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Anything’s possible, as these epic upsets show

Just because UCLA is a 31-point underdog to Oregon in Friday night’s Pac-12 football championship game and has virtually no chance of winning Coach Rick Neuheisel’s farewell game does not mean the Bruins are without hope.

They can draw inspiration from U.S. wrestler Rulon Gardner, who stunned Alexander Karelin for the Greco-Roman heavyweight gold medal in the 2000 Olympics, ending the Russian’s string of three consecutive Olympic gold medals and seven straight world titles.

And tiny Chaminade University, which pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in college basketball history with a 77-72 victory over Ralph Sampson’s top-ranked Virginia team in the 1982 Maui Invitational.

And the U.S. men’s soccer team, which beat world power England, 1-0, in the 1950 World Cup — it was called the “Miracle on Grass” — after losing its previous seven international matches by the combined score of 45-2.

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Neuheisel can motivate his players by pointing to brash quarterback Joe Namath, who predicted and then willed his New York Jets past the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, and the New York Mets, who won the 1969 World Series just seven years after losing 120 games in their inaugural 1962 season.

The sports landscape is sprinkled with major upsets — the meaning of the word has popularly been attributed to the surprising defeat of the great horse Man O’ War by a 100-to-1 longshot named Upset in the 1919 Sanford Stakes at Saratoga.

So why not UCLA over Oregon? The odds are just as long, but as Bruins wide receiver Taylor Embree said, “Why not go out and shock the world?”

If they did — if the Ducks come up lame against a lame-duck coach and UCLA sends Neuheisel out a winner — it would be one of the most shocking upsets in recent sports history and added to this list of Crazy Eights:

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Miracle on ice

The Soviet hockey team was a world power in 1980, having won four straight Olympic gold medals in the Cold War era from 1964-76. The U.S. team, coached by Herb Brooks, was made up of little-known amateur and college players.

But with a flag-waving, patriotic song-singing crowd energizing the Field House in Lake Placid, N.Y., the U.S. scored two third-period goals, including Mike Eruzione’s game-winner with 10 minutes left, and held off a furious Soviet rally for a dramatic 4-3 win in a medal-round game.

As time expired, sportscaster Al Michaels delivered his famous call: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” The U.S. went on to beat Finland for the gold medal, and in 1999, Sports Illustrated named the Miracle on Ice the top sports moment of the 20th century.

Far East beast

Mike Tyson won his first 19 professional bouts by knockout, 12 in the first round, and most fight fans figured the feared heavyweight champion would make quick work of James “Buster” Douglas, a 42-1 underdog, in Tokyo on Feb. 11, 1990.

A knockout by Tyson was such a foregone conclusion that the Mirage was the only Las Vegas casino to make odds on the fight.

Douglas, using his 12-inch reach advantage, dominated the fight with the exception of the eighth round, when Tyson landed a right uppercut that knocked him down.

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But Douglas got to his feet and pummeled Tyson with a flurry of punches for a 10th-round knockout that produced the enduring image from the fight, a dazed Tyson on his knees, his mouthpiece dangling from his lips.

Wildcat strike

Few experts gave Villanova, seeded eighth and with a 19-10 record, a chance in the 1985 NCAA basketball title game against top-seeded defending national champion Georgetown, with a 35-2 record and a menacing presence in center Patrick Ewing.

But on April Fools’ night in Lexington, Ky., in the last final to be played without a shot clock, the Wildcats threw a near-perfect game at the Hoyas, shooting an astonishing 78.6% (22 for 28) in a 66-64 upset of their Big East conference rivals.

The 14 players who dressed that night for Villanova, including leading scorers Dwayne McClain and Ed Pinckney, are immortalized in a 150-foot-long mural just inside the main entrance to the Pavilion, where the Wildcats play their home games.

Mountain climbers

Michigan’s football team was ranked fifth in the nation and was a 27-point favorite over Appalachian State when the teams met on Sept. 1, 2007, at Michigan Stadium.

The Wolverines took a 32-31 lead late in the fourth quarter, but the Mountaineers kicked a field goal with 27 seconds left for a 34-32 lead and blocked Michigan kicker Jason Gingell’s 36-yard field-goal attempt as time expired for the first-ever win by a Division I-AA team over a ranked Division I-A team.

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Back in Boone, N.C., Appalachian State students celebrated by climbing a fence at Kidd Brewer Stadium, tearing down a goal post and depositing it into the front yard of school Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, who was in Ann Arbor for the game.

Patriot missiles

The New England Patriots, led by MVP quarterback Tom Brady, were poised to complete a perfect NFL season when they took an 18-0 record into Super Bowl XLII against the wild-card entrant New York Giants in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 3, 2008.

The Patriots took a 7-3 lead into the fourth quarter, but Giants quarterback Eli Manning threw two touchdown passes, including a 13-yard game-winner to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left, to lift New York to the stunning 17-14 victory.

Brady had put New England up, 14-10, with a six-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss with 2:42 left, but Manning drove the Giants 83 yards, the key play a scramble-and-heave for a 32-yard gain. David Tyree made a leaping catch on the play, pinning the ball against his helmet as he fell to the ground.

Idiot savants

No major league baseball team had won a seven-game series after losing the first three games. And the Boston Red Sox, dubbed a bunch of “idiots” by their own Johnny Damon, were in no position to do so after losing to the New York Yankees, 19-8, in Game 3 of the 2004 American League Championship Series.

Three outs away from elimination and facing the greatest closer in baseball history, Kevin Millar led off the ninth inning with a walk against Mariano Rivera. Pinch-runner Dave Roberts stole second and scored the tying run on Bill Mueller’s single.

David Ortiz won it with a two-run homer in the 12th, and his run-scoring single in the 14th gave the Red Sox a Game 5 win. Boston won Games 6 and 7 in New York and went on to sweep St. Louis in the World Series for its first championship since 1918.

Gold diggers

The Seattle SuperSonics won a franchise-record 63 games in 1994, and the Denver Nuggets were 42-40. When Seattle won the first two playoff games between the teams, it appeared it would sweep the best-of-five first-round series.

But the Nuggets, led by Dikembe Mutombo’s record 31 blocked shots in the series, won the next three games, going into overtime in Seattle for a 98-94 win in the clincher, to become the first eighth-seeded team to defeat a No. 1 in the NBA playoffs.

The prevailing image of the series was a young Mutombo lying on the floor, holding a ball above his head and yelling and crying.

“I don’t like to be rude, but these are the playoffs,” Mutombo said before Game 5. “Nobody invites you into their house. You just have to go in and get comfortable.”

Miracle on Manchester

The Edmonton Oilers were the NHL’s most potent team in 1981-82, with a stable of youngsters, including a high-scoring 21-year-old named Wayne Gretzky, who formed the nucleus of a club that would win five Stanley Cups from 1984-90.

They were heavily favored to beat the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs, but in Game 3 at the Forum, the Kings completed the largest comeback in NHL playoff history, erasing a 5-0 third-period deficit for a 6-5 overtime win.

Steve Bozek’s goal tied the score with five seconds left in regulation, Daryl Evans’ goal won it in overtime, and the Kings went on to win the best-of-five series with a 7-4 Game 5 victory.

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

twitter.com/MikeDiGiovanna


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