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AP photo by Timothy D. Easley / Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner dribbles downcourt against Purdue during an NCAA tournament South Regiona semifinal on March 28, 2019, in Louisville, Ky.

In a perfect world, a world not completely under siege from COVID-19, the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament's Sweet 16 round would begin Thursday night.

But these are far from perfect times, other than their perfect awfulness. So the tournament became a necessary casualty of protecting ourselves from the novel coronavirus. Though we should have always known this, there really are more important things than sports. Life and death, for instance.

Still, I've covered at least one round of the NCAA tournament every year since 1983, which was also my first March at this newspaper.

And because of that, in honor of the eight Sweet 16 games staged every year since then until this March, I've picked my top eight regional semifinals I've covered:

 

No. 8: Purdue 99, Tennessee 94 (2019)

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AP photo by Timothy D. Easley / Tennessee's Lamonte Turner, right, guards Purdue's Carsen Edwards during the second half of an NCAA tournament South Regional semifinal on March 28, 2019, in Louisville, Ky.

The Tennessee Volunteers arrived at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky, having spent part of the season at No. 1 in the national rankings. The Boilermakers had perhaps the top offensive guard in the country in Carsen Edwards. Both sides had large, vocal groups of fans in the house, though the Big Orange seemed the bigger, more boisterous bunch.

Yet the Vols trailed by 12 at intermission and by 18 early in the second half. Then they exploded, eventually hitting 12 3-pointers and briefly owning the lead. However, a controversial foul on Lamonte Turner with two seconds to play as Edwards attempted a 3-pointer wound up forcing overtime when he hit two of his three free tosses. Purdue won at least partly because the Vols missed 14 of 28 free throws.

"You're always numb when it happens to you," Vols coach Rick Barnes said afterward.

 

No. 7: Kentucky 74, Louisville 69 (2014)

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AP photo by David J. Phillip / Kentucky's Aaron Harrison, right, is congratulated by teammates after making a 3-pointer during the second half of an NCAA tournament Midwest Regional semifinal against rival Louisville on March 29, 2014, in Indianapolis.

Louisville was the reigning national champion and Kentucky a No. 8 seed that came perilously close to not making the field. But thanks to a corner triple from Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison inside the final 40 seconds at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the Wildcats prevailed after trailing by double figures in the first half. Cardinals coach Rick Pitino lost a Sweet 16 game for the first time (he was 10-0 going in), and Kentucky was on its way to its third Final Four in five years under John Calipari.

 

No. 6: Providence 103, Alabama 82 (1987)

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AP photo by Rob Kozloff / Providence men's basketball coach Rick Pitino stands between players Billy Donovan, left, and Delray Brooks as they congratulate each other after the Friars' 103-82 victory over Alabama in an NCAA tournament Southeast Regional semifinal on March 19, 1987, in Louisville, Ky.

The score would indicate this wasn't much of a game, but it was the true birth of the power of the 3-point shot. Pitino's Providence Friars hit 14 of 20 attempts behind the arc as the Crimson Tide, whom many expected to reach the Final Four, struggled to bag seven of 23 triple tries inside Louisville's Freedom Hall. Said Tide guard Mark Gottfried, who later become Bama's coach: "You look at the scoreboard, and instead of being four of five points down, you're down 11 or 12 because of their 3-point baskets. That's tough to handle."

 

No. 5: Indiana 74, Duke 73 (2002)

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AP photo by Al Behrman / Indiana basketball player Jared Jeffries celebrates a play late in the second half of an NCAA tournament South Regional semifinal against Duke on March 21, 2002, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.

An army of Indiana Hoosiers fans accounted for more red than ever seen inside Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. The top-ranked Blue Devils — the 2001 national champions with four starters back — roared in front by 17 points, but Hoosiers sophomore Jared Jeffries responded with 24 points and 15 rebounds. Indiana played for the NCAA title 12 days later but lost to Maryland.

"Let's go shock the world," Indiana coach Mike Davis, the former Alabama star, told his team before the game. Afterward, he added, "We messed up a lot of brackets."

 

No. 4: Providence 71, UTC 65 (1997)

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Staff file photo / Former UTC men's basketball coach Mack McCarthy talks with former players before Terrell Owens' Pro Football Hall of Fame induction event on Aug. 4, 2018, at McKenzie Arena.

The greatest NCAA Division I tourney run in University of Tennessee at Chattanooga history ended that night inside the Jefferson Civic Center in Birmingham, Alabama, but, oh, what a fun run it was for Mack McCarthy's Mighty Mocs, who led Providence 47-44 before ultimately sending fans clad in blue and gold — most of the crowd of 17,647 — home unhappy.

 

No. 3: Michigan 92, North Carolina 87 (1989)

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Staff photo / UTC men's basketball coach Jeff Lebo, right, talks to players between periods at the Blue and Gold intrasquad scrimmage on Nov. 1, 2003, at McKenzie Arena.

This showdown inside Rupp Arena started with a Glen Rice 3-pointer for Michigan being swiftly answered by Tar Heels guard Jeff Lebo, later the UTC coach. Rice finished with 34 points. J.R. Reid, whose fade 'do was "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" cool a year before that show went on the air, led North Carolina with 26. Both teams shot better than 53% from the floor and 40% from the 3-point line. Afterward, coach Dean Smith's voice cracked as he talked about his Heels. The Wolverines were led by Steve Fisher, who was made interim coach just before the tourney began when Bill Frieder took the Arizona State job. Pretty remarkable stuff all the way around.

 

No. 2: Ohio State 85, Tennessee 84 (2007)

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AP photo by David J. Phillip / Tennessee's Ramar Smith shoots against Ohio State's Othello Hunter during an NCAA tournament South Regional semifinal on March 22, 2007, at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Before that night's game inside San Antonio's Alamodome, Gentry Estes — this paper's Tennessee beat writer at the time — and I went to Sea World to meet a handful of penguins that would soon be moving to the Tennessee Aquarium. That alone would have made this one special, but then the Vols, who had narrowly lost at Ohio State earlier in the season, ran out to a 49-29 lead just before halftime. Yet despite Tennessee hitting 16 3-pointers in the game, the Buckeyes prevailed when freshman center Greg Oden blocked Ramar Smith's potential winner at the buzzer. The penguins are still rumored to grumble about it.

 

No. 1: Georgia Tech 81, Michigan State 80, OT (1990)

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AP photo by Tami Chappell / Georgia Tech men's basketball player Kenny Anderson is welcomed back to Atlanta by screaming fans on March 26, 1990, after the Yellow Jackets beat Michigan State and Minnesota to advance to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament.

This one had everything, starting with an end-of-regulation buzzer-beating basket by Georgia Tech freshman Kenny Anderson that could have been a 3-pointer, but also might have come after the horn, but finally counted for two to force overtime inside New Orleans' Superdome.

Anderson's Yellow Jackets ultimately won on a Dennis Scott shot with seven seconds left in OT to negate Spartans star Steve Smith's 32 points. Anderson finished with 31. Tech's "Lethal Weapon 3" trio of Anderson, Scott and Brian Oliver — with a little help from freshman Malcolm Mackey, the Brainerd High School product — wound up losing in the Final Four to eventual champ UNLV.

Afterward, Heathcote groused: "The buzzer here, you can't hear it over the crowd. They have a little tiny buzzer. If I can't hear the buzzer, how are (the officials) going to hear it?"

Countered Anderson: "I beat the buzzer. I know that for sure."

And anyone who saw that one surely knows it was at least as good as any Sweet 16 game ever played.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

 

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