Top Five Toughest Losses

Mike McDermott, a character in the film Rounders, summed it up best when he said, "In Confessions of a Winning Poker Player, Jack King said, ‘Few players recall big pots they have won – strange as it seems – but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career." For me, the following are UA's top five toughest beats:

(5) Why O' Why O' Why O'…

…did we have to play Miami of Ohio? We've had more than our fair share of first round tournament losses to lower ranked teams but this one sticks out to me the most. Sure, losing to East Tennessee State was brutal, as was that unfathomable loss to a Santa Clara squad that looked more like a cast to the Broadway musical Hair rather than a basketball team. Arizona was playing in the dreaded first game of the day time slot, a traditional upset game year in and year out. My buddy Troy and I had a 10:30 tee time that morning and figured by the time we teed off, Zona would be cruising midway through the second half and we would be able to walk away from the game worry free. That's what we thought. By halftime, we were pleading with the golf starter to push back our tee time by an hour. Six beers later and another first round loss for the Cats, Troy and I embarked on what would become our worst round of golf ever. Whoever coined the phrase, "A bad day on the golf course is better than a good day at work," didn't play golf after his school got knocked out of the NCAA's. I'm a three handicap and had to hole a five footer to break 90 that day. Troy's a nine handicap and finally called it quits on 16 after he duck-hooked his tee shot into a cow pasture. Regrettably, Troy and I have played this same golf course several times since and the memories of that day never get any easier. Last time we were there, Troy sliced his opening shot into the woods and yelled at the starter that he hated this course. And no, I didn't apologize on his behalf.

(4) The Tomey Era in a Nutshell

Nothing sums up the Dick Tomey era better in my mind than the 1996 Colorado State loss at Arizona Stadium. We were Sports Illustrated's preseason number one team and we played our first five games that year as if we had something to prove. Then CSU rolled into town like a monsoon and left us thunderstruck. We were losing the entire game, playing horribly. Then the fourth quarter started and we began to show signs of life. Like a beleaguered champion boxer who was beaten but not yet dead, somehow our team had regained the momentum and it appeared as if we were going to snatch victory from the claws of defeat. Losing by four or five with less than seven minutes remaining, we began to march down the field. Soon, we were inside the ten. First and goal, clock winding down, game in the balance. The crowd could sense the great escape. There's nothing sweeter than winning a game when a loss seems inevitable. I'm sitting low enough in the end zone where we're about to score that I can't see above the line of scrimmage. We run a dive play up the middle and before I could assess the situation, I see the CSU sideline and their 5,000 something fans erupt. The next thing I know CSU's linebacker, Moran, is streaking down the field in the opposite direction with the entire UA offense giving chase. My heart dropped. 96 yards later, Moran was in the end zone and Arizona's football season was in the toilet. We finished that year a disappointing 8-4, capped off by a bowl game loss to unranked Utah.

(3) Not So Happy Valley

Arizona was fresh off its Holiday Bowl thrashing of Nebraska and optimism for the long term future of our program was in the air. We would open at Penn State. Happy Valley was the perfect place to announce our arrival onto the national scene by beating a top five Joe Pa team in their own house. Well, we made a statement alright. Kickoff was set for 9 AM PST. I was living near the pier in Hermosa Beach, California at the time. A little football with friends, a cooler of beers, maybe hit the strand later that afternoon…life was great. We were so fired up we actually flew a UA flag off the balcony. The thought of it now makes me want to puke. Not twenty minutes after I cracked open my first beer, I get a call from a buddy who's at the game, informing me that UA just took the field and accidentally ran to the Penn State sideline. Shamefully, our team had to walk across the field to the harassment of 100,000 screaming fans. Not even James Carville could put a positive spin on this one. PSU's opening drive results in a touchdown. UA, showing some character, drives inside the 10 but stalls, resulting in a field goal. At this point, I'm thinking, "okay, we answered their score. Now we can settle down." Not more than two minutes later it's 14-3. Again though, flexing some muscle, our offense marches down the field but this time we miss a 27-yard field goal. Seven minutes later it's 21-3 and the UA flag was back in the closet. We lost that day 41-3. More importantly, one could argue that we lost much more than a football game. In a sense, we lost our swagger and Desert Swarm has never been quite the same since then.

(2) It's Spanach Not Sandler

I like Adam Sandler. In fact, I like him a lot! Who I absolutely cannot stand is USC swingman Adam Spanach for what he did to us in 1998. There's been some tough buzzer beaters that have gone against UA throughout the years (Nick Robinson's steal and heave from just inside half court two years ago in Palo Alto and Derrick Martin's 15-footer to snap UA's 71 game home winning streak are two that come to mind), but none stung me harder than Spanach's last second three to best us in overtime in that dilapidated building they call a gym. UA was 17-0 in conference play and with a win would have been the first PAC-10 school to ever post an undefeated conference record. I was sitting in the upper mid-level section directly behind the basket as Spanach was recklessly dribbling up the floor. The second he released the shot I knew it was in. What makes this moment one of my top 5 lows was the fact that I had to watch all 237 USC fans storm the court; just a pathetic sight.

A humorous side note to the Stanford game I briefly referenced was that I completely lost it after that shot went in. So much so that my wife had to intervene and shout, "Enough is enough!" For penance, I issued a self-imposed two game ban on watching our basketball team. I'm a better person for it. I can honestly say that from that point forward I've rediscovered my passion for college basketball as a whole and not only as it relates to our program. I even vowed to not get emotional after a loss anymore.

But then the unthinkable happened…

(1) The Absolute Worst 3:31 of My Life

I can write an entire dissertation on UA's monumental collapse against Illinois in the 2005 NCAA Regional Championship, but I'd rather impale myself on a rod iron gate that guards the entrance to Hell than relive the waning moments of this game in such detail. All I can remember is that at the four minute mark I logged on to the Internet to check flight and hotel availability in San Antonio, site of the Final Four. 29 seconds later I went to grab a beer in the kitchen with our team up by 13 points. When I returned to the den, we were up by eight and only 17 seconds had ticked off the clock. From that point forward everything else was a blur except for the final shot in overtime; Hassan's desperate attempt from 17 feet that barely drew iron. I vaguely remember slamming my hand down on the couch, which catapulted the remote controller into the air right in front of my face. Instinctively, I swatted the controller across the room, shattering it into a million little pieces. I new the loss was bad, but I didn't realize the magnitude of it all until the next day.

It was Easter Sunday and our family friends always have an open house brunch to celebrate the occasion. When I walked through the front door, the party literally came to a screeching halt. My sister's fiancé and his buddies were shocked that I was even out and about. Others were giving me warm, caring hugs as if a close relative had just passed. Even my dad took me aside and thanked me for making it to the party. To this day, I still can't piece the entire final minutes of this game together. And you know what, I really don't want to. I'll never watch it again. My friends and I don't talk about it. It's the Buckner moment of Arizona basketball, only worse in that UA didn't have a Game 7 the next day to try and reconcile its mistake. Our season was over, and so is this article. Next week I'll cover my top five greatest moments in UA sports. Until then, Bear Down!

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