Improbable does happen
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.
Virginia dodged defeat time and again during its NCAA basketball championship run.
Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum, right, celebrates scoring his third goal Tuesday against Barcelona in the Champions League Semi Final at Anfield, Liverpool, England.
Tigermania is back following Tiger Woods’ Masters victory, his 15th major championship.