This is not a debate about the BEST Elite Eight game of all time. This is a discussion of the most intense, overwhelming, emotionally draining Elite Eight game ever played in the NCAA Tournament.
No one has to explain how intense Elite Eight games are. These games punch tickets to the Final Four and leave the losing team crushed that it came so close to its fundamental goal without reaching it. This, not the Final Four national semifinals or even the national title game, is the most pressure-packed game of every March Madness journey. This is the game coaches most hate to lose.
The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are magnified more in the Elite Eight than in any other round of the Big Dance. Given this reality, which Elite Eight games — already loaded with pressure — have reached “overload” status and become emotional spectacles at a much higher level than a “normal” Elite Eight game?
Purdue-Virginia certainly earned a high place on this list, given the 74 combined years in which these programs had gone without a Final Four entering Saturday night. Virginia ended its 35-year Final Four drought, while Purdue’s 39-year drought will turn 40. The last time a member of the Bennett family made a Final Four? 2000, when Dick Bennett made the showcase event with Wisconsin. When was the last time–before this year–that Purdue made the Elite Eight? 2000. Gene Keady opposed, and lost to, Dick Bennett in that year’s Elite Eight. The Bennett-Keady saga involved 19 years of added history beyond the Purdue and Virginia wilderness stories.
Yes, this Elite Eight game was intense for both the schools and for the mentors of the two coaches involved, Tony Bennett and Matt Painter.
Which other Elite Eight games carried that much urgency and weight on both sides of a matchup?
When discussing supremely emotional Elite Eight games, an immediate candidate is Kentucky-Louisville in 1983. The programs had not played each other in years, and they met in Knoxville, Tennessee, for a spot in the Final Four. If you are at least 45 years old and grew up in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, you remember that game and probably still talk about it today. Joe B. Hall and Denny Crum watched their teams fight tooth and nail through 40 minutes without resolving the issue. Louisville then played a virtually perfect overtime period to win the battle whose importance in UL-UK history was exceeded only by the school’s 2012 meeting at the Final Four in New Orleans.
That game has to be on the short list — with Purdue-Virginia — of the most powerful Elite Eight games of all time.
Kentuckians have so many other Elite Eight games to choose from, however.
The 1998 Kentucky comeback against Duke in the Elite Eight — six years after the immortal 1992 regional final — is one of the sweetest and most personally significant moments Kentucky fans have ever tasted. No one needs to explain why that is the case. “Catharsis” is all you need to remember about that rally from the Comeback Cats. Obviously, the emotions unleashed in 1992 make that game — remembered mostly for its incredible level of play and unforgettable finish — an easy selection on this list of emotional Elite Eight avalanches.
In 2012, Rick Pitino coached against his protege and second son, Billy Donovan, in a stirring and dramatic West Regional final in Phoenix. Louisville rallied to defeat Florida and make its first Final Four in seven years. Florida had lost a dramatic 2011 Elite Eight game to Butler. This loss was improbably harder to take for Billy D.
The 2013 Elite Eight against Duke involved the gruesome Kevin Ware injury for Louisville, an emotional outpouring and response of a very different nature.
Believe it or not, some emotionally overwhelming Elite Eight games didn’t actually involve a Kentucky-based team.
In 1999, Gonzaga’s meteoric rise to national prominence — the first year of the Gonzaga thrill ride — clashed with Connecticut’s decade-long attempt in the 1990s to finally reach the Final Four under Jim Calhoun. That was a win-at-all-costs game for Calhoun; had he lost it, who knows how different the story of UConn hoops would have become?
In 1990, Loyola Marymount’s tribute to the late Hank Gathers moved into the Elite Eight against UNLV. The game wasn’t especially close, but the emotions surrounding it were hard to put into words.
The 2014 Elite Eight involved a clash between Dayton — a program which had not been to the Final Four since its only appearance in 1967 — and a Florida program which was making its fourth straight Elite Eight appearance and desperately wanted to return to the Final Four.
The 2014 Elite Eight also involved a battle between Bo Ryan (Wisconsin) and Sean Miller (Arizona), two of the best coaches who had never made a Final Four entering that regional final in Anaheim.
In 2008, a player named Stephen Curry — you might have heard of him — guided little ol’ Davidson College against a Kansas program which, at the time, had not yet made a Final Four under Bill Self. This game meant everything to Davidson… and just as much to Kansas and its head coach.
Some regional finals meant everything to one school or coach — think of Ray Meyer making his first Final Four in 36 YEARS (not just the school, but the COACH HIMSELF) with DePaul in 1979 by beating UCLA in Provo, Utah. Think also of Saint Joseph’s and Phil Martelli making the 2004 Elite Eight and narrowly missing what would have been a remarkable Final Four for that program.
Yet, ultimately, the most powerful Elite Eight games are games which meant something on a large scale to two communities, not just one.
If 1983 Kentucky-Louisville and other games involving Kentucky’s two basketball powerhouses have to occupy this list, one must end this discussion by going to one weekend, the best weekend in the history of the Elite Eight.
The year was 2005. The Elite Eight produced three classic regional finals that March. Arizona-Illinois was an extraordinary moment for the Illini and coach Bruce Weber, and yet that overtime game probably involved LESS religious fervor than the other two immortal Elite Eight games that weekend, both of which involved Kentucky-based teams.
The Austin Regional final between Kentucky and Michigan State was profoundly poignant on both sides of the divide. Kentucky had not been to the Final Four in seven years, which in Lexington is a local emergency. Michigan State’s senior class in 2005 had not yet been to the Final Four. It did not want to become the first senior class under Tom Izzo to miss the Final Four. The two teams went into double overtime, with Kentucky’s Patrick Sparks hitting a tying 3-pointer which was reviewed for several minutes to see if his toes were on the line or not. Michigan State and its seniors did indeed prevail — to this day, not ONE of Izzo’s graduating classes has failed to make the Elite Eight — while Kentucky senior Chuck Hayes bent over and put his face in his hands when he realized he would never play in a Final Four. The ecstasy and agony of March were overflowing in that game.
Yet, if an Elite Eight game from 2005 or any other year deserves to stand on the same plane as 1983 Kentucky-Louisville or 2019 Virginia-Purdue — as a game which meant the world for both sides, not just one — I would pick the third overtime game from 2005: West Virginia-Louisville.
If you thought a seven-year Final Four drought for the University of Kentucky is a crisis, what does that make a 19-year Final Four drought at Louisville? The Cardinals were staring that in the face in this game. Rick Pitino was brought to Louisville to make Final Fours again. He faced an enormous load of pressure here, and UL fans were expecting their long March nightmare to end.
On the other side stood West Virginia, the school where Jerry West played ball and led the Mountaineers to the 1959 national title game. West Virginia had not returned to the Final Four in the next 46 years.
At a program such as — let’s say — Arizona State, where basketball culture is not deeply ingrained and there are professional sports options to distract the local populace, the pursuit of a Final Four would be a huge story, but not resonant on the deepest possible level.
West Virginia, however, is a state in which pro sports are not part of the landscape. WVU is the only show in town. It is hard to describe what this or any other big-stage moment means for Mountaineer fans.
Louisville’s 19-year Final Four dry spell, combined with West Virginia’s 46-year walk in the wilderness, puts that 2005 regional final in the very top tier of emotionally powerful Elite Eight games, alongside the Purdue-Virginia battle we just witnessed and the 1983 Kentucky-Louisville explosion of intensity. I will take those three Elite Eight games over any others…
… except for 1992 Kentucky-Duke, of course.
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