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June 13, 2021

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Best in Show: Counting down the top 10 moments of 2020 in Vegas sports

Raiders Defeat Saints, 34-24

Associated Press

Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass to tight end Darren Waller (83) during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

The sports world was far from immune to the effects of COVID-19, as several negative consequences stemmed from its spread. But all things considered, the adjustments eventually made to go forward were impressive. So, let’s focus on the positives when it comes to sports in 2020 and look back on the top 10 moments across a variety of areas.

10. Raiders shock Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium

Over a 14-month, 22-game period including a Super Bowl, Kansas City lost only once—40-32 to Las Vegas on October 11 in the Chiefs’ home stadium. The Raiders went toe-to-toe with their potentially dynastic rival and came out on top in a performance that, at least for the moment, validated everything they had done since Jon Gruden arrived as coach in 2018.

The only thing that could have made it better would have been if the Raiders could have toppled the Chiefs again at Allegiant Stadium a month later, but they gave up a late touchdown to lose 35-31.

9. Golden Knights win on back-to-back nights to end regular season

It was impossible to know at the time, but Vegas clinched its second Pacific Division title in three years by going to Alberta and winning in Calgary and Edmonton on March 8 and 9, respectively. The season was paused four days later, with the Golden Knights having gone 11-2 over the previous month as new coach Peter DeBoer settled in. DeBoer was helping turn defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored in both games, into a star and making a goalie split between Marc-André Fleury and trade-deadline acquisition Robin Lehner work.

Rockier times were ahead in the NHL’s bubble restart five months later, but at the moment, it felt like anything was possible with the Golden Knights.

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Bishop Gorman's Jonathan Braggs (4) lays up the ball past Coronado's Dallas Rider (3) during a game at the Cox Pavilion at UNLV Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.

8. Bishop Gorman and Coronado basketball play instant-classic on ESPNU

Las Vegas has turned into a hotbed for basketball talent over the past decade, and there was no better coronation than a nationally televised game between the area’s two best teams January 24.

The action lived up to the hype. Coronado’s Jaden Hardy (the top-rated recruit in the country in the class of 2021) got the Cougars out to an early lead … but they couldn’t hold off the now nine-time defending state champions. Gaels senior (and current LSU starter) Mwani Wilkinson broke out with 17 points, including a fourth-quarter alley-oop dunk to give Gorman a 70-62 victory.

7. Weili Zhang and Joanna Jedrzejczyk deliver UFC fight of the year

Five days before the world was paused for COVID-19, in the last major local sporting event, the two top women’s strawweight fighters staged a memorable co-main event at UFC 248.

The champion Zhang’s 20-fight win streak was pushed to the brink against a relentless attack from the former champion Jedrzejczyk, who fought through a hematoma swelled to the size of a baseball on her forehead. The T-Mobile Arena crowd gave a standing ovation after the five-round fight went the distance, despite no one knowing for sure who would win. The judges ultimately sided with Zhang via split decision.

6. Golden Knights sign Alex Pietrangelo in free agency

Despite the disappointment over a Western Conference finals loss, making it that far isn’t a bad result for the vast majority of NHL franchises. It would have been hard to blame the Golden Knights’ front office for not making significant changes ahead of the next season, but that’s not their M.O.

As it has continually over the past few years, Vegas targeted one of the top available players and stopped at nothing until it got him. Pietrangelo is two years removed from leading the St. Louis Blues to a Stanley Cup victory and gives Vegas one of the best defensive one-two punches in the league alongside Theodore.

Other fan bases dream of their teams being as successful and aggressive as Vegas has been in crafting its ideal roster.

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The new sports book at Circa is seen during a media tour Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. The property undergoes finishing touches in preparation for their opening on Oct. 28.

5. Circa sportsbook opens

With sports betting sweeping the nation and now legal in 18 states, the world needed a reminder that Las Vegas remains the industry’s mecca. Circa provided that by unveiling the largest sportsbook on earth—featuring a $20 million, 78 million-megapixel screen—as part of the new Downtown resort’s grand opening at midnight October 28. 

Invited guests were allowed into Circa a few hours early, which fittingly meant the sportsbook’s first crowd watched the Los Angeles Dodgers top the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 6 to win the 2020 World Series.

4. Heavyweight prizefighting returns to the Strip

For the first time in nearly 20 years, a lineal heavyweight championship fight attracted a sold-out crowd, when Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder rematched February 22 at MGM Grand Garden Arena, after the two men fought to a draw last year.

The bout was outfitted with all the glitz the division was known for in the ’90s, including entrances that saw Fury carried out on an oversize throne and Wilder sport a 40-pound costume as a tribute to Black History Month. After Wilder got blown out in a near pick’em fight, losing via seventh-round TKO, he blamed the outfit for tiring out his legs.

3. UNLV’s men’s basketball squad shocks No. 4 San Diego State

The rival Aztecs were three wins from an undefeated regular season—and already celebrating a Mountain West conference championship in the pregame—when UNLV visited Viejas Arena on February 22. What happened next was a glimpse at the long-term vision then-first-year coach T.J. Otzelberger has for the UNLV program.

UNLV played fundamentally sound and hit just enough shots to upset San Diego State 66-63. The victory propelled UNLV to a four-game win streak to end the regular season, getting it over .500 despite a trying season and giving the program its biggest win in nearly a decade.

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Las Vegas Aces center A'ja Wilson, left, grabs a rebound away from Connecticut Sun forward DeWanna Bonner during the second half of Game 5 of a WNBA basketball semifinal round playoff series, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

2. Las Vegas Aces reach WNBA Finals

The Aces stayed on their path of annual improvement in their third year since moving to Las Vegas, taking the WNBA’s two-month bubble season in Bradenton, Florida, by storm.

Forward A’ja Wilson made up for the absences of center Liz Cambage (who opted out of the season) and guard Kelsey Plum (who injured her Achilles in preparation to play), by morphing into a full-blown superstar. The former No. 1 overall pick captured the league’s MVP award and led the Aces to the overall top seed in the playoffs.

They were swept in a best-of-five finals series against the Seattle Storm, but with Wilson on board, should remain in contention for years to come.

1. Raiders open Allegiant Stadium with upset win over Saints

There’s no sports league bigger in the U.S. than the NFL. And, for a long time, there appeared to be no sports league less likely to give Las Vegas a chance than one that barred players from even attending conventions here five years ago.

But that all officially changed September 21, when the Raiders opened the $2 billion Allegiant Stadium against a perennial power and Super Bowl favorite in the Saints. Las Vegas fell into an early 10-0 hole, but controlled New Orleans from there and went on to a 34-24 victory.

Nothing else came close to better announcing Las Vegas’ sudden ascendance as one of the top sports cities in the country.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.