Today in Sports History: March 26th

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(Magic and Bird a day before the big game. Photo by Jerome McLendon, AP)

3/26/1973 - The redhead comes up large

In the 1973 NCAA Championship Game, Bill Walton had what most sport writers consider the greatest performance in college basketball history. The UCLA center went 21-22 from the field for a final-game record 44 points. His Bruins handled Memphis State 87-66, giving them their seventh consecutive national championship and their ninth in ten years. It was their 75th straight win.

"Coach Wooden tells me that he always thought I was a great basketball player until I missed that one shot," Walton said years later.

"We tried everything on him -- we had players double-teaming him, we even put players in front and in back of him," said Memphis coach Gene Bartow. "But somehow they always found a way to get the ball to him."

Walton would've scored even more had dunking the ball not been illegal back then. "Realistically, I was 25 of 26 because they did take four baskets away from me," he said.

3/26/1979 - Bird and Magic, for the first time

Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the star player on Michigan State, and Larry Bird, the leading scorer on undefeated Indiana State, face each other for the first time as their teams play in the championship game of the NCAA basketball tournament. The anticipation to see two of the best players in the country was intense, partly because it was 1979, and with only a few channels on the dial, many had never seen Larry or Magic before.

Bird and Johnson were as different from each other as humanly possible. Magic, who earned his nickname from a sportswriter who saw him play in high school, was gregarious, charismatic, upbeat, and black. Larry was quiet, reclusive from the media, nonchalant, and white. Michigan State beat Indiana State, 75-64, in a rather unexciting tournament finale -- but the buildup to see them play was so strong that the game received a 24.1 Nielsen rating anyway; it is still the highest-rated basketball game ever, pro or college level.

For that reason and more, the '79 final is considered the most influential basketball game of all time. Bird and Magic were later drafted onto the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers and routinely met in the NBA Finals throughout the 1980's. Their renewed rivalry in the NBA, which had been kick-started in the NCAA, helped expand the National Basketball Association from a second-tier sports league to one of the big four in the United States. It had a similar effect on the NCAA tournament, which had struggled for years to find its niche. Never again would a college basketball game of such importance air on tape delay, as that one did.

The championship game also did wonders for ESPN, which launched just six months later. Without a license to air NFL or MLB games, the first ever 24/7 sports channel survived by airing college basketball games nonstop. Through the rising popularity of the "worldwide leader in sports," every NCAA tournament game was televised, raising the significance and intensity of "March Madness" to a whole new level. Just a few years later, CBS spent millions of dollars to nationally broadcast every single tournament game -- an occurence which would have never happened without Bird and Magic.

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(Illinois celebrates as Arizona guard Jawann McClellan weeps. Photo by David E. Klutho, Getty Images)

3/26/2005 - Illinois comes back against Arizona

With only four minutes remaining in their Elite Eight matchup, the Arizona Wildcats had a commanding 15-point lead over No. 1 Illinois. But in one of the most memorable tournament comebacks ever, the Fighting Illini outscored Arizona 20-5 in the remainder of regulation, tying the game at 80 on a Deron Williams three with 38 seconds left. The game went to overtime, where Illinois maintained the momentum and held on for a gut-wrenching 90-89 victory. Illinois advanced to their first Final Four appearance in sixteen years, while Arizona went home in devastating fashion.

"We just kept fighting. We never gave up," said Deron Williams, who finished with 22 points and 10 assists "It looked like the game was over. ... We've got to keep going, keep playing. I'm trying to tell my teammates out on the floor 'This game's not over. There's still some time, we can still get it down, chip away.' We ended up getting the momentum, the crowd into it and we were able to take the game over."

Illinois went on to beat Louisville in the Final Four, moving their season record to 37-1. Louisville, fittingly, had gotten where they were by overcoming a 19-point deficit against West Virginia on the same day as Illinois' comeback. In the championship game, the Illini were able to keep it close, but in the end they fell, 75-70, to North Carolina.

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