Year in review: The best sports moments of 2021
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Year in review: The best sports moments of 2021

Even amid a lingering global pandemic, sports went on and even returned to some form of normalcy in 2021. From stellar individual achievements to exceptional team accomplishments, 2021 had plenty of notable sports moments. 

Here's our list of some of the more memorable ones. Listed in chronological order.

 
1 of 21

Tide keep rolling

Tide keep rolling
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

For those college football fans keeping score at home, Alabama's decisive 52-24 win over Ohio State in the College Football Playoff national championship game on Jan. 11, was the Tide's sixth title since 2009. To be fair, this game was close for 1 1/2 quarters before Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith caught a pair of touchdown passes from Mac Jones in the late stages of the first half to help Alabama take control. Jones went 36-of-45 for 464 yards with five touchdowns, while Smith caught 12 balls for 215 and three scores, Just a simple day's work.

 
2 of 21

Tom stays terrific

Tom stays terrific
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Before Tom Brady made more history in the Super Bowl, he guided his Tampa Bay Buccaneers to road playoff wins over fellow superstar quarterbacks Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. So, should we really have been surprised that Brady and stout Bucs defense were able to dominate the favored, defending Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 in the NFL's title game on Feb. 7? Playing on his home field in Tampa, the 43-year-old Brady went 21-of-29 for 201 yards with three touchdowns en route to padding his record-Super Bowl win total to seven , while also securing his record fifth game MVP award -- and only one to accomplish the latter with two different teams. However, Tampa Bay's defense was the true star of the game, holding the potent Chiefs without a touchdown and picking off quarterback Patrick Mahomes twice, and sacking him three times.

 
3 of 21

Cardinal stand above all

Cardinal stand above all
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

After the coronavirus pandemic wiped out both the 2020 men's and women's NCAA basketball tournaments, they were back in force for 2021. The women's event was staged throughout the San Antonio, Texas area, and three of the four No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four. In a matchup featuring two of those top squads, Stanford held off South Carolina for a 66-65 victory after the Gamecocks missed two straight short-range shots at the buzzer. In the semifinal nightcap, upstart, third-seeded Arizona handled powerful Connecticut 69-59. The Wildcats then pushed Stanford in the limit in the national championship game on April 4, but star Aari McDonald's long, rather off-balanced 3-point attempt did fall and the Cardinal survived to win 54-53 and capture the program's third title.

 
4 of 21

Bears keep Zags from perfect season

Bears keep Zags from perfect season
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports

The greater Indianapolis area was a superb host for the return of the 2021 men's NCAA Tournament. And there were plenty of special moments from the event. Like No. 15 seed Oral Roberts stunning second-seeded Ohio State and eventually reach the Sweet 16. Or 12th seed Oregon State making it all the way to the Elite Eight. Of course, First Four-member UCLA and its run to the Final Four, where it succumbed to Jalen Suggs' improbable buzzer-beater for Gonzaga, won't soon be forgotten. Speaking of the 31-0 Zags, that victory put them into the national title game for a shot at becoming the first team since Indiana's 1975-76 squad to go undefeated. However, Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler had other ideas, as Baylor stormed out to a big lead and never looked back in an 86-70 victory for the Bears' first national championship.

 
5 of 21

Matsuyama makes Masters history

Matsuyama makes Masters history
Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

For some time, the dreaded moniker of "Best Player Never to Win a Major" was following Hideki Matsuyama around. Prior to the 2021 season, Matsuyama finished inside the top 10 at major tournaments seven times. Finally, his time would come, at Augusta National, topping another strong Masters' field of 2021. On April 11, Matsuyama finished at 10-under par, one shot better than upstart Will Zalatoris. He became the first Japanese golfer and Asian-born competitor to win the Masters.

 
6 of 21

Medina Spirit's tragic fall from grace

Medina Spirit's tragic fall from grace
Gannett Photo/Michael Clevenger and Christopher Granger via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY NETWORK

As 2021 went on, it seemed one of the biggest sports stories of the calendar was brushed aside. However, to horse racing fans and those who fancy the Kentucky Derby, May 1, 2021, is a date that won't be forgotten. That's when Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit won the 147th running of this beloved event. But, it was after the finish when the drama began. Medina Spirt tested positive for the anti-inflammatory steroid betamethasone and the win was called into question. The horse and Baffert were both banned from taking part in the Belmont Stakes, thus ending their triple-crown chances. Sadly, the 3-year-old Medina Spirit died after collapsing following a workout on Dec. 6. An investigation surrounding his death has begun.

 
7 of 21

Something "Left(y)" in the tank

Something "Left(y)" in the tank
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

Phil Mickelson was primed to dominate the PGA TOUR Champions in 2021, but he also wasn't done leaving his mark on the major scene with his buddies on the regular tour. At age 50, Mickelson truly reverted back to his elite form during the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. He led after three rounds, and ultimately topped Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen by 2 strokes with a final-round 73 on May 23, to become the oldest champion in major history.

 
8 of 21

All hail Hélio

All hail Hélio
Grace Hollars/IndyStar via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY NETWORK

Tom Brady is not the only elite athlete who continues to defy Father Time. At age 46, open-wheel racing star Hélio Castroneves  won the Indianapolis 500 for a fourth time on May 30. Castroneves outlasted youngster Álex Palou down the stretch to win his first Indy 500 since 2009, and join racing legends A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears as the only four-time winners of the event. Keeping up with tradition, "Spider-Man" scaled the fencing around the track in celebration.

 
9 of 21

NIL is the time

NIL is the time
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

On July 1, the landscape of college sports changed in a massive way. For better or worse, depending on who is doing the talking, NCAA athletes were finally allowed to receive monetary compensation by selling their name, image, and likeness (NIL) rights to a company, brand, etc. Those who have benefited from the move, made possible through various state law and NCAA rules changes, including members of the Georgia Tech football team, Connecticut women's basketball star Paige Bueckers and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young.

 
10 of 21

Lighting strike twice

Lighting strike twice
Douglas DeFelice/USA TODAY Sports

For the second time over a six-season span, the NHL crowned a repeat Stanley Cup champion. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the franchise's second Cup during the COVID-interrupted 2020 season, then turned their game on when the lights shined brightest in the postseason to repeat as champions. Paced by Nikita Kucherov (32 playoff points) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (16 wins, 1.90 goals-against average in playoffs), the Lightning disposed of fellow Cup contenders Florida and Carolina, respectively, in the early rounds. They then outlasted the New York Islanders in seven games before needing five in the Stanley Cup Final in early July to take care of the upstart Montreal Canadiens.

 
11 of 21

Done in again

Done in again
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

England's national soccer team is desperate for a major championship triumph. The Three Lions haven't won a World Cup since 1966 and never claimed the prestigious European Championship crown. The latter, however, appeared in reach in 2021 -- after Euro 2020 was postponed a season. Luke Shaw scored in the second minute against Italy in the Euro final on July 11, and it looked as if this might be the year for England. However, Leonardo Bonucci  leveled the match in the 67th minute. The contest went to penalties, where Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka missed England's final three attempts, and Italy prevailed after a 3-2 penalty round. For the Three Lions, the heartbreak beats on.

 
12 of 21

The Buck finally stops here

The Buck finally stops here
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

It took the Milwaukee Bucks just three seasons into their existence to win the franchise's first NBA championship in 1971. The second one took a little longer -- a half-century to be exact. Led by superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA Finals MVP after he averaged 35.2 points, 13. 2rebounds and 5.0 assists in the title series, Milwaukee overcame losing the first two Finals games at Phoenix by winning the next four -- including the final three games by a combined 17 points. The Bucks' triumph overshadowed a stellar Finals from Phoenix's own star Devin Booker, who twice scored 40 or more in that series.

 
13 of 21

Making the world aware

Making the world aware
Danielle Parhizkaran/USA TODAY Sports

Mental health took center stage in the world of sports in 2021. There was Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman Lane Johnson, who left the team at one point while battling depression. Tennis star Naomi Osaka made international headlines and drew massive attention to mental issues among athletes when she withdrew from the French Open this year. However, it was Simone Biles who was responsible for the most notable and important moment that brought mental health awareness to the forefront: At this summer's Tokyo Olympics, Biles pulled out of the women's gymnastics all-around competition when she was not in the right mental state of mind.

 
14 of 21

More than one shining moment

More than one shining moment
YouTube

Speaking of Biles and the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, pushed back one year but still under the cloud COVID. It was strange to watch the games without packed crowds, But the moments and accomplishments were no less memorable for those athletes from the U.S. There was American Suni Lee winning the women's gymnastics all-around and teen Nevin Harrison making history in the women's 200-meter canoe event. Calaeb Dressel and Katie Ledecky shining in the pool, while the U.S. men's basketball continued its run on Olympic gold. Just to name a few. When it was all said and done, the U.S. led the way with 113 medals won, including 39 gold.

 
15 of 21

Missed it by that much

Missed it by that much
Peter van den Berg/USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, Novak Djokovic reached the finals of all four men's Grand Slam tennis tournaments. He walked away with all but a Wimbledon final. In 2021, he was at it again. Djokovic opened the Grand Slam season by winning his ninth Australian Open title. From there, it was off to the French Open, which he won for a second time. At Wimbledon, Djokovic topped Matteo Berrettini for his sixth title. All that was standing in his way of a Grand Slam sweep was the U.S. Open in September. However, Daniil Medvedev, whom Djokovic beat for the 2021 Australian crown, ended that dream with a straight-set victory in New York.

 
16 of 21

Back home again

Back home again
Gary C. Klein/USA TODAY NETWORK/Wisconsin via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The United States put forth the youngest team in Ryder Cup history, but that did not keep the group from rolling to a 19-9 victory over Team Europe and returning the prestigious hardware back to American soil. Postponed one year due to the coronavirus pandemic and with Wisconsin's Whistling Straits -- Sept. 24-26 -- as the stage, the U.S. got stellar performances from Dustin Johnson (five points) and Patrick Cantlay and Collin Morikawa, who each posted 3 1/2 points, to dominate the Europeans. The Americans set the stage on Day One when they lost just one match over the two sessions.

 
17 of 21

Sky's the limit

Sky's the limit
Matt Marton/USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Sky brought in WNBA superstar and local product Candace Parker to help win the franchise's first league title. And, what do you know? She helped the Sky, who finished 16-16 during the regular season to earn the No. 6 seed, get hot in the playoffs, where they won single-elimination games against Dallas and Minnesota, dropped top-seeded Connecticut, and outlasted Phoenix in four games of the WNBA Finals. Allie Quigley scored 26 points and Parker added 16 with 13 rebounds, five assists, and four steals during Chicago's 80-74 title-clinching victory over the Mercury on Oct. 17.

 
18 of 21

Quite the turnaround

Quite the turnaround
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

On June 16, the Atlanta Braves were 30-35. But despite losing star Ronald Acuna Jr. to a season-ending knee injury in July, Atlanta turned things around by going 58-38 down the stretch to eventually win the NL East by 6 1/2 games. With leader Freddie Freeman (.300 batting average, 31 home runs, 83 RBIs) and a pair of 14-game winners in Max Fried and Charlie Morton at the forefront, the Braves beat Milwaukee in four games in NL Divisional round, then upset the Los Angeles Dodgers in six of the NLCS. Led by mid-season pickup Jorge Soler, who belted a three-run homer in its World Series-clinching 7-0 win at Houston in Game 6 on Nov. 2, Atlanta stunned the mighty Astros to claim the franchise's first title since 1995.

 
19 of 21

Shohei the Sensational

Shohei the Sensational
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports

It would not be a complete stretch to believe Shohei Ohtani's 2021 season  was among the greatest in Major League Baseball history? The versatile 27-year-old was completely dominant in 2021, ranking among the major-league leaders with 46 home runs, 100 RBIs, and 26 steals. That was just at the plate. On the mound, Ohtani went 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA and 156 strikeouts over 23 starts for the Los Angeles Angels. Ohtani, an easy choice for AL MVP, is the first player in big-league history with 10 or more homers at the plate and 20 or more stolen bases, while also striking out at least 100 batters over 10-plus mound appearances.

 
20 of 21

So, what's the point?

So, what's the point?
Rob Schumacher/The Republic/USA TODAY NETWORK

Speaking of Novak Djokovic. The intersection of vaccination status and sports intersected in 2021, and with some of the world's biggest athletes at the forefront of the controversy. While Djokovic has played his status close to the vest , Brooklyn Nets' star Kyrie Irving has taken a stand against vaccine mandates. Then, most notably, is Aaron Rodgers, who claimed he was "inoculated," when asked in the preseason if he received the COVID-19 vaccine. Actually, he did not take that specific jab, which was discovered once he tested positive for the virus during the regular season, and apparently relied on some unorthodox, unproven remedies to handle his bout. 

 
21 of 21

Setting the stage

Setting the stage
Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports

We started this list with the Tide rolling to another college football national championship. We'll end it with Alabama (12-1) upsetting then-No. 1 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. However, the Bulldogs (12-1) will also be part of the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year's Eve. While 2021 Heisman winner Bryce Young and Alabama takes on underdog Cincinnati (13-0), Georgia draws Michigan (12-1), which finally ended its lengthy skid against archrival Ohio State, then pounded Iowa to win its first Big Ten Championship Game.

Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.

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