mates stretched their lead to 31 mid­way through the third quar­ter but then went cold. The Clip­pers whit­tled the deficit to 14 go­ing into the fourth. With seven min­utes left, Los An­ge­les went on a 11-0 run, led by su­per-sub Lou Wil­liams, that cut the lead to three. Los An­ge­les drew even with 1:10 left and went ahead for good with 16.5 sec­onds on the clock.

Fi­nal score: Clip­pers 135-131, the great­est play­off come­back in NBA his­tory.

APRIL 16: COLUMBUS BLUE JACK­ETS V. TAMPA BAY LIGHT­NING

Tampa Bay put to­gether one of the great­est sea­sons in NHL his­tory. The Light­ning’s 62 wins tied Detroit for the most ever. They had 12 more wins than the next best team and never lost more than two in a row all year. In three reg­u­lar-sea­son games against Columbus, the Light­ning outscored the Blue Jack­ets 17-3. All ir­rel­e­vant.

In Game 1, at Tampa, the Light­ning led 3-0 af­ter one pe­riod. Game over, se­ries over. Ex­cept, Columbus stormed back to score four unan­swered goals for the win. Rather than re­bound in Game 2, the Light­ning got ham­mered 5-1, and their home­town fans booed them off the ice.

The Blue Jack­ets con­tin­ued the on­slaught in Columbus, win­ning Games 3 and 4 by a com­bined 10-4.

The de­feat was as his­toric and it was em­phatic: Tampa Bay be­came the first reg­u­lar-sea­son points champ in the NHL’s 50plus-year ex­pan­sion era to be shut out in the first round of the play­offs.

MAY 7: LIVER­POOL V BARCELONA

Out­side of the World Cup, the an­nual UEFA Cham­pi­ons League tour­na­ment, which in­volves the top teams in the top leagues in Europe, is the most sig­nif­i­cant — and watched — event in soc­cer.

In this year’s tour­na­ment, two of the world’s most fa­mous teams, Liver­pool and Barcelona, faced off in the two-match, home-and-away semi­fi­nal. The win­ner is de­cided by to­tal goals, with the tiebreaker go­ing to the team that scored the most goals on its op­po­nent’s field.

Barcelona, play­ing at home, won the first game 3-0. Its goals in­cluded a stun­ning free kick by Lionel Messi, con­sid­ered by many to be the world’s best player.

Liver­pool now would have to score four goals in the re­match and keep Barcelona score­less. Worse, two of Liver­pool’s star play­ers, Mo­hamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, were in­jured and ruled out.

Even Liver­pool’s man­ager, Jur­gen Klopp, ad­mit­ted it was a long shot. “That is the plan: Just try. If we can do it, won­der­ful,” he said. “If not, then fail in the most beau­ti­ful way.”

Be­fore 54,074 fans at his­toric An­field stadium, Liver­pool jumped to a quick 1-0 lead. Barcelona, which missed sev­eral scor­ing chances, held firm un­til Ge­orginio Wi­j­nal­dum scored twice for Liver­pool for a 3-0 lead and an ag­gre­gate tie.

The Reds’ clinch­ing fourth goal came in the 79th minute, seal­ing a come­back that sent shock­waves through­out the soc­cer world. “I have never seen any­thing like it be­fore,” for­mer Eng­land na­tional team cap­tain Alan Shearer told BBC.

He would only have to wait 24 hours to wit­ness some­thing even bet­ter.

MAY 8: TOT­TEN­HAM HOT­SPUR VS. AJAX

No one fig­ured the sec­ond Cham­pi­ons League semi­fi­nal could pos­si­bly top the first. They were wrong.

Ajax Am­s­ter­dam, a tra­di­tional power in the premier Dutch league, won the first leg of the semis at Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur in Lon­don. The score was 1-0.

Like Liver­pool, Tot­ten­ham was miss­ing its best player, Harry Kane. Un­like Liver­pool, Tot­ten­ham now had to play on the road, in front of 50,000 Dutch fans. Then Ajax led 2-0 at half­time, mean­ing Tot­ten­ham would have to score three goals and keep Ajax score­less to ad­vance on a tiebreaker.

But then the Spurs’ Lu­cas Moura scored in the 55th minute and again in the 59th, to pull within one of an ag­gre­gate — and win­ning — tie. Dur­ing five min­utes of ex­tra time, just as the match was about to end, Moura sent a shot into the bot­tom left cor­ner of the net. Tot­ten­ham will now face ri­val Liver­pool.

Which come­back was bet­ter will be de­bated by soc­cer fans for years. Two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, now a TNT soc­cer com­men­ta­tor and a life­long Tot­ten­ham fan, was caught on cam­era weep­ing. “I’m too old to be cry­ing over foot­ball,” he said.

PLACE YOUR BETS

So, just how im­prob­a­ble were some of th­ese out­comes? The fi­nal word in such mat­ters are the book­mak­ers.

DraftK­ings Sports of­fered 40-1 odds on Columbus sweep­ing Tampa Bay; FanDuel Sports­book put it at 45-1. Not a sin­gle bet­tor, not even the most ar­dent Blue Jack­ets fan, risked a sin­gle dol­lar on the bet.

Prior to the Liver­pool-Barcelona game on Tues­day, the odds of Liver­pool win­ning and reach­ing the fi­nal were 50-1. Con­versely, the odds of Barcelona ad­vanc­ing were 1-50, mean­ing a win­ning 50-pound bet on Barca would earn you a sin­gle pound.

And then there was the wa­ger of all wa­gers, when a Wis­con­sin man bet $85,000 on Woods win­ning the Masters. At 14-1 odds, James Ad­ducci col­lected $1.2 mil­lion.

Last week, ac­cord­ing to Golf Di­gest, Ad­ducci bet $100,000 of his winnings on Woods win­ning all four ma­jors this year. Odds: 100-1. Po­ten­tial winnings: $10 mil­lion.

Im­pos­si­ble, right? Af­ter what we’ve seen in the past five weeks, maybe not.

AARON LAVINSKY TNS

Vir­ginia dodged de­feat time and again dur­ing its NCAA bas­ket­ball cham­pi­onship run.

PETER BYRNE AP

Liver­pool’s Ge­orginio Wi­j­nal­dum, right, cel­e­brates scor­ing his third goal Tues­day against Barcelona in the Cham­pi­ons League Semi Fi­nal at An­field, Liver­pool, Eng­land.

DAVID J. PHILLIP AP

Tiger­ma­nia is back fol­low­ing Tiger Woods’ Masters vic­tory, his 15th ma­jor cham­pi­onship.

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