It seems that every time a huge upset occurs in American sports, it is immediately compared to the 1980 Miracle on Ice when the United States upset the Soviet Union in the Winter Olympic hockey tournament and the Miracle on the Mat, Rulon Gardner’s upset over Aleksandr Karelin of Russia to win the 130 kg gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. When Mississippi State ended UConn’s 111 game winning streak in women’s basketball Friday night in the national semi-finals, another wave of comparisons ensued. Having written about Rulon/Karelin before, I wanted to see if there was any validity to these comparisons.
UConn’s women’s basketball team came into the game riding a 111 game winning streak that stretched back 867 days to their November 17th, 2014 loss to Stanford. The Huskies had won four consecutive national titles. Karelin had not lost internationally in 13 years when he finally fell to Gardner. At one point during that streak, he had not given up a single point in six years. From 1988 through 1999, the Russian Bear won the 130 kg gold medal at the Olympics or world championships every single year. Edge Karelin/Gardner.
Gardner had finished fifth in the 1997 world championships, where he lost to Karelin 6-0, but that had been his only trip to a world-level championship event before he headed to Sydney. Mississippi State entered the NCAA tournament as a two seed in their region, which means they should have been somewhere between fifth and eighth best in the country. They were ranked seventh in the last edition of both the AP Top 25 and the USA Today Coaches Poll. They did lose to UConn in last year’s Sweet 16 by 60. Slight Edge UConn/Mississippi State
Level of Competition
Long streaks of domination look different in different sports. Going undefeated in college football, for example, is difficult, but doing it in professional baseball is completely impossible. Karelin’s 12 world level championships is four more than any other Greco-Roman wrestler, a sport which has been holding championships since 1896 and has not missed a year since 1959. No one else has ever won more than seven in a row. UConn’s four titles in a row is also an all-time record, though they had won three in a row from 2002-2004 and Tennessee won three in a row from 1996 to 1998. The NCAA has only had a national tournament for women’s basketball since 1982, but if you add in the AIAW, which held a national championship tournament from 1972 to 1981, you can add in Immaculata (1972-74) and Delta State (1975-77) as schools that won three titles in a row. Connecticut has posted back to back perfect seasons before, in 2009 and 2010 during a 90 game winning streak, but no other team has done so in the NCAA era. The title streak favors Karelin, but no other program has come close to winning 111 in a row in women’s basketball either. Slight Edge Karelin/Gardner.
Why They May Have Been Vulnerable
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma thought his team would be vulnerable this year after 2016 seniors Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck went one, two, three in last year’s WNBA draft. Stewart was the Wade Trophy winner, the Division I player of the year, for the second time. Jefferson was the defensive player of the year. However, the Huskies reloaded and were 36-0 with just three wins coming by single digits entering Friday night. Karelin had just turned 33 when he took the mat in Sydney. He had not given up a point in the 2000 Olympic tournament when he reached the finals, but he also had not won by fall or tech fall, a staple in his earlier days. Push
Unlike the Miracle on Ice and the Mississippi State/UConn game, Karelin/Gardner was the final in Sydney. When Gardner won, that was it, there was no additional game to be played where the story could get messed up. Rulon was the gold medalist having pulled the giant upset on the sport’s biggest stage. Mississippi State will face South Carolina on Sunday night in the national title game. While a win in the national semi-finals is still huge, the fact that it is college competition versus international has to be a factor. Edge Gardner/Karelin
Both of these upsets were enormous and I’ll always remember where I was when I watched them unfold. Still, Gardner over Karelin holds a substantial edge when you break down the facts. Neither UConn nor Karelin was quite as good as they had been earlier in their respective runs, but they were still incredibly strong. The upstarts that took them down wouldn’t have been at the top of most people’s list to do so, but that is part of what makes these upsets so great. Celebrate what Mississippi State did on Friday night, you can even put it in the conversation of great sports upsets if you like. Just don’t put it ahead of Gardner/Karelin. The Miracle on the Mat still stands tall.