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Taggart leaves Western Kentucky for South Florida

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Taggart leaves Western Kentucky for South Florida

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Willie Taggart entered the room to applause, shook hands with his father, hugged his mother and waved to family and friends who turned his introductory news conference into a mini-pep rally.

South Florida's new football coach made a name for himself as player and coach at Western Kentucky, but an opportunity to return home to the Tampa Bay area to try to rescue another struggling program simply was too good to ignore.

``I always said I wouldn't leave WKU unless I had a chance to go and win a national championship, and I truly believe that can be done here,'' Taggart said Saturday after signing a five-year, $5.75 million contract to replace Skip Holtz, who was fired after the worst season in USF's 16-year history.

``It wasn't long ago USF was No. 2 in the country. It's been proven that we can get there,'' Taggart added. ``What we have to do now is put everybody on the bus, put `em in the right seat and let coach T drive this bus!''

Taggart, 36, led Western Kentucky to a 7-5 record this season. The Hilltoppers, who appointed defensive coordinator Lance Guidry interim coach on Saturday, will make their first postseason appearance since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision when they face Central Michigan in the Little Caesars Bowl.

A former assistant at Stanford to Jim Harbaugh, Taggart takes over a program that went 16-21 under Holtz, who dropped nine of 10 games following a 2-0 start this season.

``We've got a winner in Willie Taggart. He's young, dynamic, driven, innovative and successful,'' said athletic director Doug Woolard, who led the six-day search for a successor with assistance from former NFL coach and Tampa resident Tony Dungy, who sat in on interviews with the finalists - another selling-point with Taggart.

``My vision is to win multiple championships in a first-class manner. That's what we're going to have about,'' Taggart said. ``Another thing we're going to be about is we're not going to bow down to no one. We're going to go out and recruit the best to come here and be the best. ... There's no reason we can't do that.''

Western Kentucky had lost 20 consecutive games before Taggart returned to his alma mater three seasons ago from Stanford, where he was the running backs coach. He went 2-10 in his first season, then followed with consecutive 7-5 records to expand his resume.

The native of nearby Palmetto played for Harbaugh's father, Jack, at Western Kentucky in the mid-1990s and was part of the coaching staff there when the Hilltoppers won a national Division I-AA title in 2002.

Taggart arrives at USF with a different challenge than Holtz faced when he was lured from East Carolina to replace Jim Leavitt, who was fired for mistreating a player who had accused Leavitt of grabbing him by the throat and slapping him in the face during halftime of a game.

The Bulls were perceived at that point in their development as one of the fastest rising programs in the country, having been ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation in 2007.

Holtz welcomed the challenge of helping USF get to the next level, but leaves behind a team that has been unable to remain competitive in a conference that has also been in decline because of the departure of several members to other leagues.

The Bulls have lost 14 of their last 16 games against Big East opponents and finished last in the conference the past two seasons.

Taggart, who informed his players of his decision to leave Western Kentucky after practice Friday, played on a state championship team at Bradenton Manatee High School in 1992. His connection to the Harbaugh family began when Jim recruited Taggart to play for his dad in college.

``I tell people today that ever since I met Jim Harbaugh my life has been going nowhere but up,'' Taggart said, adding that the San Francisco 49ers coach has been a role model.

``Ever since then, I've been trying to be like him, a coach like him, a father like him, a brother like him, everything like him,'' Taggart added. ``And, it's gotten me to this point.''

Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart said during a news conference in Bowling Green, Ky., that the Hilltoppers raised ``sufficient private funds'' to put together a contract offer in October that would have made Taggart the highest-paid coach in the Sun Belt Conference.

``He felt announcing a new contract during the season would be a distraction to the team and wanted to keep the focus on football. We respected that statement and mutually agreed to wait until the end of the regular season to discuss a new contract,'' Stewart said. ``This past week we again extended a term sheet that offered him a contract for him to become the highest paid coach in our conference. We were proactive and thorough in our efforts to retain him.''

Hilltoppers defensive tackle Jamarcus Allen said players were preparing to go home from practice when called a team meeting to reveal his plans.

``He came in and told us he got the job at South Florida and that he had to do what was best for him and his family. We completely understand that. He told us to continue to make history and be one of those 35 teams that win a bowl game,'' Allen said.

``I was shocked and, I really hurt for the young guys because it's probably hard for them to transition,'' Allen added. ``I just know that us group of seniors has been through so much and we know how to handle it. I just know we're going to put our arms around these younger guys and help them get through it.''

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AP freelancer Bradley Stephens in Bowling Green, Ky., contributed to this report.

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Giannis Antetokounmpo says he has no problem with Moe Wagner after headbutt

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he has no problem with Moe Wagner after headbutt

Despite seeking him out after the whistle and headbutting him with force to earn an ejection from Tuesday night's game, Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo says he has no problem with Wizards big man Moe Wagner. He explained the move as general frustration boiling over.

"I don’t have nothing against Wagner, it wasn’t just him. It was just, like, in my mind all these games I’ve played guys hitting me so I lost it for a second," Antetokounmpo told reporters. 

He went on to express regret over the incident, which is certain to result in a fine and possibly a suspension. His explanation, though, runs a bit counter to how the Wizards saw it all.

Wagner was not made available to the media, but his teammates weighed in and all seemed to believe it stemmed from something that happened between them earlier this season.

"They have something in the past, I don't even know," Rui Hachimura said.

"That was just some blood from back then," Ish Smith said. 

They seemed to be referencing the Feb. 24 meeting between the teams when Antetokounmpo fouled out in only 25 minutes, and with some help from Wagner. That night, Wagner gave a quote that could also have been said after this game: "He’s a really good player. I want him out of the game, obviously."

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On Tuesday, Antetokounmpo again exited early against the Wizards, and again the Bucks held on for the win, just like they did in February. Still, him leaving gave the Wizards a bit of a break. 

The reigning MVP had been dominating with 12 points and nine rebounds in 10 minutes.

"I'm not saying he's a dirty player, but he's good at those little things," Hachimura said of Wagner. "Giannis was actually out for the game. It was really big [for] us. He changed the whole game, actually. Moe's a great guy."

RELATED: GIANNIS EJECTED FOR HEADBUTTING MOE WAGNER

Wagner has a tendency to get under the skin of his opponents. He has had run-ins with other big men, most notably Joel Embiid.

He did his part, but the Bucks still had enough to beat the Wizards. Now the question is whether it was a pyrrhic victory with a potential suspension for Antetokounmpo coming next.

"There's no place for that. It's unfortunate," head coach Scott Brooks said. "It's unfortunate that it happened. I'm sure the league is going to look at it and make a decision. Fortunately for [the Bucks], it's not a playoff game [up next]. I'm sure he's probably going to miss a couple of games."

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Capitals and Islanders have produced legendary Stanley Cup playoff moments

Capitals and Islanders have produced legendary Stanley Cup playoff moments

The Capitals and Islanders have played seven times in the Stanley Cup playoffs with the eighth on tap starting Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto in the midst of a pandemic.

This isn’t where we thought we’d be early in the 2019-20 NHL season. It still doesn’t seem real with neutral sites and empty buildings. But this matchup is one we thought would happen last spring. One goal was all that stood between a rematch between New York and coach Barry Trotz and the team he led to the Stanley Cup the year before. 

Alas, the Capitals gave up a goal in Game 7 at home to the Carolina Hurricanes and never got the chance. The Islanders were swept right out of the postseason and we were denied a fascinating matchup between Trotz and Todd Reirden, his assistant coach in Washington for four years.

Little did we know we just had to wait a little longer. The Capitals and Islanders have history far beyond just their coaches. Some of the NHL’s most memorable moments took place in the Stanley Cup playoffs between these Metropolitan Division rivals. Here is a look back at some of the best:

April 10, 1983
The Capitals were just happy to be here. Two years after the desperate “Save the Caps” campaign kept hockey in Washington, their first playoff series came against the three-time defending champions. The Islanders kept their crown.

The plucky Caps weren’t quite ready. But they took Game 2 at famed Nassau Coliseum and were tied 1-1 at Capital Centre in Game 4 when New York, led by Mike Bossy, scored three straight times. Washington kept fighting with a Kent Houston goal at 11:34 of the third period to make it 4-3 before the champs put them away with a second Bossy goal with 2:46 to play.  

April 16, 1985
The first true Caps playoff collapse. The two teams met in the second round of the 1984 playoffs after Washington won its first playoff series. And while the Islanders’ dynasty came to an end that year, it wouldn’t be until they were dethroned by Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers.

The old crew still had enough to dispatch the Capitals in five games. But in 1985? No that was different. An aging New York fell behind 2-0 in a best-of-five series with overtime losses at a rocking Capital Centre. This felt different. Washington was the better team during the regular season – third-best in the NHL. 

But a pair of losses at Nassau set the stage for Game 5 at Capital Centre. For the third year in a row, the Capitals fell short. A goal in the first, a goal in the second and New York was up 2-0, the crowd was tight. That’s familiar. It all started back then and took Washington another 33 years to shake the demons. A Bobby Carpenter goal 29 seconds into the third period gave the Capitals life, but veteran goalie Billy Smith stopped 39 of 40 shots. New York only had 22. The first of many shocking playoff collapses. 

RELATED: CAPS VS. ISLANDERS GAME 1 - WHAT TO EXPECT NOW THAT THE GAMES MATTER

April 18, 1987
The Easter Epic. One of the great games in NHL history. The Capitals finally beat the Islanders in the first round in 1986 in a three-game sweep. This time they were up 3-1 in a best-of-seven first-round series and headed home to finish it off. Uh oh. “3-1” and the Caps never have mixed. They have blown that lead five times now. It’s only happened 28 times in league history.

But this was the very first. A game that began on a Saturday evening, ended at 1:56 a.m. on Easter morning. It is now the 11th longest game in league history after Tuesday night's five-overtime fiasco between Tampa Bay and Columbus. They played 68:47 of overtime into Easter morning before Pat LaFontaine’s spinning shot from just inside the blueline beat Washington goalie Bob Mason, who stood in shock in the crease for 10 seconds before dropping exhausted to a knee while the Islanders celebrated. It remains one of the sport's iconic moments. 

April 28, 1993
The Capitals and Islanders needed a break from each other after playing five years in a row in the postseason. Six years later they met again under different circumstances. The 1992 Capitals had blown their second 3-1 series lead to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins. But they returned a solid team that finished second in the Patrick Division, a slight favorite over New York, hoping for another shot at Pittsburgh. 

Instead, an insanely frustrating series followed. The Islanders won Games 2 and 4 in double overtime and Game 3 in regular old overtime. Just like that they were up 3-1. Washington staved off elimination at home in Game 5. But Nassau Coliseum was a House of Horrors. There would be no Game 7. 

Dale Hunter opened the scoring for the Capitals in the first period. But the Islanders were up 3-1 after the second period and the old barn was roaring. Another goal made it 4-1 and with 8:31 to play, Pierre Turgeon put Washington away with a fifth goal. The crowd had been chanting “Nah-Nah-Nah-Nah, Hey-Hey-Hey, Goodbye!” The season had slipped away again. Hunter then lost his mind.

 After a Hunter turnover, Turgeon deked on goal and scored, skating with his arms raised looking up into the crowd. He never saw Hunter following him like a shark for three seconds. He never sensed the check that was about to come well after the goal that buried him into the boards. The Islanders won the series. But Turgeon missed the ensuing series against the Penguins with a separated right shoulder. New York won that anyway before its Cinderella run ended in the Eastern Conference Final against eventual champion Montreal. 

Hunter was hit with a 21-game suspension to start the following year and it’s still considered among the dirtiest hits in NHL history. 

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April 28, 2015

The Islanders and Capitals took another long break from each other but that was mostly because New York stunk. It made the playoffs just six times in the next 20 years and didn’t win a series.

That looked to change in 2015 – Trotz’s first with Washington – when a back-and-forth series with an overtime win for each team went to a Game 7. Given the Alex Ovechkin-led Caps had lost a Game 7 at home in 2008 (Flyers), 2009 (Penguins), 2010 (Canadiens) and 2013 (Rangers), the home crowd was a little tense.

 A 1-1 game for most of the third period became unbearable. It took a young Russian with a flair for the dramatic to make the difference. No, not Ovechkin. Evgeny Kuznetsov had his back to the play near the right circle against the boards, baited Frans Nielson to skate up behind him and then turned on a dime and blew toward the center of the ice. 

No one stopped him. Kuznetsov took the puck across the middle and almost down to the opposite goaline, waiting for Jaroslav Halak to sprawl to the ice – the man who stunned Washington in goal for Montreal in that crushing 2010 series. The lead held for the final 7:18 and for once a Game 7 didn’t end in tears for Capitals fans. That would happen in the second round when the Rangers rallied from a 3-1 series deficit and won Game 7 in overtime. You can’t win them all. 

Kuznetsov insisted to NBC Sports Washington's Rob Carlin this past spring that it is that Game 7 goal against New York that remains his favorite and not the Game 6 OT winner against Pittsburgh during the Stanley Cup run in 2018. Whether that's just kuzy being Kuzy, who knows? They're both epic and wonderful moments in franchise history. 

Playoff series No. 8 between the Capitals and Islanders has enough storylines to fit in a Stanley Cup Final. Let's see if they can add another memorable chapter to 37 years of history starting Wednesday afternoon. 

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