The 20 Most Exciting Game-Ending Plays in Sports

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2011

The 20 Most Exciting Game-Ending Plays in Sports

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    Ted Williams hit a home run in the very last at-bat of his career. In John Elway's last game, he not only won the Super Bowl, but was also named the game's MVP.

    There is something admirable about going out on top, about the indelible memory of the player's last moment.

    The same can be said about the games themselves. Many a fantastic game has since gone forgotten, lacking a signature moment that resonates with future generations. And many otherwise-forgettable games have been immortalized forever, ending in such dramatic fashion that they live on.

    Of these games, nothing is more exciting than the game that is decided on the very last play. Thus, we look back at a few of those games, chronicling The 20 Most Exciting Game-Ending Plays in Sports.


Honorable Mention: Big Shot Bob

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    While you enjoy Robert Horry's game-winning shot against the Kings, let me go over my criteria for exciting, game-ending plays:

    1. The play must have either ended the game in overtime or won the game on the very last play in regulation. That means at the conclusion of the play, the clock showed 0:00. There are many exciting plays I had to omit that won the game, because they occurred with time left on the clock.

    2. Context or historical merit was taken into consideration. The bigger the stakes, the higher the ranking.

    3. The actual excitement of the moment had to be taken into consideration. There are a few plays on here that weren't involved in playoff or championship games, but were so exciting that they simply had to be included.

    Also, I only researched the MLB, NHL, NBA, NFL and NCAA basketball and football. So my apologies to any international fans that felt slighted, but for the sake of limiting the scope of this slideshow, I had to focus my efforts.

20. Miracle at Michigan

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    September 24, 1994: With only six seconds left, and seventh-ranked Colorado trailing fourth-ranked Michigan 26-21 on its own 36-yard line, Kordell Stewart heaved a Hail Mary toward the end zone. Michael Westbrook made a diving catch off of a deflection by Blake Anderson, and Colorado secured a remarkable victory.

    Colorado finished the season 11-1 and finished the season ranked fourth overall. A loss to eventual national-champion Nebraska that year kept them playing for a national championship of their own.

19. Don't Kick It to DeSean

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    December 19, 2010: When the Giants and Eagles met in this divisional clash, a whole lot was riding on the outcome. Coming into the matchup with identical 9-4 records, a win for either team would put them in the driver's seat for the NFC East crown.

    The Giants jumped all over the Eagles, and with 8:17 to play in the fourth quarter, they led 31-10.

    But Mike Vick led the Eagles on a furious rally, culminating the remarkable comeback with Jackson's breathtaking return. Jackson's mad dash to the end zone also made history—it was the first punt return to ever win a game on the final play from scrimmage.

18. The Bluegrass Miracle

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    November 9, 2002: Trailing Kentucky 30-27 with only two seconds remaining and the ball on their own 26, 14th-ranked LSU appeared to be defeated.

    That's when the improbable happened.

    The deflection from the hands of LSU's Michael Clayton into the hands of Devery Henderson is now a part of LSU lore.

    And Kentucky nightmares.

17. Sykora's Prediction Comes True

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    June 2, 2008: To this day, I believe this is the greatest hockey game I ever watched. From the beginning of the game until the end—especially in each of the three overtime sessions—the action was intense and non-stop.

    Thus, while the actual play may not seem exciting, consider the context. Pittsburgh trailed 3-1 in the series, the game was in its third overtime and scoring chances were coming left and right.

    And apparently, Petr Sykora—who scored the game-winner—predicted to his teammates in the locker room during intermission after the first overtime that he would score the winner.

    So it has a bit of legend mixed in as well.

    Sadly for Penguins fans, the Red Wings would take the series in six.

16. Aaron Boone Breaks Boston's Heart

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    BRONX, NY - OCTOBER 16:  Aaron Boone #19 of the New York Yankees celebrates after hitting the game-winning home run in the bottom of the eleventh inning against the Boston Red Sox during game 7 of the American League Championship Series on October 16, 200
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    October 16, 2003: Aaron Boone's home run was the last gasp of the "Curse of the Bambino." It was a painful breath for Boston nonetheless.

    The 2003 ALCS was a doozy, going the full seven games, and a few extra innings after that. You would be hard pressed to find a soul who predicted Aaron Boone—who had entered the game in the eighth as a pinch runner—would send an 11th-inning shot into the New York sky and over the leftfield fence.

    The Red Sox would have their revenge the next year, however, overcoming a 3-0 deficit in the 2004 ALCS to the Yankees, eventually winning the World Series and lifting the curse.

    You can see the home run here.

15. Brett Hull's Controversial Goal in the Crease

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    June 19, 1999: Brett Hull's series-winning goal, in triple overtime of Game 6 between the Stars and Sabres, is one of the most controversial goals in NHL history.

    The rule at the time was that a player could not be in the crease when shooting the puck, as Hull clearly was. You can find the NHL's defense for allowing the goal here.

    Nonetheless, a series-clinching goal in triple overtime carries with it an enormous amount of tension, making the goal itself a wildly exciting moment once it occurs. Add to that a bit of controversy, and you've got one exciting finish.

14. Bryce Drew

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    March 13, 1998: There are a bevy of buzzer-beaters from the first few rounds of the NCAA tournament you could make an argument for. In my opinion, however, this is by far the most exciting of the options.

    Most people probably weren't giving 13th-seeded Valparaiso a chance against their first-round opponent, fourth-seeded Ole Miss. But the Crusaders hung tough, and trailing 69-67 with only 2.5 seconds left, Bryce Drew—son of Valpraiso's head coach, Homer Drew—delivered on one of the tournament's most memorable moments.

13. Derek Fisher Only Needs 0.4 Seconds

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    May 13, 2004: History may forget the epic shot Tim Duncan made to give the Spurs a 73-72 lead with only 0.4 seconds left. But history will never forget the ridiculous shot that Fisher made next.

    And history was likely altered on that evening. The Spurs had taken an early 2-0 lead in the series before the Lakers stormed back and took the next two games. Had Fisher's shot never gone in, the Spurs would have led the series 3-2, and at the very least hosted a Game 7 in San Antonio.

    Instead, the Lakers took Game 6 at the Staples Center and went on to the NBA Finals, where they were upset by the Detroit Pistons in five games.

12. The Goal

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    May 10, 1970: What would become one of the most famous photos in sport—Bobby Orr suspended in mid-air, appearing to fly after scoring a goal—was also one of the most exciting game-ending goals in NHL history.

    Orr's goal in the first overtime of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Bruins and Blues was a series-ending goal, giving the Bruins a four-game sweep of St. Louis. Orr, racing toward the goal, took a pass from Derek Sanderson and slipped the puck past St. Louis goalie Glenn Hall.

    Immediately after scoring, Orr was sent flying into the air by Noel Picard, who caught him with a leg trip. The resulting image is nothing short of iconic.

11. "Havlicek Stole the Ball! It's All Over!"

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    April 15, 1965: Let's get this out of the way: Johnny Most's radio call of John Havlicek's steal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference championship between the Celtics and Sixers is the most famous radio call in NBA history.

    Trailing 110-109, the Sixers' Hal Greer was set to inbound the ball under the Sixers' basket with five seconds left. Greer's pass for Chet Walker was tipped by Havlicek and landed in teammate Sam Jones hands, securing the Celtics win en route to capturing their seventh-straight NBA championship.

10. Carlton Fisk Waves It Fair

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    October 21, 1975: For one night, "The Curse" lay dormant.

    Game 6 between the Red Sox and Reds in the 1975 World Series is arguably the greatest World Series game ever played. After the Reds took a 6-3 lead in the top of the eighth, Bernie Carbo shocked the Boston crowd by blasting a three-run homer in the bottom of the inning off of Reds pitcher Rawly Eastwick.

    The Sox lost a chance to win in the bottom of the ninth when they loaded the bases, but failed to score. Denny Doyle was thrown out at the plate trying to tag up on a Fred Lynn pop-out to left, and Rico Petrocelli struck out to end the frame.

    The game went into extras, thus setting the stage for Fisk's legendary home run in the bottom of the 12th.

9. "I Don't Believe What I Just Saw!"

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    PHOENIX, AZ - OCTOBER 03:  Manager Kirk Gibson of the Arizona Diamondbacks watches from the dugout during the MLB game against the Colorado Rockies at Chase Field on October 3, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    October 15, 1988: The man on the mound in the bottom of the ninth was one of the game's most dominating closers, Dennis Eckersley. The man hobbling to the plate that would ultimately win Game 1 for the Dodgers was Kirk Gibson, who was pinch-hitting because injuries in both legs had kept him from starting the game.

    The Athletics led 4-3, and Eckersley looked as though he would overpower Gibson. And then the unthinkable happened.

    You really must watch this video here. One of the coolest "hero" moments in sports history.

    Photo from LA Times

8. "The Bulls Win!"

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    May 7, 1989: The Cavaliers had beaten Michael Jordan's Bulls six times during the regular season. Jordan exacted his revenge when the teams met in the first round of the playoffs that year.

    With only three seconds left in Game 6, the Cavaliers led 100-99, hoping to force a Game 7. But Jordan was having none of it, hitting one of the most clutch shots of his career and launching a streak of deep playoff runs leading to the Bulls dynasty of the '90s.

    Though Jordan's Bulls would lose to the Pistons 4-2 in that year's Eastern Conference Finals, and 4-3 to the Pistons in the following year's Eastern Conference Final, they would go on to win six titles in the eight seasons after that.

7. NC State Shocks Houston

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    April 3, 1983: Houston was the land's electrifying top team, boasting superstars Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon (yes, it was Akeem then) en route to a 31-2 record. Meanwhile, measly NC State had lost 10 regular-season games and squeaked by opponents on its way to the championship game.

    NC State came out strong early, leading 33-25 at the half. But Houston recovered, and with 44 seconds to go, the game was tied at 52. NC State ran down the clock, but point guard Dereck Whittenburg was forced to throw up a desperation 35-foot jumper with only two seconds left on the clock.

    Enter Lorenzo Charles. Enter Jim Valvano, racing around the court looking for someone to embrace.

6. "The Band Is on the Field!"

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    November 20, 1982: Other than the rivalry between Cal and Stanford, there should have been nothing memorable about a November game between the 6-4 Golden Bears and the 5-5 Cardinal.

    But what happened after Stanford kicked to Cal, leading 20-19 with only four seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, will long live in college football lore.

    Controversy or not, "The Play" was one of sports' most fantastic finishes.

5. Hail Flutie

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    November 23, 1984: An epic game between two formidable opponents deserves a fantastic finish. Doug Flutie wouldn't disappoint.

    Boston College (8-2, ranked No. 10) and Miami (8-2, ranked No. 12, and the defending national champions) gave fans a doozy in this late November game. Miami's starting quarterback, Bernie Kosar, passed for 447 yards, and Flutie countered with 472 yards passing and four touchdowns.

    The shootout appeared it would end a Miami triumph, 45-41. But with six seconds left and Boston College at Miami's 48-yard line, Flutie took the snap, scrambled in the pocket and unleashed one of the most famous passes in college football history (and another notch on the resume that earned Flutie the Heisman Trophy that year).

4. Touch 'em All, Joe

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    October 23, 1993: It is an image that haunts Philadelphia fans to this day.

    The Blue Jays, up 3-2 in the World Series, took a quick 3-0 lead in the bottom of the first of Game 6. By the top of the seventh, they led 5-1 when the Phillies staged a furious rally, scoring five runs in the inning behind a Lenny Dykstra three-run homer.

    Trailing 6-5, the Blue Jays were blanked in both the seventh and eighth innings, entering the bottom of the ninth down one. The Phillies called on the ever-erratic Mitch Williams, who had 43 saves that season but also lost seven games. After issuing a walk to Rickey Henderson and a single to Paul Molitor, Joe Carter strolled to the plate with one out in the inning.

    And the rest is history. Tortured history, if you happen to live in Philadelphia.

3. The Shot Heard 'Round the World

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    October 3, 1951: To truly understand the significance of one of baseball's most famous home runs, you need to understand the context of the moment.

    The Giants and Dodgers finished the 1951 season tied with 96-58 records, forcing them into a three-game playoff to determine who would win the pennant. It was remarkable the Giants had even forced a playoff—on August 11th, they trailed the Dodgers by 13.5 games and would finish the season on a remarkable 37-7 clip.

    As it should have, the playoff went the full three games, though it appeared the Dodgers were headed for victory when they entered the bottom of the ninth in Game 3 with a 4-1 lead.

    But when Bobby Thomson stepped to the plate, the Giants had already scored one run and had men on second and third with only one out. What transpired is one of the greatest home runs ever and really is best described by the pen of one Red Smith (read the whole story; it is one of the greatest pieces of sports journalism you will ever read):

    Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. There art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

2. Christian Laettner

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    March 28, 1992: It was perhaps the greatest game—and certainly the greatest finish—in the history of college basketball.

    With a Final Four birth at stake, Kentucky staged a second-half comeback, overcoming a 12-point deficit to tie the game with under a minute remaining, ultimately sending the game to overtime.

    The overtime session was epic, each team alternating scores until only 2.1 seconds remained on the clock, Kentucky leading 103-102.

    And thus the stage was set for Grant Hill's full-court pass to Christian Laettner, he of the ice-water veins, who sank a turn-around jumper from the free-throw line, beating the buzzer.

    Laettner finished the game 10-10 from the field and 10-10 from the free-throw line, finishing with 31 points. Duke finished that year's tournament as the national champion, defeating Michigan's Fab Five.

1. Bill Mazeroski Wins the 1960 World Series

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    October 13, 1960: Bottom of the ninth, Game 7 of the World Series and a game-winning home run.

    It simply doesn't get more exciting than that.

    The Pirates probably had no business defeating the Yankees, which had just won their 10th pennant in 12 years and outscored Pittsburgh 55-27 in the World Series.

    And yet, somehow, the Pirates entered the top of the ninth in Game 7 leading 9-7 after scoring five runs in the bottom of the eighth. But the Yankees kept fighting, scoring on a single by Mickey Mantle and a fielder's choice to first by Yogi Berra to knot the game at nine.

    The first batter to stroll to the plate in the bottom of the ninth was Bill Mazeroski. He would be the only batter the Pirates would send to the plate in the inning, delivering the most exciting game-ending—and series-ending, for that matter—play in sports history.

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