ESPN’s team of college writers and reporters has seen some things. In a world in which collegiate athletics are on indefinite hiatus, denying us not only March Madness and spring football but also iconic events such as baseball’s College World Series and softball’s Women’s College World Series, our group was enlisted to reflect on the top players, teams and performances that have marked their many decades of collective coverage. All college sports were on the table, but like their MLB colleagues, our writers were bound by one rule: They had to have seen the moments in person.
Up next in our weeklong series: the top individual performances our group witnessed during their many years in the business.
Chris Low: As a college junior at the University of Tennessee, I drove to meet my dad for a Maryland-North Carolina basketball game in Chapel Hill in 1986. He surprised me with the tickets. Len Bias put on a show for the ages that night with 35 points and rallied the Terps to a 77-72 overtime win. It was the Tar Heels’ first loss in the Dean Dome. We were sitting up behind the goal where Bias stole the inbounds pass and threw down the reverse dunk late in regulation. In my lifetime, I’ve seen few players at the collegiate level who could compare with Bias. Sadly, he was dead less than four months later. It’s a bittersweet memory but one I will never forget, getting to see the greatness of Bias in person and being there with my dad.
Ryan McGee: Deshaun Watson, 2017 CFP National Championship. Nick Saban had never lost a game at Alabama after he had a double-digit lead entering the fourth quarter, and Bama led 24-14. But Watson hung 21 points on the Tide, including that masterful final drive, to win 35-31. I bet Tide DB Tony Brown still wakes up in cold sweats over how Watson got so into his head — and how the “rub” got so in his way — at the end of that game.
On Jan. 9, 2017, Deshaun Watson puts Clemson ahead with a 2-yard touchdown to Hunter Renfrow to win the CFP National Championship.
Heather Dinich: I watched Watson with McGee that year, and he was indeed masterful (Watson, not McGee). More impressive, though, was what we just saw from LSU quarterback Joe Burrow in a jaw-dropping, record-setting performance in the national title game against Clemson. Burrow threw five touchdown passes and ran for another, leading LSU to 628 yards and six touchdowns against a defense that had allowed 264 yards and 11.5 points per game. Light that cigar, Joe.
Joe Burrow outduels Trevor Lawrence as he passes for 463 yards and five touchdowns while adding another TD on the ground to lead LSU to a 42-25 defeat of Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Mechelle Voepel: Texas Tech’s Sheryl Swoopes took over the 1993 NCAA season, capped by 47 points in her team’s 84-82 championship game victory over Ohio State. Her 47 points and 16 field goals are still records for the NCAA Women’s Final Four. She averaged 28.1 points per game in the regular season, 31.0 points in the Southwest Conference tournament and 35.4 points in the NCAA tournament. She was likely the best defender in the country too. She went on to be the WNBA’s defensive player of the year three times, along with being a three-time MVP.
Andrea Adelson: It was early in the 2016 season, and Lamar Jackson was relatively unknown outside Louisville and the ACC. But that changed on a warm day in mid-September, when Jackson absolutely owned No. 2 Florida State. I had watched Jackson’s career develop, but this was the first time I got to see him in person — and against a team with a national reputation for stellar defense, no less. Everybody knew Florida State. Nobody knew Lamar Jackson.
From the start, everything flipped. Jackson ran for four touchdowns (and threw for one) and had 362 total yards in Louisville’s jaw-dropping 63-20 win over the Seminoles. His speed against one of the fastest teams in the country was on another level. His body control was remarkable. Everybody on the field seemed to be going in slow motion, and he was going 10 times faster. By the time it was over, nobody recognized Florida State anymore. All eyes were on Lamarvelous.
Graham Hays: I’m willing to bet no other athlete on this list played for nearly eight straight hours. Washington softball pitcher Danielle Lawrie was the national player of the year for the No. 3 overall seed in the 2009 NCAA tournament. But forced to travel to UMass for a regional, the Huskies were on the brink of elimination after Lawrie threw 144 pitches in a loss in the regional final. After a 30-minute break, she returned and pitched 15 more innings in the winner-take-all finale that lasted more than five hours. Her total for the day: 22 innings, 32 strikeouts and 395 pitches. Season saved — Washington went on to win the national championship.
Ivan Maisel: It would be easy to talk about when I saw Reggie Bush collect 513 all-purpose yards against Fresno State in 2005 or Danny Manning go for 31 points and 18 boards in Kansas’ NCAA championship win over Oklahoma in 1988. But the most dominant performance I ever saw came two years ago, when I went to a Stanford dual swimming meet against Arizona so that I could say I saw Katie Ledecky swim. I think the rest of the pool just finished. Actually, I looked it up: She swam a 9:19 and won by 28 seconds. All I can tell you is that Ledecky took 14 strokes to swim the length of the pool. Everyone else took 16. She was mesmerizing.
Mark Schlabach: I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a greater individual performance than what I witnessed at a 2004 NCAA baseball regional at Foley Field in Athens, Georgia. Over the course of three days, Georgia shortstop Jeff Keppinger put his team on his back and carried the Bulldogs to a regional title. After losing the first game of the regional, the Bulldogs won four in a row, including an 8-7 victory over Coastal Carolina in the final. Keppinger hit three home runs in that game, including a two-run shot with two outs in the top of the ninth.
After Keppinger hit solo homers in the first and fifth innings, I’m not sure why the Chanticleers pitched to him in the ninth. With UGA trailing 7-6, Keppinger knew he was going to hit it out, and so did everyone else at the stadium that day. Keppinger led the Bulldogs to the College World Series, hitting .500 with nine homers and 16 RBIs in 10 NCAA tournament games in 2004.
Jeff Borzello: Kemba Walker had the best individual run I’ve ever seen, followed by Shabazz Napier, with both players carrying UConn teams to national championships. But in terms of one-game performance, there was no more impressive performance than Purdue’s Carsen Edwards against Virginia in the 2019 Elite Eight.
It came in a losing effort, but Edwards had 42 points and 10 3-pointers to nearly carry the Boilermakers to the Final Four. His 10th 3-pointer, a contested bank shot with just over a minute left in regulation, forced the normally stoic Tony Bennett to rip up the play card he keeps in the breast pocket of his sports jacket. Bennett was putting different defenders on Edwards, going bigger and longer with De’Andre Hunter or shorter and quicker with Kihei Clark. But it didn’t matter. Edwards was poised to have one of the greatest NCAA tournament runs in the history of the sport, as that Elite Eight game was the second time Edwards scored 42 points in the tournament. He made 28 3-pointers in four tourney games. Edwards was on another planet for those two weeks, and every shot he took — and made — was more ridiculous.
Adam Rittenberg: Before the 2019 football season, I wrote a long story looking back at Ndamukong Suh‘s 2009 season at Nebraska, a chunk of which spotlighted his transcendent performance against Texas in the Big 12 championship game. I didn’t witness that game, but I was fortunate to see a defensive performance that rivaled it from Ohio State’s Chase Young against Wisconsin.
Young recorded four sacks, five tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in Ohio State’s 38-7 win. He tied Ohio State’s single-game records for sacks and tackles for loss. And he did it against a Wisconsin team that prides itself on offensive line play but had no answers for No. 2. I’ll never forget seeing defensive line coach Larry Johnson walking off the field with his family afterward. Johnson, who has coached first-round picks at Penn State and Ohio State, called it the best individual performance he had seen from a defensive lineman.
Harry Lyles Jr.: The last time the Final Four was in Atlanta (2013), Louisville’s Luke Hancock put on a show. He finished the national championship game against Michigan with 22 points, helping secure the title everybody knew the Cardinals were going to win. But his four 3-pointers in the final three minutes of the first half were simply amazing. Michigan came into that game hot and on an impressive tournament run, but it still felt weird that they held a 35-23 first-half lead over the Cardinals. Hancock erased that lead quickly, not just making four 3-pointers but also knocking them down on consecutive possessions to set Louisville up for a successful second half. That is how you earn the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.
Joe Lunardi: Reggie Miller has nothing on Marvin O’Connor. On March 3, 2001, in the regular-season finale at La Salle, the Saint Joseph’s guard scored 18 points in 57.5 seconds to nearly upend the Explorers. La Salle led 80-70 with a minute to play before O’Connor went off in an eventual 91-90 Saint Joe’s defeat. O’Connor finished with a career-high 37 points, a total he matched two weeks later in a second-round NCAA tournament loss to top-ranked Stanford.
Myron Medcalf: North Dakota State was barely three years into its Division I transition when it faced Minnesota, former head coach Tim Brewster’s Gophers, at the Metrodome in 2007. I swear NDSU ran the same play over and over: simple dive off the right tackle about 100 times. This running back named Tyler Roehl, who was picked up as an undrafted free agent by the Seattle Seahawks a few years later (and is now the Bison’s offensive coordinator), rushed for 263 yards on 22 carries (12.0 yards per run) against a Big Ten defense. It was incredible.