25 Greatest NCAA Tournament Finals in History
Kentucky’s performance last night left no doubt that the Wildcats are great NCAA champions, but the title game itself fell short of that lofty plateau. It took a furious comeback in the second half just to bring Kansas within six points, and the game will likely be remembered (as Jim Nantz had it) as a “coronation” for Kentucky.
Of course, not every NCAA championship game has been so one-sided. Just two Marches ago, Gordon Hayward’s half-court heave narrowly missed giving the Butler Bulldogs one of the greatest upsets in tournament final history, only to glance off the rim and give Duke the national title.
Read on for a closer look at that Duke-Butler clash, along with the rest of the 25 most riveting title games March Madness has ever seen.
25. UCLA 87, Memphis 66 (1973)
Although the 1973 championship game was a blowout of legendary proportions, it earns a place on this list for one of the greatest individual performances in basketball history.
UCLA center Bill Walton, the Naismith Award winner for the undefeated Bruins, shot 21-of-22 from the field to score a title-game record 44 points.
Walton, who also had 13 boards (to Memphis’ 19 as a team), had plenty of help from his backcourt to set up his epic shooting performance. Greg Lee and Larry Hollyfield combined to dish out 23 assists in the UCLA rout.
24. North Carolina 77, Michigan 71 (1993)
The only reason most people remember this game now is Chris Webber calling a timeout he didn’t have. Of course, Webber’s blunder wouldn’t have mattered if his Fab Five Wolverines weren’t giving North Carolina all it could handle at the time.
The lead had swung back and forth all game, with North Carolina—a perfectly tuned collection of role players but hardly the usual star-laden Tar Heel squad—getting a game-high 25 points from designated three-point gunner and eventual Most Outstanding Player Donald Williams.
The Tar Heels were up by a mere two points with 20 seconds to play when Webber (who had 23 points and 11 boards on the night) rebounded a missed free throw to give Michigan a chance to tie.
When Derrick Phelps and George Lynch trapped Webber on the sideline, though, he signaled for The Timeout Heard ‘Round the World, with the resulting technical foul shots sealing the championship for Dean Smith’s squad.
23. Michigan State 75, Indiana State 64 (1979)
Billed as a showdown between the country’s two best players, the 1979 final didn’t disappoint. Larry Bird led Indiana State with 19 points and 13 boards, only to be outshone by a 24-point, seven-rebound, five-assist night from Spartans legend Magic Johnson.
The game was the key moment in transforming the NCAA tournament into the TV-ready spectacle it is today, but outside of the individual duel between Magic and Bird, it wasn’t especially tense.
Magic’s efforts were supplemented by 19 points, eight rebounds and nine assists from Greg “Special K” Kelser, and the Spartans’ matchup zone stifled the Sycamores for a comparatively easy win.
22. Arkansas 76, Duke 72 (1994)
Nolan Richardson’s “40 minutes of hell” full-court press never reached the heights it attained in 1993-94, with a star power forward in Corliss Williamson who was as physical as he was mobile.
Williamson led the Razorbacks to the national title game, but it was a less-heralded teammate who became the postseason hero against Duke.
As impressive as the Arkansas defense was—the Razorbacks forced 23 turnovers in the title game—the balanced Blue Devil offense had the game tied at 70 in the final minute.
That was when Most Outstanding Player honoree Scotty Thurman beat the shot clock to bury the last of his three three-pointers on the night and secure the only national title in Arkansas history.
21. Kansas 83, Oklahoma 79 (1988)
Top-seeded Oklahoma was the decisive favorite in the 1988 title game for a reason.
Billy Tubbs’ Sooners averaged 102.9 points a night behind an aggressive frontcourt—the 20 point-per-game duo of Stacey King and Harvey Grant—and a ball-hawking backcourt (6.5 steals a night from JUCO transfers Ricky Grace and Mookie Blaylock).
Against No. 6 seed Kansas, though, OU’s offense vanished in the second half, hitting just two field goals in an 11-minute span as the Jayhawks turned a 65-60 deficit into a 78-73 lead.
Danny Manning capped a performance for the ages—31 points, 18 rebounds and five steals—with the free throws that put the game on ice with five seconds remaining.
20. Louisville 72, Duke 69 (1986)
In a game dominated by individual stars on each side, Duke guard Johnny Dawkins came out firing.
The Blue Devil guard shot 10-of-19 in finishing with 24 points, but when Louisville started denying him the ball late in the game, the rest of Duke’s usual scoring options (including center Mark Alarie and current Harvard coach Tommy Amaker at point guard) couldn’t convert on their shots.
That opened the door for freshman hero Pervis Ellison to lead the Cardinals back, earning M.O.P. honors with his 25 points and 11 boards.
With Louisville clinging to a one-point lead in the final minute, Duke forced an air ball from Jeff Hall, only to have Ellison grab the miss and lay it in.
That clutch putback didn't quite finish the Blue Devils, but after a Danny Ferry basket cut the lead back to one, Milt Wagner sealed the deal with a pair of free throws.
19. UConn 77, Duke 74 (1999)
Duke’s 1998-99 squad looked like a sure bet to join the ranks of history’s greatest champions, bringing a 37-1 record into the title game with underdog UConn thanks to the efforts of sweet-shooting stars like Elton Brand and Shane Battier.
The Huskies, though, countered with a scorer of their own in Rip Hamilton, whose 27 points had the Huskies up by one with 10 seconds to play.
Trajan Langdon, Duke’s three-point sniper, tried to take on UConn defensive specialist Ricky Moore, but Langdon traveled with 5.4 seconds remaining.
Even after Khalid El-Amin drained the ensuing free throws, Duke had one more chance to tie the game, but Langdon dribbled into a triple-team and lost control, handing the ball and the championship over to the Huskies.
18. Cal 71, West Virginia 70 (1959)
Nearly two decades before founding his legendary Big Man Camp, Pete Newell coached 6’10” future Laker All-Star Darrall Imhoff to a national title at Cal.
Of course, to get there, the Golden Bears had to go through a West Virginia team led by Imhoff’s future teammate, superstar guard Jerry West.
West, then a junior, carried the Mountaineers with 28 points and 11 boards, but full-court pressure from the nation’s No. 1 defense forced bunches of West VIrginia turnovers and kept Cal ahead most of the game.
Down one in the final minute, WVU appeared to have gotten another chance when Imhoff’s hook shot rimmed out, but the Golden Bears center tipped in his own miss for a 71-68 lead that was too much to overcome.
17. Duke 61, Butler 59 (2010)
In seeding terms, fifth-seeded Butler wouldn’t have been the biggest underdog ever to win an NCAA championship.
By almost any other measure, though, the tiny Indianapolis school from the (barely) mid-major Horizon League would have been a Cinderella story like no other if its textbook-perfect defense had beaten top-seeded Duke.
Down 60-59 with seconds to play, Gordon Hayward had a chance to give Butler the lead, but his fadeaway bounced off the rim and wound up in the hands of Duke center Brian Zoubek.
Zoubek proceeded to hit his first free throw and miss the second intentionally, in the hopes of preventing Butler from setting up a last-second shot.
The stratagem almost backfired as Hayward managed to get to midcourt with the rebound and launched what was almost the greatest shot in title-game history, but the desperation try glanced off the rim again and gave Duke the championship by a matter of inches.
16. Indiana 69, Kansas 68 (1953)
In a rare battle (for that era) of legitimate big men, the starring roles in the 1953 title game belonged to centers B.H. Born of defending champion Kansas and Don Schlundt of Indiana.
The 6’9” Born—a year removed from backing up Hall of Famer Clyde Lovellette—scored 26 points and earned Most Outstanding Player honors, but it was the Hoosiers’ 6’10” Schlundt who posted the game high with 30 points.
The score was tied at 68 with half a minute to play when IU junior Bobby Leonard drew one of the game’s many fouls and hit one out of two from the charity stripe.
Kansas held for the final shot, but with shooting guard Allen Kelley blanketed, the Jayhawks settled for a desperation jumper from Jerry Alberts, whose only field goal attempt of the night clanged off the rim to give Indiana its second national title.
15. Kentucky 78, Utah 69 (1998)
The 1998 championship game wasn’t all that close in the final tally, and didn’t appear to be much of a contest even by halftime. The reason it’s on this list is that the team that appeared to be in control after 20 minutes was Utah, not Kentucky.
The Utes (up 10 at intermission) stretched the lead to a high of 12 points moments into the second half, but defensive pressure from Kentucky started to take its toll.
Utah scored just 28 points after halftime and surrendered 10 second-half points to unsung Heshimu Evans (to go with 12 from Most Outstanding Player Jeff Sheppard) in an epic Wildcat comeback.
14. Cincinnati 70, Ohio State 65 (1961)
A year after the graduation of its greatest player ever, Cincinnati finally made the title-game appearance that had eluded Oscar Robertson in his college career.
The Bearcats were, to put it mildly, underdogs against defending champion Ohio State, an undefeated squad boasting Hall of Fame forwards Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek.
Cincinnati PF Bob Wiesenhahn played the game of his life, racking up 17 points and nine boards while holding Havlicek to four points (on 1-of-5 shooting from the field).
Even without Hondo’s help, M.O.P. winner Lucas (27 points and 12 rebounds) kept the Buckeyes close enough to force overtime before the Bearcats’ superior depth (four scorers with 13 points or better) and defense carried the day.
13. Arizona 84, Kentucky 79 (1997)
Having already taken down a pair of No. 1 seeds in the 1997 NCAA tournament, Mike Bibby’s Arizona team squared off with defending champion Kentucky and its barrage of three-point gunners.
Rick Pitino’s squad needed all the sharpshooting it could get, as it took a pair of late treys from Ron Mercer and Anthony Epps just to force overtime.
In the extra session, Kentucky didn’t allow a field goal, but Arizona made its chances count from the foul line.
Miles Simon scored the last of his 30 points on four straight free throws as the Wildcats hit 10 of 14 from the stripe as a team in the extra session to capture the program's only national title.
12. City College of New York 71, Bradley 68 (1950)
The CCNY Beavers had already beaten Bradley in the NIT title game by the time they faced off with the Braves again in a Madison Square Garden rematch.
The second time around, though, 16 points from Bradley star Gene Melchiorre helped put the Braves (in their first NCAA tournament) up by one with just 30 seconds remaining.
Bradley had the ball with a chance to put the game away, but Melchiorre’s shot was blocked by CCNY standout Irwin Dambrot.
Dambrot controlled the deflection, then fired the ball downcourt to teammate Norm Mager, whose clutch finish proved to be the game-winner for the Beavers.
11. Syracuse 81, Kansas 78 (2003)
Although he had more help than he’s often credited with, the 2003 Orangemen were definitely Carmelo Anthony’s team.
The freshman sensation piled up 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in the title game, with many of the latter coming on feeds to hot-shooting classmate Gerry McNamara (six three-pointers before halftime).
For all ‘Melo’s heroics, Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison refused to go away, and the Jayhawks trailed by only three in the final seconds.
Michael Lee had one last chance to save the game, but his three-point try was slapped away by Hakim Warrick to seal the deal for Jim Boeheim’s team.
10. Texas Western 72, Kentucky 65 (1966)
In a game that makes this list more for its significance than its competitiveness, Texas Western (now UTEP) was seen as a significant underdog despite coming in with a 27-1 record.
Any reasonable observer should have given the Miners and their outstanding defense an excellent chance to beat skilled but undersized Kentucky, but one factor skewed most national perceptions about this game.
Texas Western started five black players, Kentucky five white ones.
On the court, Texas Western proved more than a match for Adolph Rupp’s squad, as Bobby Joe Hill turned a pair of early steals into layups to give the “underdogs” a 16-11 lead, and Kentucky never led after that point.
9. Villanova 66, Georgetown 64 (1985)
It wasn’t just the No. 8 seed next to Villanova’s name on the bracket that made them a serious underdog against top-seeded Georgetown.
The Wildcats’ 6’9” center, Ed Pinckney, didn’t look like much of an obstacle for seven-footer Patrick Ewing, the senior leader of the defending national champs.
Pinckney, though, handcuffed Ewing, holding the Hoya star to 14 points and five boards (while posting 16 and six himself).
The Wildcats, meanwhile, put on one of the greatest shooting exhibitions ever seen, hitting an absurd 78.6 percent from the field and missing just one shot after halftime.
Even with Villanova’s offense playing at that level, it still took a clutch jumper from Harold Jensen with 2:37 remaining to give the Rollie Massimino's squad a 55-54 lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
8. Kansas 75, Memphis 68 (2008)
Up by nine with just over two minutes to play, all Memphis had to do was make its free throws to win its first-ever national title.
Instead, the Tigers (whose record 38-win total from the season has since been vacated) missed four of their last five from the charity stripe, allowing Mario Chalmers’ buzzer-beating trey to tie the game and force overtime.
Tiger freshman Derrick Rose (who had one of the late misses from the foul line) had scored 14 of 16 Memphis points during one second-half stretch, but had little left for the OT after playing every minute of the game.
KU tallied the first six points of the OT (two by leading scorer Darrell Arthur) and cruised to a national championship.
7. Utah 42, Dartmouth 40 (1944)
Utah hadn’t even planned to play in the 1944 NCAA tournament, having earned a spot in the more prestigious NIT.
After the Redskins (as they were then called) lost in the first round of that tourney, they took over the spot vacated by Arkansas—the Razorbacks had several players injured in a car accident and withdrew—and fought their way to the championship game.
Behind 22 points from Most Outstanding Player winner Arnie Ferrin, Utah took favored Dartmouth to the first overtime period in title-game history.
Tied at 40 in the waning seconds of the extra session, Utah’s Herb Wilkinson drained a one-handed set shot to give his team its first (and still only) NCAA championship.
6. North Carolina 63, Georgetown 62 (1982)
In a game loaded with star power, Georgetown freshman Patrick Ewing lived up to his billing with 23 points and 11 rebounds.
Thanks largely to Ewing and Sleepy Floyd, the Hoyas had narrowly outpaced the mighty Tar Heel offense—which was led by James Worthy’s 28 points on 13-of-17 shooting—and were clinging to a 62-61 lead with half a minute to play.
That’s when North Carolina looked to a promising freshman named Michael Jordan, who buried a jumper with 17 seconds on the clock to put the Tar Heels on top.
The Hoyas had a chance to answer, but Fred Brown mistook Worthy for a teammate, throwing the ball directly to the UNC star and putting the game on ice for first-time title winner Dean Smith.
5. Indiana 74, Syracuse 73 (1987)
Freshman star Derrick Coleman very nearly became the hero of the 1987 title game.
The Syracuse forward set a school postseason record with 19 rebounds (while scoring eight points), but his missed free throw in the final minute left the door open for Indiana.
The Hoosiers responded, not with star Steve Alford (who had already scored a game-high 23 points), but with backcourt mate Keith Smart.
Smart’s 17-foot jumper swished through with four seconds to play, and the Hoosiers gave Bobby Knight his fourth and final national championship (one as a player, three as a coach).
4. Loyola (IL) 60, Cincinnati 58 (1963)
Two-time defending champion Cincinnati looked the part in the 1963 final, getting double-doubles from both Tom Thayer and George Wilson (who combined for 28 boards) and a game-high 22 points from sharpshooter Ron Bonham.
Underdog Loyola, though, had just enough scorers on its side to keep pace in spite of an iffy shooting night from star Jerry Harkness (14 points on 5-of-18 from the floor).
The Ramblers took the game to overtime, but it was tied yet again with four seconds remaining in the extra period.
The Ramblers' leading scorer, Les Hunter, missed a potential game-winner from above the foul line, but just before the buzzer, teammate Vic Rouse caught the rebound and laid it back up to win the only national title in school history.
3. Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79 (1989)
In just the second NCAA tournament appearance in program history, third-seeded Seton Hall battled its way to the title game.
A game of H-O-R-S-E between the Pirates’ John Morton (35 points, 11-of-26 from the field) and Michigan star Glen Rice (31 points on 12-of-25) turned into a stalemate, sending the championship to overtime.
In the OT, Seton Hall managed to eke out a one-point lead in the final moments.
With just three seconds on the clock, Rumeal Robinson drew a foul, and the Michigan junior (a 66 percent free-throw shooter) buried a pair from the stripe to bring the national title to Ann Arbor.
2. NC State 54, Houston 52 (1983)
Coming into the title game as a No. 6 seed, Jim Valvano’s NC State squad faced a seemingly insurmountable task.
The Wolfpack’s opponent was one of the most overpowering collections of talent ever seen on a collegiate roster, the Phi Slama Jama Houston Cougars of Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
Thanks in part to a rare off night from Clyde the Glide (four points on 1-of-5 shooting), Thurl Bailey and the Wolfpack managed to keep the game close.
Tied at 52 in the final seconds, NC State’s Dereck Whittenburg hoisted a 28-foot air ball, only to see teammate Lorenzo Charles grab it and slam it home at the buzzer for one of the greatest upsets basketball has ever seen.
1. North Carolina 54, Kansas 53 (1957)
One day after North Carolina escaped from Michigan State in a triple-overtime semifinal, the Tar Heels put on an encore for the ages.
North Carolina coach Frank McGuire opened with a bit of psychological warfare, sending 5’11” Tommy Kearns to take the opening tip against Kansas’ 7’1” Wilt Chamberlain in the hopes (as some accounts have it) of rattling the self-conscious Jayhawk star.
Chamberlain still racked up game highs of 23 points and 14 boards, but Lennie Rosenbluth and the Tar Heels matched him step for step through one overtime…and a second…and still a third.
Even with six seconds left in the third OT, Kansas' lead was just a single point until Joe Quigg's free throws put the Tar Heels on top by one.
The Jayhawks had one last chance to answer, but Quigg swatted away a pass intended for Chamberlain to save the game—and the undefeated season—for North Carolina.