The top five games in Ultimate Hoops history
Ever since Mike Bibby’s possible game-winner against X Over rattled off the rim for Ball So Hard’s first National Tournament loss in four years, I’ve been thinking about this list.
Whenever I witness a truly great game, I frequently think about where they rank among some of the best games of all-time. When Kris Bryant fielded a ground ball with a huge smile on his face, well aware he was about to secure the Cubs’ first championship in 108 years, one of the first thoughts I had was, “I just witnessed the greatest baseball game ever played.” The same thing happened when I erupted with 65,000 other Vikings fans after Stefon Diggs scored the first-ever walk-off touchdown in regulation in NFL playoff history (a big reason why I decided to write this article was to brag that I was at the Minneapolis Miracle).
During all of the chaotic aftermath of X Over beating Ball So Hard, I couldn’t help but think that I had just witnessed the greatest games in the history of Ultimate Hoops. I wanted to table a top five list for a little while to get some time to think about it. Since today marks three months since that historic game, I thought this would be a perfect time to revisit some of the best UH games I’ve ever seen.
Semifinals of the 2018 Las Vegas National Tournament
By far the best game of last year’s tournament, and in a way, that wasn’t surprising at all. These teams played for the chance to take on Ball So Hard in the championship, and while both teams were supremely talented and played well throughout the tournament, it felt like we were marching toward the inevitability of Ball So Hard getting their fourth straight title. That’s exactly what happened, but it doesn’t take away from the brilliance from this game.
You had the veteran Vegas Ballers, who combined with the Villains to form a Vegas super team in search of their first national title. They faced San Antonio Nation, the tournament debutants that had no fear and came in expecting to contend for a championship. It was a matchup of a team that was long overdue to make it to a championship game versus the new-comers who gave no regard to the home town team and their past grievances.
A lot of times, people mistake great moments or great endings for great games. You don’t need a buzzer-beater for a game to be an instant classic, and this is a good example. The ending is anti-climactic, as San Antonio Nation, trailing by two, took too long to foul Jordan Farmar with 5.4 seconds left in overtime and it looked like the game was over. The refs ended up adding 0.5 seconds onto the clock, and Farmar made both free throws to ice the game.
The reason this game is a classic is because it’s entertaining from start to finish. This was a one-possession game for the majority of the time, as these teams proved to be worthy of a title shot. If you don’t have time to watch the entire game, the best sequence is the final minutes of regulation, followed by the first minute of overtime (start at the 45:47 mark of the live stream).
San Antonio Nation gets a quick bucket from Justin Brickman, who at 5’9” isn’t afraid at all to attack the 6’9” Jerome JYD Williams, cutting their deficit to two points. Then Nikko Maxwell strips Warren Rosegreen to get possession back, which is followed by a long two by Josh Linson that ties the game at 62-62. They end up trading buckets to tie the game at 64 with a minute left.
No more points would be scored, but that doesn’t mean the final minute isn’t entertaining. San Antonio wastes time to try and get the final shot, but a foul forces them to inbound the ball again around half court. The pass goes in to Chris Johnson, and then JYD makes the play of the game by stripping him, diving to the floor, and knocking the ball out of bounds, off San Antonio, to give the Ballers the ball back. They get the final shot, setting up a perfect look for David Bell to win the game, but he misses and sends the game to overtime.
Tony Eackles Jr. starts the overtime period off with a bang, getting an open dunk right off the tip.
“Every time,” Eackles Jr. said about the success of the opening tip play in a post-game interview. “That was a really good start for us, I think it set the tone for overtime, kind of gave me a little bit of juice.”
He took over from there, scoring the Ballers’ first seven points in overtime and nine overall.
“I’m the young buck on the team, so I guess my young legs took over,” he said
San Antonio Nation answered back with buckets early in overtime, including Linson’s sixth and final three of the game to take a one-point lead, but the Ballers were able to make clutch free throws and secure a ticket to the championship game. Linson was incredible in a losing effort, scoring 31 points on 10-20 shooting from the field.
Player of the game - Tony Eackles Jr.: 19 points, three rebounds and one steal on 6-9 shooting from the field and 2-2 from deep.
You can watch the full game here.
Game 5 of the 2018 Dream League Finals
This of course won’t be as familiar for a lot of UN Nation, as it didn’t happen at the national level, but this was a historic game in Dream League history. It was the first time that a Finals series had gone to a winner-take-all Game 5, and it was played between two bitter rivals that met the standards of the multiple Finals between the Lakers and Celtics in the 80s.
It was the league’s best offense in the Griffins (averaging 75.5 points per game), going up against the league’s best defense in the Pilots (57.6 points allowed per game). You had Kurt Koenig and Joe Suek, two similar players in stature with different playing styles going at each other like LeBron and KD in their primes. And to top it all off, you had the animosity between GM’s Alex Mountjoy and Izzy Elkaffas, with both loathing the idea of losing to the other.
The first four games of this series were decided by an average of 6.5 points, so there was a lot of hype leading into Game 5. There was no doubt this was going to be a classic, although it had the look of something else entirely for a large portion of the game.
This game is the antithesis of the San Antonio Nation-Vegas Ballers game. While that one was close throughout, looking like both teams had a chance to win, this one was a blowout for most of the game. The Griffins were in complete control, leading by 13 at halftime and by 20 with 7:49 left in the game.
Walter Ford got an and-one opportunity, missed the free throw, but the Pilots got an offensive board and Ford got another layup to go, cutting the deficit to 16. This was the start of a 14-0 run by the Pilots that would last until the 4:55 mark, when Koenig made a bucket to end the long drought for the Griffins. The Griffins were shell-shocked, and things looked grim when Adam Hoven, who averaged 13.4/13.9/5.8 on the season, fouled out with 5:47 left in the game.
“When Hoven fouled out, I was so mad at that dude,” Mountjoy said in a post-game interview. Mountjoy said he felt “sick” when the Pilots cut the deficit to six, thinking his team was letting a championship slip away.
The teams went back and fourth and the Pilots eventually cut the deficit to three, as they trailed 64-61 with 17 seconds to go. Neither team had a timeout left, so the Griffins inbounded the ball quickly to Chris Holloway. He was expecting to be fouled, but the Pilots trapped instead and he ended up dribbling out of bounds with 13.1 on the clock.
It was all setting up for the Pilots to come all the way back from a 20-point deficit and force overtime, with Holloway looking like the goat of the game. He was saved however by Ahmed Helmy, who had a J.R. Smith type moment. He was well aware of the score, but it didn’t seem like he knew how much time was left, as he heaved up a contested 3 with eight seconds left, plenty of time to find a cleaner look. Holloway got the rebound, got fouled, made one free throw and the Griffins won the title.
This was a pretty forgettable game at times, but those final eight minutes were enthralling, watching the Pilots comeback quickly to add multitudes of drama. It’s unfortunate that the game ended with a brutal mistake instead of a great play, but that’s how the game works sometimes.
This game ended up aging well for the Pilots, as they went on to win the 2019 Dream League title, with Helmy as the GM.
Player of the game - Kurtis Koenig: 17 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and three steals on 6-17 shooting from the field.
You can watch the full game here.
Championship of the 2013 Las Vegas National Tournament
You may remember this game for the three most famous (or infamous) words in Ultimate Hoops history: Block or charge?
I personally have never seen this game in its entirety, I only have the final 5.3 seconds of it, but it would’ve been blasphemy for me not to include this on the list. You really don’t even need to see the whole game to know just how awesome this game was; the 3:13 clip on YouTube does it enough justice.
Everything about these final 5.3 seconds is brilliant.
First, you get the play itself. Everyone knows the Bulls are going to inbound the ball to Paris Kyles, and The Decision do a decent job of initially denying him the ball. Kyles does a good job of improvising and running up the court, and Dwayne Toatley lofts a perfect pass that hits Kyles in stride, allowing him to get a head of steam and get to the bucket in about three seconds.
Then you get Marco Clark as the last line of defense. He shifts his body into the lane to get in front of Kyles at the last second, and appears to have his body set for a half second before Kyles runs into him. It was a great play design by the Bulls, and a great effort from Clark to start the debate.
Next, chaos ensues. The original call is a block, which gets overruled to a charge. This gets the three refs to meet at half court, with players from both teams starting to hound them that they made the wrong call. Not only do you have players in the game on the floor, but you get players from both benches on the floor and even a fan (Jazz Williams) to join in the argument. The refs are only focused on making this history-altering call, but they really could’ve given out multiple technicals.
The best portion of this video comes at the 1:14 mark. The refs have been meeting for 45 seconds and people start to handle the situation differently. In the corner of the video you see Kyles standing at the free-throw line, practicing his form as if he already knows the refs are going to rule in his favor. Then you get a couple voices yelling to, “Go to the video!” This is hilarious. Not only do we only have one angle for the refs to look at, but even in the NBA, this play is not reviewable. The only way this could be overturned is if Clark was in the restricted zone. You can’t review foul calls. But there’s a national championship on the line, emotions are running high, I get it.
Ronnie Kennedy gives the final verdict at 1:39 of the video and calls it a block. Geno Phelps erupts. Anthony Byrd can’t believe it. Kyles is already at the line, but The Decision aren’t giving up that easy. You get three different Decision players hounding the ref at the line, with Kyles patiently awaiting his two shots. You have Phelps and Ryann Little, both not on the floor when the foul happened, in the middle of the court making their cases to the refs (again, it’s hilarious that not technicals were given out).
You finally get Kyles to the line a full 2:23 after the foul actually occurred. The Decision have a one-point lead, and you’d think with all of the time that was spent arguing, Kyles may have gotten cold and might end up missing at least one of these free throws. Kyles is a career 73% free-throw shooter, so there’s no guarantee here. But Kyles was a first-ballot Hall of Famer for a reason. He buries both free throws like it’s nothing to give the Bulls the lead.
Possibly the most-overlooked part of this video is that Wes McKenzie gets a clean look from half court and misses just short of making what would have been the craziest shot in Ultimate Hoops history. The call of block or charge immediately becomes irrelevant if that shot goes in, and we’re looking at this in a completely different context.
Either way, the Bulls won to secure back-to-back titles, and The Decision would go on to win in 2014 when the Bulls took a year off. It all feels fair in the end, but it’s still fun to debate even six years later. I initially thought it was a charge when I first saw the video and felt that way for years. I’ve rewatched it over a dozen times for this article and I think it’s a block now. It seems like there wasn’t a wrong call to make, which just adds to the fun.
Player of the game - Paris Kyles: 33 points, five rebounds, four assists and one steal on 10-18 shooting from the field.
Championship of the 2018 New York National Tournament
This one feels like it’s becoming underrated in the year since it happened. With the craziness we saw in Vegas this year, it’s easy to forget what happened in New York, especially because the Vegas tournament is still the biggest event we have every year. But this game is an all-timer, and the circumstances that surrounded it before the game even started helped elevate it.
You had two Bulls teams from Minnesota, who were convinced they could both make it to the championship to make sure the title was coming back to Twin Cities. They ended up meeting in the semifinals, with the Bulls beating TD Bulls 66-61. Phelps decided to split up Kyles and Brensley Haywood and create two A-teams. It was Haywood and the Bulls that bested Kyles and the TD Bulls, setting up a meeting with the DMV Ballers.
The DMV Ballers took most people (myself included) by surprise last year. Coming into the tournament, it felt like it was there for one of the Minnesota teams, or the Thundercats, to win. The DMV Ballers played in Vegas in 2018 and went 1-2. They added Byron Mouton and Brandon Allen to the mix, and everything changed. After going 2-0 in pool play, they narrowly escaped LA KIXX in the quarterfinals, and then they outlasted the Thundercats in a thrilling semifinal.
For a while, it felt like the DMV Ballers were a questionable 1-seed. They defeated the 9 and 10-seeds in pool play, and they barely escaped a quarterfinals game against the 8-seed. Their win over the defending champs solidified their status as a contender, and they convinced all of us that they were deserving of playing for a championship.
I’ll always remember this as the “Byron Mouton Game”. I don’t think I’ve seen a UH game get single-handily taken over by a player more than this one. Ish Kamara scored a layup with 7:33 left in regulation to make the score 50-49 in favor of the Bulls. Mouton scored the rest of the DMV Ballers’ points in regulation, getting the game to overtime at 59-59. He also made a 3 to start overtime, so he scored 13 straight points over the course of eight minutes.
“I was feeling great, man. I told these guys that I feel like I could score on every possession,” Mouton said in a post-game interview. “If we need a bucket man, I guarantee I can make something happen.”
For games that I do play-by-play for, I can tell how good the game was by how much I raised my voice throughout. I can’t remember a game that got me as excited as this one did for a long period of time. There were multiple times in the end of regulation and in the end of the first overtime period where either team could’ve gotten a buzzer beater, and I was screaming during each one. At the end of the first overtime, I had to stand up to commentate because I literally couldn’t sit any more.
The Bulls had multiple chances for a game-winning shot and couldn’t convert. Caleb Willis missed a chance at the end of regulation, Koenig missed a chance near the end of overtime, Marquise Walker got an offensive rebound and a timeout, and Willis missed a good look at a 3 to win the game.
Once it got to a second overtime, the DMV Ballers were able to kill the game at the free-throw line. The ending wasn’t perfect, but there was over an hour of entertaining basketball with some amazing sequences. That easily makes it worthy of being on the list.
Player of the game - Byron Mouton: 26 points, six rebounds, two assists, one steal and one block on 9-13 shooting from the field.
You can watch the full game here.
Semifinals of the 2019 Las Vegas National Tournament
Yes, it is the best game in Ultimate Hoops history. Not only was it the most entertaining game that we’ve ever seen, but it also had the most significance.
Coming into the tournament, I was as convinced as I’ve ever been that Ball So Hard was going to walk to a title. Vegas disbanded their super team from a year before, Southern California wasn’t going to bring out Josh Childress and company and the Bulls’ chances of competing with Ball So Hard had been long gone. X Over was coming in as the second-best team, and while they did defeat Fine Wine (a lite version of Ball So Hard) in Scottsdale Open title game in Fall of 2018, they hadn’t done it at a national level, with Dermain Crockrell at the helm and the rest of the insanely deep roster.
People hate super teams, and people get bored of sustained success. Ball So Hard was the epitome of both of those traits, and it felt like most people continued to tune in to watch them, hoping they would eventually lose. This was the wish that finally got granted, and it came true in the craziest of ways.
The very first possession of this game got things started with a bang, as Tevin Kelly got completely rejected by Dwight Pederson. Ball So Hard got out to a 5-0 lead and it felt like we were heading for the inevitable finish we all expected. X Over came right back, and the two teams got involved in a full throttle first half that ended with X Over leading 51-43.
The second half did not start well for X Over, as they went over five minutes without scoring, letting Ball So Hard go on a 9-0 run and take a one-point lead early in the half. It was great for a neutral viewer, as it led to the rest of the game being either a one or two-possession game.
The main reason this game gets remembered is for Kelly’s game-winning shot, which it should, but the entire final 30 seconds are encapsulating, and it feels like it all happens in a matter of milliseconds.
With just over 30 seconds left, Crockrell turns the ball over to give X Over possession. They inbound to Fred Dudley, who starts to recklessly bolt up the sideline with Alex Scales tightly guarding him. Despite having two timeouts, X Over doesn’t use one, Dudley throws the ball away and Ball So Hard gets the ball back, trailing 77-76 with 26.2 seconds left.
Ball So Hard gets the ball to Crockrell, who drives hard into the lane and forces X Over to pack the paint. He kicks it out to Curtis Millage, who quickly makes an extra pass to a wide open Alex Scales in the corner who buries the 3, putting Ball So Hard up 79-77.
You know the rest. Kelly gets the ball, executes a devastating step back (or push off? Kelly did admit to Izzy in a post-game interview that he did shove Crockrell a little bit) on Crockrell to burry the greatest shot in UH history. Crockrell gets back up, quickly drives down the floor and feeds Bibby right before the buzzer. He got a good look, Lavione West contests the shot well, it clanks off the rim and bedlam ensues at Green Valley.
i don’t know if this is just me, but my body starts to forget how to function when I witness something truly unbelievable. It happened during the Minneapolis Miracle, as tears rolled down my face and I couldn’t stop screaming out of disbelief.
It happened during the final seconds of this game too. My voice is unrecognizable to me on the broadcast, as I lost complete control of my volume. After the final buzzer, with X Over players in full celebration, I couldn’t move from my chair. I sat in disbelief, my body shaking from excitement over what I had just witnessed. That doesn’t happen every day, and that’s the main reason why this game is the greatest in Ultimate Hoops history.
Player of the game - Tevin Kelly: 18 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals and one block on 5-11 shooting.
You can watch the full game here.