By: Jay Yeomans
Published: March 17, 2020
Since we have to miss out on a potential tournament run from a senior-laden BYU squad, I thought we could look back at BYU’s deepest run in the dance in honor of birthday boy, Danny Ainge.
Ainge was one of the most dynamic athletes to ever set foot on campus at BYU. Not only was he a world-class basketball player, but he also played three years of Major League Baseball with the Toronto Blue Jays and even took home All-American honors as a high school football player.
After three great seasons at BYU, much was expected from Ainge as a senior, and he delivered. Not only did he take home WAC player of the year, but he also earned consensus All-American and the Wooden Award as the nation’s top player.
By the time the NCAA Tournament rolled around, Ainge was already at the top of the Cougar record book in points, assists, and steals, but he was far from finished.
The first challenge for Ainge and crew came in the way of Ivy League champ and No. 11 seed in the East region, Princeton. Led by guard Steve Mills, the Tiger put up quite a fight, but the Cougars were able to avoid a first-round exit for the third year in a row as they took home a 60-51 victory. Ainge had a strong showing in the win, finishing with a game-high 21 points and five assists while playing all 40 minutes. Fred Roberts also came up big for BYU totaling 19 points and seven rebounds.
Up next was a much bigger test in No. 3 seed UCLA who made it all the way to the championship game the season before. The Bruins were loaded with talent with six future NBA players, but they were no match for Ainge who delivered a remarkable performance as the Cougars came away with a 78-55 win.
Ainge finished with his best scoring night in an NCAA Tournament game, registering 37 points on 14-for-22 shooting from the field and 9-for-10 at the foul line. He did a bit of everything else as well as the Cougars advanced to the round of 16, chipping in with four rebounds, four assists, and three steals in 39 minutes of work. He was helped by Roberts who recorded 17 points and seven rebounds, and Greg Kite who came away with 12 points, 11 rebounds and four big blocks.
After the two wins in Rhode Island, the Cougars were off to Atlanta, Georgia for an East Regional semifinal against Orlando Woolridge, Kelly Tripucka and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
The Irish were an unbelievably talented and sweet-shooting bunch who came into the matchup with 23 wins and the No. 2 seed. They featured not only Tripucka and Woolridge but had four other players who played at the NBA level and eight players who were Parade All-Americans in high school.
Ainge got off to a slow start against John Paxson and a tough Irish defense, recording just two points in the first half as the Cougars fell behind by 10 at the break. But BYU used a balanced attack to get back in the game before Greg Ballif hit an outside shot in the final minute to finally give BYU the lead. Tripucka answered right back with a jumper of his own to give Notre Dame the lead before Ainge made his legendary drive to give the Cougars a stunning 51-50 win.
Thanks to Cougar Rewind on the True Blue Sports YouTube channel we can relive the final minute on the amazing finish.
The magical run would end two days later for Ainge and the Cougars as they fell to Ralph Sampson and the Virginia Cavaliers, 74-60, just one game short of the Final Four, but not before Ainge had cemented himself in Cougar lure with one of the biggest plays in school history.