Published on November 30th, 2013 | by msalt

The greatest sports upset ever

Great sports games don’t exist in a vacuum. Your memory of the epic win mingles with some indefinable stage of growing up, or the excitement of Christmas, or the bitterness of a divorce, to form a unique chunk of feeling.

In 1985, I watched the NCAA championship with a hot girlfriend who was a sports fan (rare then) and my first true love, right before we moved apart. We were at the house of my friend John’s grandmother Mangus, a genteel Southern lady who knew Faulkner growing up before she moved to Oregon. She was a great character, fond of dirty jokes and a great poker player. Let’s put it this way; she didn’t win that night, but her grandson (who always lost) won big when she was in the game. Our other friend Lew was there; Mangus, who worked as a substitute teacher, said “Wait a minute.” She disappeared into the attic and returned with a decorated egg that Lew had made 16 years before in first grade, on a day when she randomly substituted in his classroom. She was so struck by it that she had kept it all those years. It was a weird and magical night.

None of those memories mean anything to you, but for me they are hopelessly entangled with one of the greatest sports games ever. 8th seed Villanova, the underdog of all underdogs, against dominant Georgetown (with Patrick Ewing, Reggie Williams and David Wingate). This was the last game played without a shot clock, and the last final in a small arena (in Lexington, Kentucky). Georgetown, the defending champion, was so dominant that only a perfect game could unseat them; so Villanova shot 79% from the field, in a year when the Hoyas held opponents to under 40%. And the Wildcats were still hanging on by their fingernails the entire time, winning only by two. 28 years later, Villanova is still the lowest seed to win the NCAA tournament.

The game was full of drama, with Villanova sophomore Harold Jensen hitting all five shots and free throw after free throw down the stretch; Georgetown’s Harold Broadnax blatantly cheating to fake a foul (just to confirm the evil bully stereotype); and Villanova coach Rollie Massimino showing all the heart and emotion in the world. The Wildcats had Jake Nevin, their trainer since 1929 — 1929! — courtside in a wheelchair. (He suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease and died later that year.) Are you kidding me? The movie “Rocky” wishes it was Villanova’s win over Georgetown.

Even if you don’t have any personal memories connected to this win, watch a clip and try to soak in a bit of that magic. Here’s the last five minutes of the game; an ESPN recap; and this shorter but somewhat dry and corny summary.

The story didn’t have a heroic ending, at least for Massimino. He went to the University of Las Vegas and got tangled up in a scandal over secret payments to him under the table. But for one day, it was the perfect epic underdog victory.

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About the Author

Mark Saltveit is a writer, standup comedian, skimboarder and dad based in Middlebury, Vermont. His improv show "Palindrome Fight!" will be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Aug. 5-29th 2022 at the Kilderkin Pub, 67 Canongate, at 7:30pm each night except Tuesdays.

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