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Ranking the Greatest Moments in the History of March Madness

Thad NovakCorrespondent IJanuary 7, 2017

Ranking the Greatest Moments in the History of March Madness

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    As part of this year’s celebration of the 75th anniversary of the NCAA tournament, the NCAA has compiled a list of the Big Dance’s signature moments. The choices (and omissions) are bound to get fans talking. Starting in January, those fans will also have a chance to vote for their No. 1 moment from a field of 35.

    The NCAA’s picks are nothing if not comprehensive, running from the very first tournament in 1939 to last March’s fireworks. The 2012 entry is one for the Cinderella ledger: the Day of the No. 15 Seeds, with Lehigh and Norfolk State scoring monster upsets within hours of each other.

    Here is a look at all 35 of the NCAA’s selections, with an eye to ranking the best of the best. Which moments featured the highest stakes, the biggest surprises and the most impressive performances?

35. Oregon Wins First NCAA Tournament (1939)

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    Oregon’s 1938-39 squad returned all five starters from what was already an intimidating bunch. Those Ducks were nicknamed the “Tall Firs” because of the height advantage enjoyed by players like 6’8” Slim Wintermute.

    The veteran Ducks made a shambles of the inaugural NCAA tournament field, sweeping to the title without any opponent coming within 10 points of them.

    A 46-33 dismantling of Ohio State completed the coronation and gave Oregon the first-ever NCAA championship—still, sadly, the only one in program history.

34. Mile-High Madness: Syracuse Beats Georgia in OT (1996)

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    Eighth-seeded Georgia had sent Brad Miller and No. 1 seed Purdue packing by the time it reached the 1996 Sweet 16. Once there, the Bulldogs came awfully close to giving the Denver crowd another upset to cheer.

    No. 4 seed Syracuse needed a buzzer-beating jumper from Jason Cipolla just to send the game to overtime.

    In the extra session, a late three-pointer from Bulldog star Shandon Anderson put Georgia back on top, only to have Syracuse PF John Wallace bury a trey of his own and win the game for the Orangemen.

33. Hampton Coach Steve Merfeld Gets a Lift (2001)

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    Hampton’s 6’9” Tarvis Williams led the nation in blocked shots in 2001, and in the Big Dance, he showed that he could play a little offense, too.

    With his 15th-seeded Pirates trailing No. 2 seed Iowa State by a point in their first-round clash, Williams corralled a pass in the lane and powered in the game-winning leaner with less than 10 seconds to play.

    The upset touched off quite a celebration, especially for coach Steve Merfeld. His triumphant leaps got an assist from big man David Johnson in the game’s most memorable image.

32. Butler Comes Oh So Close (2010)

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    Less than an inch to the left.

    That's all the margin that separated Gordon Hayward from becoming the greatest hero in March Madness history when his half-court prayer bounced off the rim against Duke.

    The Butler star had already accomplished plenty in the 2010 tournament, leading his fifth-seeded Bulldogs to the national title game.

    But after upsetting Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State, Butler fell to the Blue Devils by a margin of two points and that painful inch.

31. Richmond Makes History (1991)

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    The 1985 expansion to a 64-team March Madness field sparked its share of upsets, but the top two seeds looked untouchable after six years of perfect records.

    The 1991 Richmond Spiders seemed an unlikely choice to break that trend. After all, the East Regional 15th seed had lost its regular-season finale to lowly William & Mary.

    Against second-seeded Syracuse, though, the Spiders jumped out to an early lead and never looked back.

    Even 22 points from Orangemen star Billy Owens were not enough to save Jim Boeheim’s squad from suffering the biggest upset the Big Dance had ever seen.

30. Rip Rips the Hearts Out of the Washington Huskies (1998)

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    Clinging to a one-point lead in the final seconds, 11th-seeded Washington needed just one more defensive stop to advance to the 1998 Elite Eight. Of course, a defensive stop would have required that the Huskies actually get control of the basketball.

    Twice UConn tried to power up shots over seven-foot Washington center Todd MacCulloch. Twice it tracked down the offensive rebound when the shots went begging.

    Finally, Rip Hamilton brought joy to one set of Husky fans and pain to the other with a desperation fallaway that barely cleared MacCulloch’s long arm and won the game for UConn.

29. Andre Turner: Twice a Hero (1985)

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    Apparently, Andre Turner was worried that people might have missed his first NCAA tournament game-winner, because he provided his own instant replay.

    The Memphis State point guard had saved the second-seeded Tigers from a second-round upset in 1985, turning a one-point deficit into an overtime win against UAB.

    The Tigers’ next time out, another underdog (11th-seeded Boston College) took them down to the wire again. Once again, Turner had the answer, breaking a 57-57 tie in the final seconds to earn another win for Final Four-bound Memphis State.

28. The Nation Meets Gonzaga (1999)

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    When unknown No. 10 seed Gonzaga trounced Minnesota to open the 1999 NCAA tournament, there was little reason to believe a phenomenon was beginning.

    Of course, somebody forgot to tell the Zags they were supposed to be satisfied with one upset win.

    Richie Frahm and his mates dispatched No. 2 seed Stanford by a surprisingly easy eight points and then used a Casey Calvary putback to trip up sixth-seeded Florida.

    Gus Johnson's proverbial slipper almost fit again in the Elite Eight, but top-seeded UConn tolled midnight in the Elite Eight (by a mere five-point margin).

27. Wooden Goes Out with 10th Title (1975)

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    Guiding a comparatively anonymous team in the wake of Bill Walton’s graduation, John Wooden still saw his Bruins battle their way to a 1975 Final Four meeting with Louisville.

    Richard Washington’s overtime buzzer-beater sent UCLA to the title game, which Wooden announced would be his last on the Bruin sideline.

    The Wizard of Westwood got a storybook ending as his team beat Kentucky, 92-85, for the 10th and last championship of his unmatched career.

26. Laettner…Before the Kentucky Game (1990)

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    Just days after Tate George’s miraculous buzzer-beater had saved its season, UConn learned the hard way that it is no fun to be on the wrong end of a late-game miracle.

    The top-seeded Huskies and third-seeded Duke battled right to the end of overtime, with the Blue Devils trailing by a point with 2.6 seconds remaining.

    For its last chance, Duke turned to sophomore Christian Laettner, who showed an early flash of his celebrated clutch ability by feathering in the game-winning jumper from the elbow.

25. Walton Leads Bruins to Title (1973)

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    Three-time Naismith Award winner Bill Walton is on the short list of the greatest players in the history of college hoops. The 6’11” UCLA center never looked the part more than he did against Memphis State in the 1973 national title game.

    The Tigers’ 6’9” Larry Kenon was no match for Walton, who carved out a space in the middle and fielded passes from Greg Lee and Larry Hollyfield all night long.

    The result was one of the most astounding individual performances in college history: 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting from the floor, topped off by 13 rebounds.

24. Regional Finals for the Ages (2005)

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    The 2005 Elite Eight set the standard for photo finishes, with as many total overtime periods as games played (four).

    Two of those extra sessions went to decide the Kentucky-Michigan State showdown, but the upset win by the fifth-seeded Spartans was not even close to the biggest surprise of the weekend.

    No. 4 seed Louisville rallied from 20 down to force OT against West Virginia, barreling on to the win behind 24 points from Larry O’Bannon.

    Later that night, top-seeded Illinois needed an even more ludicrous comeback when it trailed Arizona by 15 with four minutes left on the clock.

    The Illini backcourt sparked a 20-5 run, capped by a Deron Williams trey that forced yet another overtime—one in which Illinois would need still more long-range marksmanship from Williams to eke out a 90-89 win.

23. Ainge’s Full-Court Drive Leads BYU Last-Second Win (1981)

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    In the 1981 Sweet 16, even the luck of the Irish could not match the heart of one BYU Cougar.

    Second-seeded Notre Dame had just grabbed a one-point lead over BYU, but the Cougars had eight seconds left to salvage the game.

    Point guard Danny Ainge took the inbounds pass and sliced through the entire Notre Dame defense—a lineup that featured future pros Orlando Woolridge, Kelly Tripucka and John Paxson—to lay in the game-winner for the No. 6 seed.

22. Duke Upsets UNLV (1991)

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    Led by Naismith Award winner Larry Johnson, defending national champion UNLV reached the 1991 Final Four undefeated and brimming with bravado.

    The Rebels’ date with history seemed a sure thing, especially as they faced a Duke team they had annihilated in the 1990 title game by a record 30 points.

    The rematch was a very different story.

    LJ slogged to a quiet 13 points, and neither he nor center George Ackles were capable of anything to slow down Christian Laettner.

    With the game tied at 77 in the final minute, Laettner drew a foul on a putback attempt and drained his free throws to secure the Blue Devils’ revenge.

21. Marquette’s McGuire Goes Out on Top (1977)

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    In the midst of the 1976-77 season, Marquette coach Al McGuire announced that he was retiring at the end of the year.

    His Warriors (as the team was still known) proceeded to plummet from the No. 2 ranking to as low as No. 19, only bouncing back in the final week of the regular season.

    Despite those struggles, Marquette rallied at the right time, scrapping its way to a national title showdown with Dean Smith’s favored North Carolina team.

    Point guard Butch Lee put in a brilliant effort, outscoring Tar Heel star Phil Ford 19-6 to spring the upset and send his coach out a winner.

20. UConn’s Tate George Beats Clemson in Final Seconds (1990)

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    UConn’s 1990 Sweet 16 meeting with Clemson was a classic size-vs.-speed contest. The Tigers featured future NBA big men Elden Campbell and Dale Davis, who combined for 30 points in leading a furious second-half comeback.

    With one second left and the Tigers up a point, though, it was time for the Huskies’ guards to shine.

    Freshman Scott Burrell fired the ball the length of the floor to senior Tate George, who somehow lofted a turnaround jumper over the Clemson D and sent the Huskies to the Elite Eight.

19. Twice in One Day? Afraid So, Missouri and Duke (2012)

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    In the first 27 years of the existence of the No. 15 seed, a grand total of four such teams had ever won a game in the Big Dance. Last March, Norfolk State and Lehigh raised that number to six in a matter of hours.

    First, Norfolk State staggered 30-win (but height-challenged) Missouri behind 26 points and 14 boards from 6’10” Kyle O’Quinn.

    Just as that bombshell was sinking in for the Tigers, fellow No. 2 seed Duke was tipping off against equally unheralded Lehigh.

    The Mountain Hawks’ answer to O’Quinn was junior guard C.J. McCollum, who torched the Blue Devils for 30 points and sent another No. 15 seed to the Round of 32.

18. U.S. Reed, Rolando Blackman and John Smith (1981)

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    For one weekend in 1981, the last second was the only second that mattered. Three second-round games that March came down to improbable buzzer-beaters.

    Kansas State’s Rolando Blackman toppled top-seeded Oregon State with a mid-range jumper, but he did not even score the weekend’s biggest upset.

    That honor went to John Smith of St. Joseph’s, who slipped open under the basket for the backdoor layup that felled top-ranked DePaul (led by stars Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings).

    For degree of difficulty, though, neither of those finishes could touch U.S. Reed’s moment in the spotlight. The Arkansas senior launched a half-court heave that somehow found the hoop to floor fourth-seeded Louisville.

17. VCU Goes from First Four to the Final Four (2011)

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    For a team that many observers did not think belonged in the 2011 field of 68, Virginia Commonwealth did pretty well for itself.

    The Rams, relegated to the First Four as one of the last at-large teams to make the tourney, knocked off four consecutive higher seeds on their way to the Final Four.

    The 11th-seeded Rams relied on a swarming, pressing defense that power conference foes from Georgetown to Kansas couldn’t solve. Ultimately, it took another Cinderella—the Butler Bulldogs—to end VCU’s magical run in the national semis.

16. Magic vs. Bird (1979)

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    To this day, no basketball game has earned higher TV ratings than the 1979 NCAA final. There is no mystery to the appeal of that game, which featured Larry Bird and unbeaten Indiana State taking on a Michigan State team led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

    Even slowed by a broken thumb, Bird managed 19 points and 13 rebounds, but it was not enough to outshine Magic. The Spartan point guard racked up 24 points, seven boards and five assists in a convincing win.

    Magic’s performance simultaneously won a national title, sparked one of basketball’s great individual rivalries and convinced sports fans that the NCAA tournament was a not-to-be-missed TV event.

15. Tyus Edney Saves UCLA (1995)

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    Ask any coach how to defend the fast break, and the first answer is likely to be, “Stop the ball.” In the second round in 1995, Missouri picked an exceptionally bad time to forget that lesson.

    The Tigers were 4.8 seconds away from upsetting top-seeded UCLA, but nobody stopped Tyus Edney. The Bruin point guard dashed the length of the floor for a layup and a 75-74 win, keeping the season alive for the eventual national champs.

14. Loyola Marymount’s Bo Kimble Shoots Lefty (1990)

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    In the midst of the greatest season in school history, tragedy struck Loyola Marymount. Superstar forward Hank Gathers collapsed and died on the court in the 1990 WCC tournament, the victim of a heart disorder.

    The Lions did their fallen teammate proud in the Big Dance, turning a No. 11 seed into a trip to the Elite Eight. The hero of that effort was Gathers’ best friend, Bo Kimble, who came up with a personal way to honor his late comrade.

    In each of LMU’s four tournament games, the right-handed Kimble took his first free throw left-handed as a tribute to southpaw Gathers—and he sank every one.

13. N.C. State Ends UCLA’s Run (1974)

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    By 1974, UCLA had won seven consecutive national titles. Bill Walton and his teammates finally saw their streak end, but they did not go down without a fight.

    In an epic Final Four showdown, the Bruins battled David Thompson’s N.C. State squad through two overtimes.

    After the Wolfpack had erased a seven-point deficit in the second OT, it was left to 5’7” point guard Monte Towe to seal Goliath’s fate with the clinching free throws in an 80-77 win.

    The championship game against Marquette was a virtual formality, and N.C. State claimed its first national title.

12. George Mason Reaches Final Four (2006)

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    Even by the standards of No. 11 seeds, George Mason started the 2006 tournament behind the eight ball, facing Michigan State without suspended backcourt star Tony Skinn.

    Not only did GMU thrash Tom Izzo’s team by 10 points, but it proceeded to bull its way through Tyler Hansbrough’s Tar Heels and upstart Wichita State to reach the Elite Eight.

    The Patriots’ biggest upset of all came against the top-seeded UConn Huskies, whose four first-round draft picks (led by Rudy Gay) could not save them from an overtime defeat.

    Only eventual champion Florida managed to end George Mason’s run, and it took until the national semifinals to do it.

11. Rumeal Robinson Seals Michigan Victory (1989)

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    Underdog teams are not the only ones who can defy the odds in March. Sometimes, it is a single player who comes through when the numbers say he should fall through instead.

    Rumeal Robinson was one of the worst free-throw shooters on Michigan’s roster, so he was hardly hoping to get to the line when he drew a foul late in the 1989 title game.

    Facing the pressure of a one-point deficit with three seconds left in overtime, the junior defied his .656 percentage from the stripe to drain both free throws and earn the Wolverines their first national title.

10. The Bryce Drew Shot—Valpo Upsets Ole Miss (1998)

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    Playing in its third straight NCAA tournament, battle-tested Valparaiso was a prime candidate to spring a first-round upset on No. 4 seed Ole Miss in 1998. 

    Even so, it took a healthy dose of luck for the Crusaders to close out their first-ever March Madness win.

    First, Rebel star Ansu Sesay had to miss a free throw that left the Ole Miss lead at two points with 2.5 seconds on the clock.

    Then, Bill Jenkins had to field a three-quarter-court inbound heave and turn it into a perfect touch pass to senior star Bryce Drew, whose buzzer-beating trey sent Valpo to the second round.

9. Loyola (Ill.) vs. Mississippi St. (1963)

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    Mississippi State won the SEC for the fourth time in five seasons in 1963. Still, the Maroons (as they were then known) had every reason to believe they would miss the NCAA tournament yet again.

    A segregationist state government had repeatedly banned the all-white team from playing in a tourney where it could face an integrated opponent.

    By 1963, coach Babe McCarthy had had enough.

    He snuck his team out of the state just ahead of a governmental injunction, enabling it to take on Loyola (Ill.) and its four black starters.

    That the Maroons fell to the eventual national champs, 61-51, meant far less than that the game had finally been played at all.

8. Jordan Hits Game-Winner to Lead North Carolina (1982)

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    For most of its 40 minutes, the 1982 championship game showcased the efforts of North Carolina junior James Worthy on one side and Georgetown freshman Patrick Ewing on the other.

    In the waning seconds, though, it was a freshman in Tar Heel blue who stole the show.

    At the time, Michael Jordan was just another very good first-year guard, one who had already scored 14 points against the Hoyas. But after his 17-footer put North Carolina up for good, the legend of Air Jordan had begun in earnest.

7. Indiana’s Smart Shocks Syracuse (1987)

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    For 39-plus minutes, Syracuse freshman Derrick Coleman played like the hero of the 1987 national title game.

    After he’d grabbed the last of his school-record 19 rebounds, though, Coleman’s missed free throw gave Indiana one more chance with half a minute to play in a one-point game.

    Instead of superstar Steve Alford, the Hoosiers turned to his backcourt mate Keith Smart. The junior guard drained a buzzer-beating jumper, and IU grabbed another national title.

6. Indiana Wins the Title—Perfectly (1976)

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    The last undefeated champion in college basketball, Bobby Knight’s 1975-76 Hoosiers won an unparalleled 32 games without a loss.

    Forwards Scott May and Kent Benson provided the offense (40.8 points a game of it), but it was Knight’s punishing defense that made IU a champion.

    The Hoosiers didn’t exactly draw a soft schedule in March either. After entering the Big Dance at 27-0, they knocked off second-ranked Marquette in the Elite Eight and defending champion UCLA in the Final Four en route to the championship.

5. A Win for Civil Rights (1966)

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    Much of college basketball was integrated by 1966, but coaching legend Adolph Rupp made sure Kentucky remained an exception.

    For many observers that year, the national title game was a foregone conclusion. Rupp’s all-white Wildcats, by definition, could not lose to the all-black starting lineup of third-ranked Texas Western (now UTEP).

    The Miners, however, begged to differ, with their sensational defense holding Kentucky to 38 percent shooting. The first team ever to start five black players (earlier that year) became the first team to win a title doing it, by a margin of 72-65.

4. Kansas Comes Back in Closing Minutes to Win Title (2008)

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    With just 2:12 to play in the 2008 national title game, Kansas trailed second-ranked Memphis by nine points.

    The Jayhawks needed some help to stay alive, and they got it from a Tigers squad that shot an atrocious .614 from the free-throw line for the season.

    A string of botched foul shots by Memphis spurred a KU rally, and with just 2.1 seconds to play, Kansas point guard Mario Chalmers buried a game-saving three-pointer to force overtime.

    With Memphis star Derrick Rose nursing an injured leg, the Tigers wilted in the extra period, and KU rolled to the national championship.

3. Laettner Hits Last-Second Shot Against Kentucky (1992)

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    Regardless of how it ended, Duke’s 1992 Elite Eight duel with Kentucky would have been remembered as a March classic. Sean Woods’ 21st point, on an improbable runner, put Kentucky up 103-102 with 2.1 seconds to play in overtime.

    Unfortunately for him, all he had done was set the stage for history’s most famous buzzer-beater.

    Grant Hill’s long inbounds pass found Christian Laettner, who had hit all nine of his shots from the field on the night. Laettner swished a spinning fadeaway from 18 feet to propel his team to the Final Four and himself into every highlight reel of the last two decades.

2. Villanova Upsets Georgetown (1985)

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    Georgetown’s 1984-85 squad returned four starters from the 1984 national champs, led by senior superstar Patrick Ewing.

    For that team to lose to a No. 8 seed in the national championship game would have taken a miraculous performance…which is exactly what Villanova turned in.

    The Wildcats shot .786 from the field, missing just one shot in the entire second half. Meanwhile, 6’9” Ed Pinckney battled the 7’0” Ewing to a standstill, allowing Villanova to become the lowest-seeded national champion ever.

1. NC State’s Last-Second Win over Houston (1983)

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    Just getting to overtime would have been an achievement for N.C. State.

    The sixth-seeded Wolfpack were not even supposed to give Houston a competitive game, not with the Phi Slama Jama Cougars boasting Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

    With the 1983 championship game tied at 52, though, Jim Valvano’s team had one more possession to go for the mind-boggling win.

    Dereck Whittenburg’s long-range bomb came up much too short…only to be grabbed and slammed home at the buzzer by Lorenzo Charles for the greatest upset finish in NCAA tournament history.

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