Games that shaped the decade in local sports

This decade of local sports has been defined by some of the highest highs, lowest lows and the dramatic swings between them. Heartbreak, redemption and a championship would make for a full decade for any team, never mind that several around these parts can lay claim to all of the above.

But which games will we remember, that shaped the arcs our teams traveled? Here are 20 that defined the 2010s.

20. Howard over UNLV

In head coach Mike London’s and freshman QB Caylin Newton’s first game together, the Howard Bison traveled 2,500 miles west with a new offense that caught everyone in Vegas off guard, including the casinos. As a 45-point underdog, not only did Howard compete, the Bison shocked the world with a 43-40 win, the largest upset against the spread in college football history. A $100 bet on the Bison would have paid a stunning $71,500. Only a little more than two years later, though, the excitement of that game has fully worn off, with London and Newton both off to greener pastures.

19. 2015 Winter Classic

After being one of the worst draws in the league in the late aughts, the Caps finally cracked the top third of the NHL for attendance in 2010-11. But Washington was awarded the 2015 Winter Classic, a showcase game for a franchise still looking for its first title. Not only did Caps fans pack Nationals Park on New Year’s Day, but the home side rewarded them in dramatic fashion. Troy Brouwer broke a 2-2 tie with less than 13 seconds to play in regulation. It was just a regular season game, but one that announced Washington was a serious hockey town.

18. “You like that?”

The game that gave us maybe the most Vine-able (RIP) moment of the decade came with the 2015 ‘Skins on the brink at 2-4, facing an absolute must-win home game against Tampa Bay with a road trip to New England looming after the bye week. But halfway through the second quarter, after a 43-yard scoop-and-score, the Bucs led 24-0. That’s when Kirk Cousins delivered his signature performance — and line — in Washington, running for a touchdown, then throwing three more, including the game-winner to Jordan Reed with just 24 seconds remaining. He punctuated the comeback with his shout, coming up the tunnel, still in full uniform; Washington won the division at 9-7, the only postseason trip since the RG3 era.

17. “I called game”

The 2014-15 Wizards stunned the basketball world by sweeping the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the NBA Playoffs and, after stealing Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on the road, seemed like they had a shot of taking down the top seed. But in Game 2, John Wall hit the floor hard, sustaining five non-displaced fractures in his left hand and wrist. Washington lost Game 2, but owned a 21-point lead early in the 4th quarter of Game 3 at home. That’s when everything fell apart, the Hawks rallying for a 31-10 run to square the game at 101 apiece. But on came Paul Pierce, delivering the game-winner to keep hope alive, at least for one more night. Did he call “bank?” Please. He called “game.”

16. Spirit sell out Audi Field

The Washington Spirit came within a game of an NWSL title in 2016, but 2019 brought perhaps the biggest gains in franchise history. They had the young trio of Rose Lavelle, Mallory Pugh and Andi Sullivan all healthy and playing together for stretches outside the World Cup window. And they averaged 6,138 fans, a dramatic 58 percent increase over the prior year. A big part of that bump came from two games at Audi Field. But there was a stark contrast between their 2018 Audi Field match, which drew a then-record 7,976 fans, and the first 2019 game there after the World Cup, which smashed the previous bench mark with 19,871 in attendance, a sellout. The WUSA and Women’s Professional Soccer lasted just three seasons apiece. After a banner sixth year NWSL continues to grow and the Spirit will play four matches, a full third of their home 2020 campaign, at Audi Field.

15. Mamadi Diakite’s shot keeps Virginia alive

Virginia was done. Purdue was getting one of those performances out of Carsen Edwards, the kind that play in highlight reels every March and are burned into our collective consciousness. Down two, with 5.9 seconds left, Ty Jerome missed a free throw, which Diakite reached up and back-tapped toward midcourt. Freshman guard Kehei Clark corralled it, fired a baseball pass back to Diakite, who caught it high, airborne, with less than a second left. With just the slightest toe tap, he rose again, over the closing defender, with the smooth touch finding the bottom of the net. Virginia felt inevitable from there (the Auburn miracle notwithstanding), winning in overtime en route to the school’s first men’s basketball title and redemption for 2018.

14. Stephen Strasburg’s 14K debut

Has there been a more anticipated MLB debut than Strasburg’s in recent memory? It brought the first true moment of hope since the Expos had relocated to the District and somehow exceeded the hype. It all looks like something from another era now: the low-definition video, the old Nationals logo, the baby-faced then-20-year-old barely filling out his brand-new uniform. But the pure stuff and promise is all there, Strasburg gassing the side in both of his final two innings. It opened the era that reached its zenith 10 years later, with Strasburg earning the World Series MVP, one which will continue to define Nationals baseball into the future with his recent extension.

13. Wall celebrates on the scorer’s table

Do you remember the feeling? In a series in which the Wizards and Celtics traded haymakers at home, Washington trailed by two, facing elimination after an Al Horford bucket with just eight ticks left on the clock. That’s when John Wall — the old school point guard without the range of his contemporaries — drilled the game-winning three and leapt atop the scorer’s table at midcourt in celebration, arms opened wide to the crowd above him. The Wizards were one game from the conference finals, a date with LeBron and the Cavs who they’d played tough all year, promising the kind of shot at the king teams build for. They were on the doorstep, as close as they’d been in quite some time and, based on the current state of affairs, as close as they’ll be for quite a while.

12. Cousins’ INT vs. Giants ends season

All Washington had to do to get into the playoffs was beat a New York Giants team that was already locked into its seed and had nothing to play for at home. They were shut out in the first half, trailing the Giants 10-0 at the break and 10-3 after three quarters. Still, they rallied to tie the game at 10-10 and after a Robbie Gould field goal with 2:17 to play, had the ball with a chance to force overtime or win the game. That’s when Kirk Cousins threw his second interception of the game — never seeing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie jumping the route — the kind of absolute back-breaker that became his trademark in Washington. It ended the season, as well as Cousins’ and the ‘Skins’ last best chance to make the playoffs, with offensive coordinator Sean McVay departing to Los Angeles at season’s end.

11. Maryland vs. UConn, 2015 NCAA Tournament

Few programs have enjoyed as much success as Maryland has under Brenda Frese. But the Terrapins have never toppled UConn, even in their 2006 national title run. That year started a decade of dominance by the Terps team, which made five Elite Eights and three Final Fours. But the 2014-15 squad, sitting on a school record-tying 34 wins and a perfect 18-0 conference record, had to face UConn to reach the national title game. With a chance to finally beat Geno Auriemma, they were walloped, 81-58. While they’ve returned to the NCAA Tournament and won a game every year since, they’ve reached the Sweet Sixteen just once in the last four years, and never advanced beyond that.

10. 2018 WCAC Final

There have probably been crazier high school football games played, but I’ve certainly never heard of them. Not only did Gonzaga erase a 20-point deficit, they combined with DeMatha for three touchdowns in the game’s final 29 seconds, a game the Eagles miraculously won, then lost, then somehow won again on a Hail Mary, on a Sunday — all too fitting for the WCAC Final — as time expired. We may never see anything quite like it again. It’s worth watching the entire thing.

9. Caps collapse against Canadiens in 2010

The Washington Capitals have never had a better regular season than in 2009-10, collecting 121 points, the seventh-highest total in NHL history at the time. They had advanced to the conference semis the prior season and seemed to be building into a powerhouse as they entered their now-defunct 1-8 conference quarterfinal matchup with the Montreal Canadiens who, at 39-33-10, seemed to have little business in the postseason. After an overtime loss at home in Game 1, the Caps reeled off three straight wins, including 5-1 and 6-3 road victories in Montreal. Then, they outshot Montreal 134-64 over the final three games of the series, but managed just a single goal in each, losing all three. Later eliminations at the hands of the Penguins may have stung more, but this one cast the spell of playoff defeat that wouldn’t be broken until 2018.

8. Rooney to Acosta

Sometimes a broadcaster, especially one who has played the game, will give you the best indication of just how absurd what you’re watching really is. Think of the Auburn radio guys absolutely losing it during the kick-six, or the end of the WCAC Final above. Listen to the maniacal laughter from the booth after Rooney’s ball finds the back of the net off Acosta’s forehead. The Wayne Rooney-Lucho Acosta bromance was in full bloom in that impossible sequence, as D.C. United surged on a miraculous late-season run to make the MLS Playoffs. It seems unfair, just 16 months later, that it will remain the definitive highlight of their time here, with both players departing at the end of the 2019 season.

7. RG3 vs. Minnesota

Sure, there’s the knee. But the knee doesn’t really matter if not for the blinding hype that preceded it. Don’t just watch this highlight — one man, with no real magic, just pure, uncut speed leaving an entire NFL defense in the dust; leaving the announcers gobsmacked; leaving Jared Allen’s jaw agape — really, really listen to it. Listen to the swell of the crowd to a din of white noise, a FedEx Field so hyped and delirious it feels like it lives in an alternate dimension. If there is a peak in this decade of Burgundy and Gold, it’s the final 35 yards of this run and the ensuing leap into the crowd, that moment when all the hair on your body stands stiff not just because of what you’ve just witnessed, but because of the world of possibilities such an event opens up in the mind. In that celebration, anything was possible.

6. Katie Ledecky 800m in London

It can be hard to remember now, but Ledecky was just 15 when she stunned home favorite and world record-holder Rebecca Adlington — in front of god, and country, and the Royal Family, no less — in a race that’s supposed to be for the veterans of the sport. She had a shot at a medal, sure, but nothing like this, nothing like the announcement that this wasn’t anyone else’s pool but hers. Just listen to the announcers — at no point are they framing it as Ledecky’s race until 600 meters in. The only thing that would elude Ledecky that day was the world record — just — but not for long. While the 2012 result didn’t produce the kind of stunning visuals of her dominant 2016 swim, it reset the pecking order in the pool, so long as Ledecky’s on the blocks. Ledecky will never sneak up on anyone again … but good luck catching her.

5. Game 5, 2012

If the Caps had primed the pump to fuel the narrative of D.C. as a long-suffering sports town, the District’s baseball team cranked open the valve on Oct. 12, 2012. Not 24 hours after the greatest moment in franchise history to date — Jayson Werth’s epic walk-off, game-winning, season-saving home run — the Nats rocketed out to a 6-0 lead against Adam Wainwright and the St. Louis Cardinals, only to watch the life drip out of the game and the innocence of the first winning season in Washington. It was all capped by a nightmarish ninth inning that seemed to inform every future Game 5 and playoff elimination to follow. It was the game that had to be overcome, but never was, for seven more years.

4. Elena Delle Donne’s knee injury, 2018 WNBA Semifinals

The Washington Mystics looked to finally have all the pieces in place to win a title in 2018 until suddenly, it all flashed before their eyes. After a monster 27-point, 14-rebound Game 1, driving the lane in the Eastern Conference Finals against Atlanta, Elena Delle Donne’s left leg planted and skidded, her knee bending the wrong way. A season full of promise that looked like it might actually deliver the franchise’s first title was dashed. But the resiliency the Mystics showed, fighting through injuries just to make the WNBA Finals, became the foundation for their rallying cry, to “run it back” the following year. There were plenty of bumps and bruises in 2019 as well, but nothing that could stop Washington’s title run, Delle Donne celebrating under the mask, and the confetti, on her new home floor.

3. Kuznetsov’s OT winner vanquishes Pittsburgh

You could see the weight literally lift from Alex Ovechkin’s shoulders, an on-ice exorcism on live television, arms outstretched and head tilted back, all but ready to be raptured into hockey heaven. It was him, finally, celebrating in the pile. It was the Penguins, finally, on the wrong end of the business. It was the domino that had to fall to open up the door for the Caps to finally break through and win the Stanley Cup that would validate not only all those 50-goal campaigns, but an entire generation of Washington hockey.

2. 2019 NL Wild Card Game

The script was playing out like every other one before it — the Nats, stuck in their own personal playoff elimination Groundhog Day, watching the innings and outs dwindle in another disappointing season. And then, Juan Soto singled to right, almost certainly tying the game, until Trent Grisham’s misplay suddenly allowed the Nats to jump in front, just three outs away from advancing in the playoffs for the first time. From there, every time they seemed on the brink, they found a way, all the way through Game 7 of the team’s first world title.

1. UMBC beats Virginia

How could it be anything else? This was supposed to be impossible, and even if, somehow, it ever happened, it was supposed to be a fluke. If everything went right for David and everything wrong for Goliath, maybe, somehow, the upset could happen. But nobody could have imagined the 20-point thrashing that UMBC laid on Virginia that March night. It was peak Madness. It changed the face of college basketball forever. Its echoes lingered all the way through Virginia’s own redemption in its national title the following year. And even if there are other 16s who take down 1s, there will always be UMBC.

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