Jerry Sullivan: The 10 best basketball games I’ve ever covered

Jerry Sullivan

Jalen Suggs #1 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs shoots a game-winning three point basket in overtime to defeat the UCLA Bruins 93-90 during the 2021 NCAA Final Four semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 03, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Gonzaga’s overtime win over UCLA in Saturday night’s national semifinal is one of those games that basketball fans will be reliving for years to come. Jalen Suggs’ winning 40-foot bank shot at the buzzer will be replayed over and over again, like the historic winners by Christian Laettner and Kris Jenkins.

I only wish I could have been there. Whenever there’s a great game, in any sports, it takes you back to memorable events that you’ve witnessed in person over the years. A part of you wants to be there, to see it up close and feel the moment, to talk to the participants and chronicle it as best you can on the fly. 

Twitter was abuzz after Suggs hit his shot, sending Gonzaga into Monday night’s NCAA title game against Baylor. Some asked if there had ever been a better college game. That game certainly merits consideration, though anyone who was present for the famous Duke-Kentucky game might have a quarrel.

Anyway, Suggs inspired me to cobble together a ranking of hoop classics over the years. Here are the 10 most memorable games that I covered in person, spanning 30-plus years in Buffalo, my time as an NBA columnist at Newsday in the ’80s, and beyond. Hours from now, I imagine I’ll realize that I forgot one or two, but this will suffice.

1. Laettner’s Shot

Duke’s 104-103 overtime win over Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional final is regarded by many as the best college game ever. Laettner took a full-court pass from Grant Hill and hit a 17-foot shot at the buzzer in OT to put Duke into its fifth straight Final Four. The fact that it was a local kid (I used to call Laettner the “Kid from Angola”) made it even more significant for Buffalo hoop fans. Afterwards, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he lacked for adjectives to describe this wonderful event. I called it a basketball treasure, a game we’d be talking about for as long as kids stood in the driveway shooting a basketball against the front of the garage.

2. Magic’s sky hook

In Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals, Magic Johnson sank what he termed a “junior junior” sky hook in the lane over Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to give the Lakers a 107-106 win over the Celtics in the old Boston Garden. It happened right in front of my press seat near the baseline. LA went on to win in six. Magic was 27 at the time, the league MVP in his absolute prime. He had 29 points that day. It’s easy to forget how great a player he was. It was Johnson, not Michael Jordan, that I considered the best player ever until I shifted allegiance to LeBron James a few years back. 

3. Bona-Kentucky

In the noon game on the first day of the 2000 NCAA Tournament, St. Bonaventure suffered an epic loss to Kentucky, 85-80, in double overtime. No one will ever forget David Messiah Capers making three free throws with 0.4 seconds left in the first overtime to force a second OT. Bona fans still haven’t forgiven Jim Baron for not having his players foul Tayshaun Prince before Prince could make the three-pointer to force the first OT. Tim Winn, the pride of Niagara Falls, played his heart out in the final game of a career that put the Bonnies back on the college hoop map. If only he had a better jumper.

4. Duke stuns UNLV in Final Four

This was actually the Duke game I had in mind during UCLA-Gonzaga. Like Gonzaga, UNLV came into the national semifinal unbeaten — a Final Four also played in Indianapolis. The Rebels had blown out Duke by 30 in the title game a year earlier. But this wasn’t that big an upset in reality. Duke had Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley, plus a better bench than UNLV. Laettner had one of his epic tourney games, scoring 28 points including the two winning free throws with 12.7 seconds left. Duke won, 79-77. UNLV’s Larry Johnson passed up a shot in the final seconds.

5. UB women win the MAC

On the greatest day in UB’s basketball history, Stephanie Reid hit a bank shot at the buzzer in overtime to beat Central Michigan, 73-71, giving the UB women their first NCAA bid (video linked in the tweet below). Felisha Legette-Jack did a masterful coaching job in Cleveland, making all the right moves for No. 8 seed UB, the highest-seeded women’s team ever to win the MAC tourney. That same night, Blake Hamilton hit a 24-foot shot with two seconds left to give the UB men their second straight conference tourney title — their first under Nate Oats after he replaced Bobby Hurley.

6. Bird vs. Dominique

In one of the most stirring mano-a-mano battles the sport has seen, Larry Bird scored 20 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Celtics over the Atlanta Hawks, 118-116, in the seventh game of the 1988 East semifinals at storied Boston Garden. Dominique Wilkins scored 47 points, including 14 in the fourth, at times matching Bird shot for shot. Bird shot 15-for-24, including one amazing scoop shot as he was falling to the floor. It was Bird’s last truly great playoff performance. The Celtics lost to the Pistons in the ’88 conference final, and Bird never got that far again in his career. 

7. USA! USA!

In the Olympic gold medal game at Beijing in 2008, the Americans got a scare from a skilled and determined Spain team, holding a narrow lead for much of the day before prevailing, 118-107. People forget, but the U.S. team was in a crisis before that Olympics, having lost in the 2004 Games and in the 2006 worlds. Then Jerry Colangelo got Mike Krzyzewski to be the national coach. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant got on board and helped the nation reclaim gold. I’ll never forget how James and his teammates were like giddy college kids in the interview room afterwards. Pau Gasol was brilliant in defeat for the Spaniards.

8. Duke beats Butler

Yeah, I covered a lot of big Duke games. Eleven years ago Monday night, little Butler nearly won the NCAA title in Indy, just five miles from its home gym at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse. The Blue Devils won, 61-59, behind MVP Kyle Singler. But Butler, which made an improbable run to the final behind a 33-year-old coach named Brad Stevens, nearly pulled it off. Gordon Hayward heaved a shot from the mid-court line — right in front of me — that caromed off the backboard and the front of the rim. I can still hear the audible gasp of 70,000 fans in the RCA Dome — not to mention the writers who were on deadlines.

9. Put up your Dux

Canisius shocked top seed Rider in the quarterfinals of the 2002 MAAC Tournament in Albany, 85-84, on a bank shot by Buffalo native Hodari Mallory at the overtime buzzer. Canisius coach Mike MacDonald called it “true March Madness.” The Golden Griffins got there because point guard Brian Dux scored his team’s last 17 points in regulation in a Bird-Wilkins type shootout with Rider’s top scorer Jerry Johnson. Dux, the Orchard Park native, was an all-league talent but not an elite scorer in college. But his scoring binge that day presaged his time as a superstar in England before a serious auto accident ended his pro career in 2007.

10. Feeling their Oats

The UB men stunned Arizona, 89-68, in the first round of the NCAA tourney in Boise. No great drama here, unless you’d been following Buffalo basketball for 30 years and never seen one of our teams win a game in the Tournament proper. The Bulls got 25 points from Wes Clark and shot 15 of 30 from three-point range against a fourth-seeded Arizona team that had been picked by some to win the national title and had the No. 1 overall pick in the coming NBA draft in center Deandre Ayton. I called that game “surreal.” It was the realization of Nate Oats’ vision of basketball. You knew he would wind up in the big time before long. 

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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