Ranking the 5 Most Pressure-Packed Moments in All of Sports

Matthew Snyder@schnides14Analyst IIIOctober 23, 2011

Ranking the 5 Most Pressure-Packed Moments in All of Sports

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    Mere seconds remain in a pivotal basketball game. You're headed to the free throw line, your team down by only one point. Two free throws await.

    Your jersey is soaked with sweat, your hands are shaking from the immensity of the task at hand. But you make your way to the stripe 15 feet from the hoop, knowing that it's all on you now.

    The hoop looks like an orange as you set your feet and begin your pre-shot routine. You finally look up, and out of the corner of your eye see thousands of screaming fans twisting their bodies and testing the limits of their vocal chords with one goal in mind: make you miss.

    Maybe you think back to when you used to shoot hoops as a kid in your backyard. You try and plant yourself back in that unencumbered time, when there was no noise save for the ball pounding upon the blacktop. Relieved somewhat and buoyed by the power of memory, you focus on this immense task at hand.

    The end of games tells us an awful lot about athletes. Do they wilt under pressure, or rise to the occasion? You can never really know until you see them forced into the situation.

    Here's five of the most intense moments of selected sports—the common thread, obviously, that these times inevitably arise when the game is on the line in the dying moments. They are in no specific order. Enjoy.

Last-Second Free Throw — Basketball

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    NBA players take thousands of free throws over the course of their careers.

    Most probably fade from memory mere moments after a game has ended, falling into the glut of collective reminiscence, insignificant details forgotten within an overall body of work.

    Anderson, a guard for the Orlando Magic during the 1994-95 season, would eventually go to the line 2,461 free throws over the course of his regular-season career, maintaining a 66.7 percent average (Basketball Reference)

    Anderson was no Steve Nash (90 percent over his career), but two out of three is no slouch effort.

    Then came the 1995 NBA Finals. With the Orlando Magic nursing a three-point lead in the final moments of Game 1 against the Houston Rockets, Anderson stepped to the charity stripe with the chance to put his side up by five—a near-unassailable lead at that point.

    He proceeded to miss both. But by some incredible stroke of luck, he got the ball back from his second miss, and was fouled again. He headed back all the more determined to exorcise the demons that were already circling like vultures in his mind.

    Taking his time, Anderson...missed both. Again.

    The Rockets would go on to tie the game and force overtime, eventually winning in the extra period. The Magic never recovered, and Houston swept the Magic on the way to their second championship in as many seasons.

    Anderson was never the same after that horrific Game 1 meltdown—his free throw average plummeted to 40 percent in 1996-97, and he was often taken out toward the end of close games so that he wouldn't have to head to the stripe with the game on the line.

    There are few times more nerve-wracking than free throws at the death of crucial games. It's enough to make a seasoned veteran—which Anderson was at the time—as knock-kneed as a teenager who just smoked his first cigarette. He caved in to the pressure, and his career was never really right afterward.

Penalty Kick — Football

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    What does a player think about during that interminable walk from the halfway line, where just seconds before he stood arm-in-arm with his teammates, to the little dot twelve yards from goal that will decide his fate.

    Does he pick his spot, thinking back to the thousands of times he's taken penalties toward the end of practice? But there weren't thousands of screaming fans willing him to miss back then. Maybe he attempts to steel himself, donning the requisite mental armor needed to complete the task.

    Emotions run overboard during penalty shootouts, which are much maligned by some critics, who believe it's a dastardly way to end a match.

    Obviously those would-be dissenters have never spent 120 minutes running up and down a pitch, their energy reserves withering to the point of no return. There simply comes a point where your body cannot take any more toil. Enter the penalty kick. Imperfect solution? Yes. But the best option available at present.

    Grown men hold their heads in their hands, shielding their eyes from viewing, so pent-up with worry that they can't even afford a glance at the action unfolding around them. The subsequent roar or moan will tell them all they need to know, anyway.

    If a penalty is well-struck and well-placed, there should be no chance for a keeper to save it.

    But you'd be surprised how quickly that would-be advantage for the kicker dissipates in the wake of the incessant din buzzing about his ears. Something that should be straight-forward, made incredibly difficult.

    A fitting metaphor for life, no? Incredible what the mind can do to a man.

Last-Second Field Goal Kick — Football

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    Michigan State kicker Dan Conroy must have been fighting back butterflies as he awaited his turn to (potentially) head out for a last-gasp field goal in what was a 31-31 epic showdown between the host Spartans and Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday.

    In the end, he never had to step out onto the field during that enthralling encounter—well he did, but it was to celebrate, not decide the outcome of the game (the Spartans won on an improbable last-second Hail Mary touchdown).

    Still, had his number been called, his nerves would have been frayed to an indiscernible mush. All eyes on him, so to speak.

    Kickers are subject to a heavy dosage of jabbing and backstabbing, but they do hold the key to unlocking some of the most tightly-wound football games.

    Cameras follow their every move on the sideline, as they kick ball after ball into a net, waiting for their stab at glory while their team drives down the field in an attempt to get into the kicker's range.

    Once that ball is snapped, locked into position by the back-up quarterback, and booted, the pigskin sent spinning into the air, all hopes are put on hold for a matter of seconds.

    Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But for a little while, hearts are in mouths, pulses pounding frantically. A true feeling of being alive.

Two Outs, Bottom of the Ninth — Baseball

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    There are few moments more enduring than the last out recorded to win a World Series.

    While a ground out or fly out are just as effective, the strikeout enters an entirely separate echelon, its unequaled power to generate peals of victory-tinged shouting its entry ticket.

    The pitch sailing into the catcher's glove, just missed by the bat swung viciously through the strike zone in the hope that the inning might last just a little longer if contact is made.

    The weight of the world on the pitcher's shoulders, who in Brian Wilson's case, had all of America watching this final delivery in the 2010 World Series.

    He could succumb to the pressure of the moment, or he could carve his name into the annals of baseball lore by getting the out.

    Thankfully, for Giants fans, he did the latter and delivered the first World Series title to the organization since 1954.

Final Putt on the 18th Green — Golf

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    Back when Tiger ruled the golfing world, even this unfathomably difficult putt seemed nothing more than a round at the practice range for the Stanford grad who dominated the sport in 2000 with a thoroughness rarely seen before, and never since.

    Needing to sink the 60-footer on the final hole at Sawgrass to force a playoff in the PGA Championship (which he would go on to win), Tiger had the eyes of not only the spectators in attendance on that sunny August day, but most of America, tuning in to watch a master at work.

    The best athletes have the uncanny capability to chill their veins with ice when it matters most. When others overheat, these guys remain as stoic as monks.

    When Tiger was at his peak, there was no one cooler under pressure on Sunday than the man who so famously dons the iconic red Nike shirt.

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