Justify, or J.R. Smith? In trying to fill the final slot for TIME’s list of the 10 most memorable sports moments of 2018, I found myself debating between the horse that won the second Triple Crown in 37 years, and the basketball player who spent the last few seconds of a tie game in the NBA Finals dribbling away from his own basket, like a horse’s behind.
While fans may never witness anything like Justify’s racetrack dominance again — he’s the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes in succession without starting as a two-year-old since Apollo in 1882 — they’ll never forget holding their hair in disbelief while Smith’s Game 1 gaffe played out before their eyes. His Cleveland Cavaliers couldn’t recover, losing Game 1 in overtime, and eventually dropping four straight to the Golden State Warriors in a series sweep. So we gave the nod to J.R., since moments that make you scream, or shake, or jump up and down like a hysterical buffoon are the reasons we watch the games in the first place. (The memes and videos commemorating Smith’s antics also helped).
While plenty of bad news engulfed the world this year, sports enjoyed a pretty swell 2018. Putting together this (highly subjective) list was difficult. So apologies, in advance, to all the Winter Olympians who thrilled us on their way to top of the podium, or the soccer players who produced a sterling World Cup. (A list that doesn’t recognize Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat trick or France’s phenomenal Kylian Mbappé, the first teen to score in the World Cup final since Pelé in 1958 could, indeed, be called rubbish). Sorry, Los Angeles Rams-Kansas City Chiefs 54-51 Monday night thriller, a game that marked the NFL’s much-needed infusion of fun this year. Alexander Ovechkin’s first Stanley Cup win, and subsequent bender with the trophy, deserves recognition. As does the emergence of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, the desert expansion team that made it all the way to the Finals. But another bit of hockey wizardry, across the world along the northeast coast of South Korea, made the cut.
Here, in chronological order, is TIME’s list of the Top 10 sports moments of 2018:
Crimson Tide Comeback
Trailing Georgia 20-10 entering the fourth quarter of January’s national championship game in Atlanta, Alabama freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa — who came off the bench to start the second half — tied the game on a seven-yard touchdown pass to receiver Calvin Ridley, with under four minutes left. Alabama quickly got the ball back, and marched downfield to set up a potential game-winning field goal. But Andy Pappanastos missed a 36-yard kick at the buzzer, sending the game into overtime.
There, Georgia kicker Rodriguo Blankenship nailed a clutch 51-yard field goal, applying all the pressure on Alabama: if the Crimson Tide failed to score on this next possession, Georgia would win. Following a seemingly disastrous first down sack which knocked Alabama out of field goal range, Tagovailoa ripped Georgia’s heart out, deep in the heart of the state: he connected with DeVonta Smith for a 41-yard touchdown strike to end one of college football’s all-time classics.
“I’ve never been happier in my life,” Alabama’s usually dour coach, Nick Saban, said afterwards. He even kind of looked like he meant it:
Circumstances called for a field goal. The Philadelphia Eagles, leading the New England Patriots 15-12 near the end of the first half of Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, had the ball on a fourth-and-goal, at the New England one-yard-line. Kick the chip shot field goal, take the points, head to the locker room happy. Philly coach Doug Pederson, however, not only broke convention by going for it, he also delved deep into the playbook and called for some trickery: the “Philly Special,” in which the center snapped the ball to a running back, who flipped it to a tight end, who ran right before tossing the ball to the quarterback — yes, the quarterback — in the end zone.
The play completely fooled the Pats. Tight end Trey Burton threw a soft spiral to a wide-open Nick Foles, who hauled it in to put the Eagles up 22-12 before Justin Timberlake took the stage for the halftime show. Whatever Super Bowl mystique Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots may have held over the Eagles now vanished. The Eagles won their first Super Bowl in franchise history, 41-33.
The U.S. women’s hockey team spent four years stewing over its lost opportunity at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when the Americans coughed up a late 2-0 lead over arch-rival Canada, only to lose in overtime and settle for silver. Sweet revenge was now just a shot–and save–away when Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson skated towards the net in a penalty shootout at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang.
The gold medal game had been deadlocked at 2-2 when Lamoureux-Davidson went to a move she’d practiced thousands of times, which she called “Oops I Did Again,” after the Britney Spears song: Lamoureux-Davidson faked a shot to her right, sending Canada goalie Shannon Szabados scrambling. In an instant, she brought the puck to her backhand. But just as soon as Szabados recovered from the initial fake, Lamoureux-Davidson juked her one more time, bringing the puck back to her strong side before punching it into the net. Szabados fell on her back, helpless. Lamouruex’s deke, combined with Maddie Rooney’s save of Canada’s next shot, clinched Team USA’s first women’s hockey gold medal in 20 years.
Since the NCAA men’s basketball tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 16 seeds had tried to upset a No. 1 seed on 135 occasions. Those underdogs went 0-135 before the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, out of the America East Conference, took on the University of Virginia, the top overall seed in the 2018 tournament, on a Friday night in March. Many college hoops fans had all but given up on the idea of a 16 toppling a 1. And if a team was going to pull off such a stunner, it would probably take some miracle shot at the buzzer. No one envisioned a butt kicking; that’s why UMBC’s 74-54 victory over the Cavaliers felt so surreal.
UMBC’s athletics department Twitter account emerged as a breakout March Madness star, repeatedly calling out one pundit who guaranteed a Virginia victory just moments after the game tipped off. “We won 24 games and a conference title,” @UMBCAthletics tweeted to one disbelieving fan during the game. “It’s not like we are a YMCA team, dude.”
Clutch Of The Irish
It’s one thing to hit a buzzer beater. It’s another to hit back-to-back last-second shots, at the Final Four, to clinch a national championship. Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale pulled off this astonishing feat in the NCAA women’s tournament: in the national semis, her tough pull-up jumper with one second to go handed the University of Connecticut, which was 36-0 going into the game, its first loss of the season. Then, on Easter Sunday, Ogunbowale somehow topped herself.
With Notre Dame and Mississippi State tied at 58-58, Ogunbowale launched a contested last-second three-pointer that was true, and delivered Notre Dame its first women’s basketball title since 2001. In an interview with TIME, Ogunbowale offered some advice for all those girls and boys playing in their driveways, or at the playgrounds, pantomiming game-winning celebrations. “Keep shooting those crazy, off-balance shots,” she said. “Because you never know when they’re going to come in handy.”
This was Cleveland’s chance. The Golden State Warriors were heavy favorites to repeat as NBA champions this summer, given that the Ws suited up a cavalcade of top NBA players — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green — while their NBA Finals opponent, the Cavaliers, featured LeBron James, All-Star Kevin Love and a bunch of other guys. But somehow, with 4.7 second left in Game 1 and the score tied at 107-107, J.R. Smith grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed George Hill foul shot. The problem: Smith thought the Cavs had the lead. So instead of attacking the rim, he started dribbling towards mid-court, as if he were running out the clock.
By the time James, who was standing at the top of the key, implored him to head in the right direction, it was too late — the Cavs couldn’t get a shot at the rim. Overtime. During the break between regulation and the extra session, a demoralized James buried his head, crossed his arms and could barely look at another human being. He looked like someone stole his dessert. And then called off Christmas. Cleveland, despite James’ 51 points, lost 124-114. Golden State went on to sweep the series.
England had extinguished so much heartbreak at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. After being eliminated from the tournament via penalty shootouts in 1990, 1998, and 2006, England finally clinched a World Cup shootout victory, in the round of 16 against Columbia. And in the semifinal against Croatia, England scored five minutes into the game to go up 1-0. England held the lead into the second half, before Croatia’s Ivan Perišić tied up the game in the 68th minute.
The tension built in extra time, before Mario Mandžukić’s left-footed goal in the 109th minute set off a wild celebration. Croatian players piled on top of photographer Yuri Cortez, a pro’s pro who still managed to snap some memorable pics in the mayhem. Croatia held on to reach a World Cup final for the first time.
Serena States Her Case
Serena Williams’ extended argument with chair umpire Carlos Ramos at the U.S. Open final in September was uncomfortable: she called him a “thief” for calling violations on her, and she accused him of sexism, as many male players have treated umpires far worse than she did and never suffered a game penalty at a crucial point of a Grand Slam match.
The post-match booing at the trophy ceremony, which honored Japan’s Naomi Osaka — the superior player that day — as U.S. Open champ, was unfortunate. Sure, the pro-Serena crowd thought the umpire robbed her. But Osaka, reduced to tears, deserved better. Some top sports moments are short on joy. Serena’s outburst, however, sparked a global debate about gender bias, decorum, and proper interpretation of rules. No on-court moment was more consequential.
Think what you want of Tiger Woods. But no athlete in his sport — and maybe all sports — commands eyeballs quite like Tiger. After injuries and personal scandal nearly left him an afterthought on the PGA Tour, Woods capped off a stellar comeback campaign, in which he contended for two major titles — Woods shot a final round 64 at the PGA Championship to finish second — with his first tour win in over five years, at the Tour Championship in Atlanta.
As Woods walked towards the 18th green on that September Sunday to soak in his victory, thousands of fans trailed him on the course, as if he were their leader. The scene spoke to Tiger’s power. He might not win as many tournaments as he did in his prime. But his mere presence turned a whole generation of fans onto golf. They’ll never forget that.
The game took seven hours and 20 minutes over 18 innings, shattering the World Series record for longest game, by both time and frames. In fact, the Boston Red Sox-Los Angeles Dodgers clash took longer to play than the entire 1939 World Series. With the score tied 1-1 in the top of 13th, a Scott Alexander throwing error allowed the Red Sox to take a one-run lead. But in the bottom half of the inning, Boston’s Ian Kinsler threw a ball wide from second, allowing Max Muncy to score from second with two outs to tie it again. Finally, in the bottom of the 18th, Boston pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, entering his seventh inning of outstanding relief work, finally broke: Muncy smacked a leadoff walk-off homer to left center, ending the marathon at 12:30 a.m. PT, well past last call in Boston.
Though the Red Sox lost, the game — and especially Eovaldi’s effort — inspired Boston, which won the next two games in Los Angeles to close out another World Series championship, the franchise’s fourth in the past 14 years.
Let us know what we missed. And good luck to 2019. Following up this year won’t be easy.
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