2014 was a wild ride for sports fans.
We watched the “Big 3” era end in Miami and saw the San Francisco Giants win a third title in five years.
We witnessed the dawning of a Legion of Boom dynasty (or so we thought) and the coronation of Famous Jameis and his Seminoles.
Now the year is at (or nearing) its end and we can look back on the plays that made the year so great.
I took on the unenviable task of picking just ten from another year of spectacular athletic feats. These are the plays that, in this writer’s humble opinion, stand out from the rest as truly great. Feel free to rant and rave if your favorite play isn’t included, but also take a moment to reflect on the value of the ones I do have listed. Happy 2014.
This one sets the tone for the rest of the list. To be a top play of the year, a player must have made a great play in a crunch-time moment. There were plenty of fantastic catches and athletic displays in baseball this year, but since Ishikawa clinched the Giants’ third NL pennant in five years, his big blast gets the nod.
Ishikawa drove in just 18 runs in 62 regular season games, but he had seven RBI in the five games of the NLDS, including the three-run homer over the right field wall off Michael Wacha that clinched the series for the Giants in five games. The left-handed swinger became only the fourth player in MLB history to hit a pennant-clinching home run.
It’s easy to forget amid all the hoopla surrounding this season’s dominant Kentucky team and its quest for perfection, but last year’s version of the Wildcats had similar aspirations of an unblemished season. They umm…didn’t quite match those lofty goals, dropping from preseason No. 1 to out of the top 25 and a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
However, the young ‘Cats jelled in March, making a run all the way to the title game. On that road, no single play was bigger than freshman guard Harrison’s triple with less than three seconds left to beat U of M in the Elite 8. The shot came in the waning seconds of a do-or-die game, and the degree of difficulty was off the charts, with long-armed Wolverine Caris LeVert contesting about as well as humanly possible. For those reasons, Harrison’s shot gets the nod over his other game-winner from downtown, against Wisconsin in the Final Four.
Harrison’s shot was great, but Kentucky is college basketball royalty. Who doesn’t love an underdog? In the 2014 tournament, Stephen F. Austin became the latest 12-seed to topple a 5, in this case VCU. The Lumberjacks’ win was no fluke; the team went 32-3 for the season and at one point won 29 straight games. The way they beat VCU, though, probably wouldn’t happen again with 100 tries.
Down four with just under four seconds left, senior guard Desmond Haymon not only drained a three, but was fouled as well and made the free throw, tying the game and stunning the Rams, who had an almost sure victory locked up. The ‘Jacks went on to beat VCU 77-75 in overtime, claiming the school’s first tournament victory. Was this a way to make sure a team called the Lumberjacks made this list? Possibly. Does the play now reside in the annals of tournament lore? Definitely.
Benjamin has since become a first-round pick of the Carolina Panthers and bright young star in the NFL, but a year ago he was the favorite target of 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston. The dynamic duo of quarterback and receiver hooked up 54 times during the Seminoles undefeated season.
15 of those completions went for TDs, none bigger than the leaping grab the 6-foot-5 Benjamin made to give the ‘Noles a 34-31 lead over Auburn with just 17 seconds left in the last ever BCS championship game. FSU would go on to win by the same margin, ending the SEC’s reign of 7 straight national titles.
I will confess: I am not a huge soccer fan. I don’t watch the Premier League, MLS or the Champions League. The only World Cup games I watched this year were the ones the US played in. With that said, I know a great moment when I see one. When the Stars and Stripes drew the group of death for the Cup in 2014, many experts dismissed their chances of advancing past pool play.
Well, we made it through, and the first step on that road was Dempsey’s opening goal against Ghana, just 30 seconds into the team’s first match. Yes, maybe Robin Van Persie’s header against Spain was more spectacular and maybe Lionel Messi’s laser strike against Nigeria was more technically brilliant, but this is America and in America we believe in aggressive homerism. Hail Dempsey!
For a few brief months in the aftermath of the NFL season, Sherman’s was the NFL’s most talked-about player. He had been a shutdown corner with an outspoken attitude before, but his play on a Colin Kaepernick pass intended for the Niners’ Crabtree that sealed a trip to the Super Bowl for the Seahawks really put him on the map.
Sherman didn’t come down with interception, but he made the incredibly athletic breakup that led to it and he was the one that gave the high-octane interview with Erin Andrews immediately after the game. Considering the Legion of Boom’s utter annihilation of the Broncos in the Super Bowl, Sherman’s tip will likely go down as the most memorable moment of the 2013-2014 NFL season.
Arizona has always been a basketball school but the football team, under the guidance of Rich Rodriguez (the Michigan fan in me just gagged) went a surprising 10-3 this season and made an appearance in the Pac-12 title game. Many of you might not remember this play since it came at nearly 11 PM Pacific Time (aka 2 AM on the opposite coast), but Anu Solomon’s heave to wide receiver Austin Hill from 47 yards out capped a wild game that ended with Arizona on top, 49-45.
The win pushed U of A to 4-0 and was the first step in loading the Wildcats bandwagon, one that would be overflowing after Arizona also beat conference juggernaut Oregon two weeks later. Solomon’s Hail Mary provided THE highlight of college football’s first act in 2014 and so it has to be here. Also, this proves I have no East Coast bias. See? I’m impartial.
If Arizona’s Hail Mary defined the first half of the college football season, Oregon’s game-turning play against the Utes marked the biggest moment of the second half. Utah fans might wish to see this play in a Top 10 Blunders list but for Oregon it turned around a game in which the Ducks were struggling, propelling them to a victory and a step closer to the College Football Playoff spot they would later secure.
Oregon would go on to win this game 51-27 but at the time Utah receiver Kaelin Clay caught a Travis Wilson pass and streaked 78 yards for an apparent touchdown, Utah fans thought they were about to be up 14-0. Instead, Clay began his celebration a few yards early, dropping the ball short of the goal line, leaving Oregon to recover the “fumble” and return it the length of the field for a touchdown that tied the game at 7. Simply one of the wildest plays you will ever see.
This is one of those plays where I specifically remember where I was when it happened. The reaction of my buddies and I (none of whom had any rooting interest in the game) was to start screaming in disbelief, as apparently it was for our neighbors, whom we could hear through the wall in our apartment at the exact same moment.
Lillard’s fadeaway from beyond the arc gave the Trail Blazers a 99-98 victory and boosted them into the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000. For reference, that 2000 Portland team boasted veteran Scottie Pippen as a key contributor. Lillard is one of the game’s brightest young stars and the buzzer-beater pushed him into the national consciousness. Although the shot was great, his fantastic mean mug after the ball went in might have been the best part of the highlight.
So, the top play of the year breaks the rule that I made up requiring plays to happen in clutch moments. Sue me. It doesn’t matter that Beckham’s catch came in a meaningless game between the moribund Giants and the playoff-bound Cowboys, nor that the Cowboys ended up winning the game. The man made a one-handed catch behind his head with 3 %$*#*$% FINGERS. Is it the greatest NFL catch of all time? Probably not; I still give that honor to David Tyree. Is it one of the best catches I’ll ever see in my lifetime and did it blow up Twitter? Check and check.
Photo Credit: Getty