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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Best of 2011

Today is a special milestone: the 300th article posted in The Daily Hat Trick!!! YAY!!! Thank you all for your continued support!

The Daily Hat Trick does things a little differently than out media outlets. I personally think that it is better to run a piece reviewing the biggest stories of a year after the year is over. Often, the slowness of the sports news cycle in the final week of a calendar year can necessitate such pieces being run in late December. This year, however, I think there was plenty to talk about before the calendar went from 2011 to 2012.

The following are what I think were the biggest sports stories in each month of 2011. Enjoy your look back on the year that was!


Auburn wins the BCS National Championship

The Southeastern Conference won its fifth consecutive BCS National Championship as the Auburn Tigers outlasted the Oregon Ducks. Auburn shot to the top of the college football polls like a rocket on the strength of their Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, Cam Newton. In spite of a slough of controversy regarding Newton's eligibility due to an alleged play-for-pay scandal, Newton rose above the fray and guided his team to its first national championship since 1957.

Newton would be the first player chosen in the 2011 NFL Draft. 1

The Green Bay Packers win Super Bowl XLV

The Packers won their first Super Bowl in 14 years after a late regular season and playoff surge. Aaron Rodgers returned to the Packers' lineup from injury in December and the Cheeseheads never looked back. The Packers secured the final seed in the NFC playoffs then won three games on the road to advance to Super Bowl XLV to face the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers, in their third Super Bowl in six seasons, lost their first Super Bowl in 15 years as Ben Roethlisberger was unable to rally the Steelers all the way back from an early deficit. The Packers demonstrated that they would be a contender for the next several years, winning 15 regular season games and securing the top seed in the NFC in the following, 2011, season.

A star was born last February. 3

Virginia Commonwealth (11) stuns Kansas (1), 71-61, in the southwest Regional Final to advance to the Final Four.

VCU Head Coach Shaka Smart, then age 33, became a household name among college hoops fans in the month of March. The Rams had to play their way into the field of 64, playing one additional game than 60 other teams in the field in the First Four round of the tournament. The 11th seeded Rams continued to deliver upset after upset.

Virginia Commonwealth put themselves on the radar with a second round upset of Georgetown. Then they stunned Purdue, followed by a win over fellow upstart 10th seeded Florida State. Many teams become tournament Cinderellas only to fall in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight Round. Facing Kansas in the Southwest Regional Final, all bets were that the clock would strike midnight against the #1 seeded Kansas Jayhawks. The Rams won by 10 and advanced to their first, ever, Final Four.

Shaka Smart and the Rams shocked the world last March. 2

Connecticut defeats Butler to win the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament

The Daily Hat Trick detailed this NCAA Tournament Final game back in April. In one of the ugliest performances in the history of the NCAA Tournament, the Connecticut Huskies defeated Butler, 53-41.

Connecticut shot 35% from the field. This would often be an omen of doom in a championship game. Fortunately for UConn Coach Jim Calhoun and the Huskies, Butler shot less than 20%.

Butler lost its second consecutive NCAA Tournament Championship Game, having lost to Duke in 2010. Their coach, 34 year old Brad Stevens, would lose several seniors, including his best player, forward Matt Howard. Howard, incidentally, shot 1 for 13 in the game. It was Calhoun's third National Championship at Connecticut (1999, 2004).

Connecticut's Kemba Walker, the Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament, cuts down the net. 4


Dan Wheldon (died, October 2011) nips J.R. Hildebrand as Hildebrand hit the wall in the final turn, to win the Indy 500.

In one of the most exciting and improbable finishes to the signature race of the IndyCar Series, the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 offered a finish for the ages. J.R. Hildebrand led by more than a a full car length in the final lap, only to crash into the wall on the final turn, just feet away from the finish line. Hilderbrand's car would slide across the finish line under its own power and he would finish second. But England's Dan Wheldon would pass Hildebrand after the crash and win the Indy 500, the final win of his career.

Wheldon is as good an example as anyone of why we should seek and savor the good times of life. Wheldon would die in a crash five months later. 5


The Dallas Mavericks beat the Miami Heat in six games to win the NBA Finals

Former league MVP Dirk Nowitski shed the label that he was a great regular season player and a great scorer but couldn’t lead a team to a championship. Nowitski came through in the clutch repeatedly in the NBA Playoffs.

The signature moment of the Mavericks’ championship run was Game 2, in which Nowitski spearheaded a furious comeback, from 15 points down with less than seven minutes remaining, to avoid a deep 0-2 hole in the series and, instead, tie the series at one game apiece. The Mavericks would go on to win the series in six games.

Dirk delivered the dagger to the Heat in Game 2. 6

The United States Women's World Cup team advances to the Finals, losing to Japan

The Unites States Women’s World Cup soccer team had sports fans in the Unites States partying like it was 1999, the last time the women won the World Cup. The 1999 tournament was hosted in the United States and brought unprecedented attention to women’s soccer.

For a fortnight, American goalkeeper Hope Solo and clutch scorer Abby Wambach became household names among sports fans. The United States would advance to the Finals in dramatic fashion, scoring a last minute goal in extra time against Brazil to force, and win in, penalty kicks. The United States would lose to Japan in similar fashion in the Finals in the penalty kick frame.

Hope Solo: Beautiful young woman...too many corny Star Wars jokes elicited by her name. 7


NFL preseason football commences, after the end of the NFL lockout

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s “Back to football,” declaration became music to the ears of millions of American sports fans. After a lockout that lasted more than five months, depriving America of its favorite sport and football junkies of mini camp, training camp, free agency, and trade updates (and some preseason action), the lockout came to an end. Preseason games enjoyed strong ratings, with nationally televised games drawing better ratings than critical pennant race games in Major league Baseball. Twenty-first century America’s pastime was back!

Preseason football was never bigger. 8


St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays clinch improbable playoff berths on the final night of the regular season in dramatic fashion

The Hat Trick ran a piece following the final night of the MLB regular season. Four games decided the playoff fates of four teams. Adding to the drama, the Cardinals came back from a seemingly insurmountable 8.5 game September deficit to clinch the Wild Card. The Rays, who also were in a deep September hole, trailed the Yankees by seven runs in a must win season finale. Never in my lifetime could I recall so much being at stake on one single night, possibly the greatest night in the history of regular season baseball.

MLB on Wednesday, September 28, 2011: Last name, "Ever", first name, "Greatest" 9


St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series

The St. Louis Cardinals completed the most improbable run to a World Series Championship in decades. Not only were they hopelessly behind in the playoff race at the beginning of September, but twice, in Game 6 of the World Series, the Cardinals were down to their last strike. In one of the most memorable conclusions to a potential World Series closeout game (i.e. an elimination game), Cardinals third baseman David Freese delivered a pair of clutch, run scoring hits with the game hanging in the balance. Freese would deliver a walk-off homerun in the11th inning. The Cardinals would comfortably win Game 7 the following night and win the World Series.

If you never heard for David Freese before, you'd better recognize! 10


LSU 9 Alabama 6, OT

This game was billed the “Game of the Century”, likely to decide the winner of the SEC West Division and the representative of the SEC in the BCS National Championship Game. The winner did in fact win the division, the conference and a spot in the National Championship Game. The loser won a spot in the big game too.

The “Game of the Century” looked like a page from the middle of last century. The game was a bruising match of running attacks versus ferocious defenses. With the score tied after 60 minutes of play, the game was decided in the first overtime as Alabama failed to score in its possession and LSU’s Kenny Hilliard broke a long run inside the Alabama five yard line to set up a chip shot game winning field goal by LSU’s Drew Alleman.

No touchdowns were scored that night. The low score and the necessity of overtime to decide a winner prompted calls for a rematch in the National Championship Game should no conference winner have a stronger case. In spite of having one loss, like Alabama, and winning its BCS Automatic Qualifier conference (unlike Alabama), the Big XII, Oklahoma State was excluded from the National Championship Game and the Crimson Tide was handed a do-over for its November loss at home by the BCS system. Alabama would win the do-over match, 21-0, and, hence, was handed the BCS Championship trophy.

LSU's Eric Reid wrestles the ball away for a critical interception in "the Game of the Century". 11


NBA returns after the end of the lockout

“Back to basketball” did not quite have the same ring as “Back to football” for many sports fans, in the peak of the NFL season, but hoops fans, nonetheless, were relieved to learn that there would be a 2011-2012 season. The NBA would play its first regular season games on Christmas day, always traditionally a day with marquis basketball matchups. The Lakers, Bulls, Heat, Mavericks and other teams with high profile players would play on December 25th.

Reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose picks up where he left off last season with a last second, game winning, basket, a hook shot floated over Pau Gasol of the Lakers. 12

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