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February 9, 2013

Feb 13, 2013, 2:52 PM EDT

Sports have a funny way of affecting you. In a way, it’s odd that the ability of a 20-year-old to get a ball through a hoop or a puck through a net can have such an impact on your emotions. But for true sports fans, some games – good and bad – stick with you for a long time.

To digress for a little bit, I’m a really big Quentin Tarantino fan. I own almost all his movies, and I maintain that Pulp Fiction is the greatest movie ever made. One of the things that make his movies so great is his ability to tell stories in a non-linear way. Reservoir Dogs reveals the characters’ origins through flashbacks after their heist has already failed. The Bride tells you she has finished her hit list at the beginning of Kill Bill Vol. 2, and the rest of the movie shows how she accomplishes it before the climax.

What Tarantino’s movies convey is the past and the present aren’t independent, and it’s the same in sports. February 9, 2013 is the story of a 6-4 hockey game and a 104-101 basketball game. But over the course of that night, I was also watching a game in 2012, and another one in 2002.

February 9, 2013, 10:00 p.m.

I actually got to the basketball game at halftime but figured I didn’t miss much with only 51 combined points in 20 minutes. And for 19 minutes, I watched a pretty ugly game. The officials really liked the sound of their own whistles, and the offenses were moving at sluggish paces.

Louisville slowly built up a seven-point lead, and got possession with 50 seconds left. At that point, a sizeable mass of people headed for the exits because, you know, it’s really important to beat the traffic.

You probably know the rest. Louisville hit one of two free throws. Jerian Grant made a pretty good shot from three. Two more free throws. Deep three from Grant. Two more free throws. Unbelievably contested three from Grant. Three-point game, 26 seconds left. Missed free throw. Missed free throw. Grant drove to the lane, making a strong layup while being fouled.

At some point my dad texted me, “Almost missed Pitt FG territory.”

“10 bucks he misses the free throw,” I texted, only half-joking.

Of course, that would have been an ill-advised bet, as he sent the game to overtime.

Although Grant was the star, the game took on so many different subplots. Pat Connaughton’s double-double. Garrick Sherman’s OT heroics. Cam Biedscheid’s game-tying three in the second overtime. As the game moved from OT to double OT all the way to quintuple OT, I was constantly reminded of another game, exactly 11 years prior…

February 9, 2002: Notre Dame 116, Georgetown 111 (4OT)

Honestly, I don’t remember too much about the details of this game, but it was my first-ever BIG EAST game. I lived in Washington, D.C., at the time, and I remember being awed by the then-MCI Center as I walked to my seat in the front row of the upper deck. The game went to a Notre Dame-record four overtimes as my favorite player, freshman Chris Thomas, played all 60 minutes, racking up 22 points, 12 assists, and eight rebounds.

It was a time before cynicism, before joking about a potentially devastating missed free throw from a player who just played with incredible resolve. I was 9 years old, thrilled by the never-ending spectacle of my first major college basketball game.

February 10, 2013, 12:30 a.m.

As I remembered that game from 2002, my mindset went from, “God, I hope he doesn’t miss this free throw,” to “There’s no way we’re losing this game.” I didn’t care about the first 39 minutes, I didn’t care that Cooley, Knight, and Grant were fouled out. Hell, I didn’t care about the four exams I had over the next week. For the night, I was 9 years old again, savoring the moment.

Cynical is probably the word people use to describe me the most, and I generally don’t consider it an insult, mostly because it’s true. Super-peppy people freak me out, April is my favorite character on Parks and Rec, and my dad has ironically called me “Smiley” since I was about 11.

But these rare moments of elation and optimism are fun to experience. For me, they really only happen in the realm of sports, and even then only rarely. Saturday was so special because it might be the first time it’s happened to me twice. Because the basketball game was not the first sporting event I attended on February 9th.

February 9, 2013, 7:05 p.m.

I actually missed the first half of the basketball game because I was across the parking lot, watching the last-ever regular season conference hockey game between Notre Dame and Michigan. The Irish were coming off a 7-4 win the previous night and looking to go 4-0 against Michigan on the season.

Despite being ranked third in the preseason poll, Michigan was sitting at eighth (out of 11) in the CCHA standings. So why was this game such a big deal? To start, Notre Dame was trying to get out of its own second-half rut that was looking more and more like last year. In 2011-2012, the hockey team started off strong before slumping down the stretch, seeing its disappointing season end in the CCHA tournament in Ann Arbor…

March 9, 2012: Michigan 2, Notre Dame 1 (2OT)

Last year’s second-round CCHA playoffs were actually my first games in legendary Yost Arena. Hanging in the rafters are signs commemorating nine national titles and 24 Frozen Fours for Michigan. It’s the kind of building where you can respect the palpable tradition, while hating every inch of it.

After an early goal by Michigan, Irish goalie Steven Summerhays continued to make incredible, acrobatic saves no matter what the Wolverines threw at him. Notre Dame tied it up halfway through the third, but couldn’t get anything past Michigan goalie Shawn Hunwick.

After 83 long minutes, Michigan’s Chris Brown finally ended the game in double overtime. Summerhays finished with 40 saves in the loss. In one of the most depressing interviews of my life, I talked to Summerhays after the marathon.

I could tell this loss was painful, it was personal. It was perhaps the best performance of his career, but it ended with a raucous cheer from the Ann Arbor crowd. And as it so often goes after heartbreaking losses, the Irish couldn’t recover the next night. Their season was over.

February 9, 2013: 9:40 p.m.

So why was this regular season hockey game so important? For starters, it was the last regular season series between the two teams as conference foes. With the formation of the Big Ten hockey conference, the CCHA is no more, and the Irish are off to Hockey East. With Michigan uncertain if they want to play us in hockey in the future, there’s something to be said for ending our CCHA rivalry with a double sweep.

Late in the game on Saturday, Michigan pulled its goalie down two goals. Summerhays gathered the puck with open ice in front of him. The crowd urged him on to shoot for the empty net. His heave sent the puck towards the goal, but it was picked up by a Michigan defenseman in front of the net. The Irish went on to win 6-4 a minute later. It was the first time since 1973 that the Irish finished 4-0 against Michigan in a season.

As Summerhays’ shot sped towards the goal, I thought briefly how cool it would be if I witnessed that ultra-rare goaltender score. It’s quite possible that he will never play Michigan again. In what might be his last game against his archrival, could he get the goal that so eluded his team a year before?

And I thought, this is it. This is why we’re sports fans. These stories are real, full of heartbreak and improbability. What if one of Notre Dame’s 37 saved shots had gone in on March 9? What if one of Jerian Grant’s threes had rimmed out? What if Pittsburgh’s overtime field goal had gone through the uprights, ending the dream undefeated football season?

These games mean so much because they’re real and unpredictable. The Michigan double sweep was so cool because of Summerhays’ vindication. Grant’s 28-second outburst was an unbelievable display of fearlessness. As students and fans, we share in the players’ victory as well as their heartbreak.

In the real world, you have tests, you have work, you have bills and taxes. But sports are about the here and now, and they’re about the past. Fans celebrate the past or hope for players to overcome it. You can be 9 years old, hoping desperately for a comeback that might never come, reliving the epic games of a bygone era.

Or you can leave with 50 seconds left.

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