NCAA Tournament 2013: 25 Most Amazing Buzzer-Beaters in March Madness History

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistMarch 13, 2013

NCAA Tournament 2013: 25 Most Amazing Buzzer-Beaters in March Madness History

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    With what's sure to be a titillating 2013 NCAA tournament on the horizon, it's only right that we look back and honor some of the greatest moments of years past. And what better way to do that than to break down all the best buzzer-beaters in the hallowed history of the NCAA tournament.

    As games have proved this season, no team is safe. On nearly a weekly basis, it seems a top-five team goes down in an upset, oftentimes versus a ranked opponent.

    If we can say anything for certain heading into this year's tournament, it's that we'll see plenty of last-second opportunities. If we're lucky, one or two of them may even be good enough to knock some of the all-time greats off this list. 

    Just for reference, we're going to stick as close as possible to "traditional" buzzer-beaters. However, some shots are so iconic that they merit inclusion here. So, just to give myself a little wiggle room, we're going to consider a "buzzer-beater" any shot that leaves less than one second remaining on the game clock.

    For older contests where the fractional seconds weren't available, we'll allow a full second to be on the television clock.

    With that caveat out of the way, here is a complete breakdown of the 25 best buzzer-beaters in NCAA tournament history. 

25. Danero Thomas (2010: Murray State vs. Vanderbilt, First Round)

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    Let's get things started right with arguably the best moment in the history of Murray State basketball. Facing off against a questionable No. 4 seed Vanderbilt, the Racers actually walked into the 2010 NCAA tournament as an in-vogue sleeper choice.

    Though Murray State battled for most of the contest, Vanderbilt retook a one-point lead and was seemingly on its way toward advancing. That was until Danero Thomas put the team on his back with a last-second shot to give Murray State a 66-65 victory.

    As is the case with many of the greatest buzzer-beaters, Thomas got his last-second look by way of a broken play. He took a quick couple of dribbles, created separation from his defender at the top of the right elbow and launched a relatively open shot. 

    The basket gave Murray State its first NCAA tournament victory since 1988. Though the Racers' luck would run out in the next round, they have built on that Cinderella season and made waves in last season's tournament.

24. Rolando Lamb (1984: VCU vs. Northeastern, First Round)

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    Though Virginia Commonwealth has certainly had its lulls over the years, it has almost always been a part of great finishes when a part of the NCAA tournament.

    Case in point: Facing off against a spry and underrated Northeastern squad, the Commodores were down 69-68 with two seconds remaining in their first-round matchup in 1984. With a multitude of options, it wound up being guard Rolando Lamb who was given the keys to the season.

    One face-up turnaround jumper later, Lamb's squad was headed to the second round. VCU would only last one more game, getting pummeled by Syracuse in the second round, but Lamb's game-winner was the farthest the school had ever gone in the Big Dance until a Final Four run in 2011. 

    His shot also produced a rather interesting storyline some 20-plus years later. Rolando's son, Jeremy, wound up playing for then-Northeastern coach Jim Calhoun at Connecticut. In the immaculate words of The Sherman Brothers, it's a small world after all.

23. Chris Lofton (2006: Tennessee vs. Winthrop, First Round)

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    Bruce Pearl's Tennessee Volunteers teams had a habit of playing down to their opponent in March, and this performance in 2006 is perhaps the biggest indicator of that fact.

    Heading into the tournament, the second-seeded Vols were expected to rampage through No. 15 seed Winthrop. The Eagles were just 23-7 on the season while playing in the Big South Conference, and Tennessee was a battle-tested squad that had faced one of the nation's hardest schedules.

    As we often find out in March, regular-season schedule strength matters very little once the seeds are set. Pearl's squad struggled to find its shot throughout the contest, allowing the pesky Winthrop squad to stay in the game and keep the score tied until the waning seconds.

    Taking a side inbounds pass, guard Chris Lofton set and took a historically low-percentage shot—a contested fadeaway from the corner. 

    I don't have to tell you it went in. As for the remainder of the Vols tournament? Well, it took Tennessee less than 48 hours to lose to another underdog, No. 7 Wichita State.

22. Jeff Hornacek (1986: Iowa State vs. Miami (OH), First Round)

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    Is there anyone even remotely surprised that Jeff Hornacek appears on this list for knocking down a long jumper? The former NBA sharpshooter drained 40.3 percent of his three-pointers during his professional career, but before that, he was one of the best players in Iowa State history.

    A No. 7 seed, the Cyclones battled down to the wire against No. 10 Miami (OH). With the score tied and two seconds remaining, Hornacek took an inbounds pass, dribbled once to his right to set his body and knocked down what would be a three-pointer in today's game as time expired.

    The Hornacek-led squad went on to make just the second Sweet 16 appearance in school history before losing to North Carolina State.

21. Don Reid (1995: Georgetown vs. Weber State, Second Round)

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    The final shot was going to be in Allen Iverson's hands.

    That much was clear from the moment the No. 6 seed Hoyas grabbed the rebound and raced up the floor with their second-round game vs. Weber State tied at 51-51. Iverson was the star, and the ball wasn't going to leave his hands whether anyone else was open or not.

    The problem was, everyone on Weber State's defense knew it too. With defenders chasing him the entire way, Iverson took an off-balance, contested shot that was barely in the same area code of the basket.

    Luckily, the focus on Iverson left Don Reid alone under the basket to scoop up the air ball and put it back for a Georgetown victory. It was a play that just goes to show the unlikeliest stars can shine at the brightest moment. 

20. Matt Howard (2011: Butler vs. Old Dominion, First Round)

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    Speaking of buzzer-beating scrambles for a loose ball, Matt Howard's winner in the first round of the 2011 tournament is one that even the youngest fans can appreciate.

    With the score tied at 58-58, Butler had possession with a chance to win. An errant heave went up in the air, causing a loose-ball situation that simply bounced Howard's way, and the forward put the ball in as time expired to give the No. 8 seed Butler a victory over No. 9 Old Dominion. 

    More than anything, Howard's lay-in could be seen as the spark that ignited Butler's scintillating run in 2011. The Bulldogs rode that close-game heat wave, defeating Pittsburgh by one in the next round and eventually making its way to a second straight national championship game. 

    Although Butler lost to Connecticut, one has to wonder whether the school would have even had that chance if it weren't for Howard.

19. Rick Fox: (1990: North Carolina vs. Oklahoma, Second Round)

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    It may seem like a misprint for a Dean Smith-led North Carolina team to be a No. 8 seed and heavy NCAA tournament underdog, but that was the case heading into the Tar Heels' 1990 second-round matchup vs. top seed Oklahoma.

    Throughout North Carolina's down 1989-90 campaign, there was one saving grace: forward Rick Fox. The junior star was the Tar Heels' best player and almost single-handedly kept them in the contest versus a game Sooners squad.

    So who else other than Fox would get the ball in the waning seconds?

    Fox faked like he was going to drive toward the middle of the basket and froze his defender for a split second, which gave him an open lane. He hung in the air just long enough to avoid a block and dropped the ball off the glass to give Smith yet another Sweet 16 appearance.

    That being said, I imagine Fox thinks more fondly of his 1991 Final Four team than knocking down a buzzer-beater in the second round of the previous year's tourney. 

18. Ty Rogers (2008: Western Kentucky vs. Drake, First Round)

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    As two of the most intriguing mid-major teams in the country heading into the 2008 tournament, it was little surprise that fifth-seeded Drake and 12th-seeded Western Kentucky played a game down to the last second.

    They were evenly matched and gave the folks in Tampa Bay an overtime thriller. With Western Kentucky down 99-98 as time ticked down, Tyrone Brazelton, who led all scorers with 33 points, played the decoy role and dished a smart pass to fellow guard Ty Rogers for the game-winner. 

    The best part of this play is that it was completely designed. Rogers was getting the shot, which was taken well beyond NBA three-point range, and Western Kentucky did not seem to care who knew. The semi-screen gave Rogers just enough space to get off a clean shot despite having three defenders in his face, and he coolly knocked it down.

    Western Kentucky went on to knock off another Cinderella team, 13th-seeded San Diego, en route to a Sweet 16 appearance. 

17. Kenton Paulino (2006: Texas vs. West Virginia, Regional Semifinal)

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    If you had 2006 in your first repeat season pool, it looks like your friends owe you a Subway sandwich or whatever people are betting nowadays. Much like Lofton's game-winner, Kenton Paulino's shot saved his coach's rawhide from getting chewed after losing to a lower-seeded team.

    Rick Barnes' third-seeded Longhorns were seemingly given a massive gift in the early rounds. Instead of facing off against the third-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes, they met a 10-loss West Virginia squad.

    It probably didn't take the Texas coach long to wish those Hawkeyes would have made it. The upset-minded Mountaineers tied the game with five seconds remaining and seemed to be siphoning the momentum out of the Longhorns. 

    With no timeouts remaining, Texas went streaking up the floor as time drained off the clock and found guard Kenton Paulino, who set up well beyond the three-point arc for the game-winner. The senior guard knocked down the shot, sending his side to the Elite Eight, where the Longhorns were handily disposed of by LSU. 

16. Korie Lucious (2010: Michigan State vs. Maryland, Second Round)

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    For those wondering what college basketball used to look like before every team drained the shot clock down to 0.3 seconds, you may want to go back and watch game tape of this matchup. The fourth-seeded Terrapins and fifth-seeded Spartans scampered up and down the floor, trading baskets in one of the most exciting tournament games in recent memory.

    The contest's waning seconds exemplified that level of excitement. After Greivis Vasquez took Raymar Morgan to task to put Maryland ahead 83-82, Tom Izzo made the executive call to keep a timeout in the chamber and allow the game to play out.

    The move worked brilliantly. Draymond Green went dashing up the floor as the Terrapins defense struggled to get settled. He found Korie Lucious at the wing, who took one giant step left, set himself and fired off a long-range missile to send Michigan State to the Sweet 16.

    Izzo's bunch went on to make the Final Four, winning two more close games along the way. 

    Though there have been only three tournaments thus far in this decade, Lucious' game-winner has a commanding lead on his competition. Here's to hoping Lucious finds that stiff competition in this year's Big Dance. 

15. Danny Ainge (1981: BYU vs. Notre Dame, Regional Semifinal)

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    Long before Danny Ainge was a two-time NBA champion or executive of the year with the Boston Celtics, he was arguably the best basketball player in Brigham Young's history. As the Cougars' best player during his run at the school, 1977-81, it was Ainge's senior season that proved to be truly special.

    He was given the John R. Wooden Award as the nation's best player in 1981, and his sixth-seeded BYU team embarked on a magical March run. The Cougars defeated Princeton and destroyed No. 3 seed UCLA in the first two rounds to set up one of the more iconic moments of Ainge's career—professional or collegiate—in the Sweet 16.

    Down 50-49 with eight seconds remaining against Notre Dame, Ainge weaved through the Irish press, defeating three defenders and driving right into the lane for an easy game-winning layup. It looked almost like a layup drill you would see in practice, where the scout team feigns interest in defending before allowing the star to score.

    Ainge made the Irish defenders look foolish with an Elite Eight berth on the line. Though BYU has had plenty of solid teams since Ainge's departure, the 1981 squad remains the school's last team to appear in the Elite Eight.

14. Jerome Whitehead (1977: Marquette vs. UNC Charlotte, Final Four)

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    When UNC Charlotte's Cedric Maxwell tied his team's matchup with Marquette at 49-49 with three seconds remaining, it looked as if this Final Four contest was heading to overtime. The two sides had trudged through a hard-fought defensive battle all game long, leaving the prospect of a game-winning jumper questionable at best.

    Well, we never had to find out whether a jumper would have fallen. Marquette coach Al McGuire, in what would be his last season at the school, drew up a play that has become awfully familiar in college basketball folklore.

    Instead of inbounding the ball around midcourt and hoping his player would knock down a shot, McGuire instructed Butch Lee to throw the ball the entire length of the court. Standing there to catch it was Jerome Whitehead, who fought the defender off, corralled the ball and laid it in just as time expired.

    The Golden Eagles would go on to win the national championship over North Carolina, and McGuire traipsed into the sunset and into a legendary broadcasting career. 

13. Jermaine Wallace (2006: Northwestern State vs. Iowa, First Round)

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    This just in: 2006 was a very good season to be a college basketball fan—especially on the first weekend. Great finishes were seemingly happening every minute, to the point where fans may have self-combusted if live-streaming capabilities were up and running seven years ago.

    While it's hard to pick just one great finish to be the best that season, one has a hard time choosing against Jermaine Wallace carrying his team as time expired. Not only did Wallace track down the rebound with his No. 14 seed Northwestern State squad down 63-61, but he also took a near-impossible contested three and drained it.

    The Northwestern State victory sent the third-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes packing and gave the Demons their only NCAA tournament win to date.

12. Christian Laettner (1990: Duke vs. UConn, Regional Final)

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    When folks try to make the case for Christian Laettner as the best college basketball player of the past half-century, this is the moment those backers emphasize.

    With Duke down 78-77 with 2.6 seconds remaining, Laettner was seemingly a secondary option on the play. He was inbounding the ball, and the shot looked like it would go elsewhere—that is until Connecticut decided not to guard Laettner after the pass. The star forward almost instantly received the ball back after his inbounds pass, took a dribble and a step forward inside the three-point arc and fired an 18-footer as time expired to give Duke a victory.

    Though the Blue Devils would later lose to UNLV in the national championship game, that shot helped cement Laettner's legacy in Durham. Methinks Mr. Laettner may see his name come up again in the buzzer-beater discussion in the near future as well.


11. Mike Miller (2000: Florida vs. Butler, First Round)

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    Missed free throws. They seem so inexcusable on the surface, yet every season we see at least one team's national championship journey end because of them.

    Though the 2000 Butler Bulldogs likely weren't a title contender, their missed free throws did ultimately shift the entire paradigm of that Big Dance. 

    The 12th-seeded Bulldogs' miss down the stretch gave their first-round opponent, No. 5 seed Florida Gators, an opportunity to win with a two-point basket rather than a three.

    And with a beautiful Mike Miller drive right into the heart of Butler's defense, that's exactly what the Gators did. Miller barreled his way into the lane, throwing up an up-and-under shot as time expired and he was falling down to give Florida a 69-68 victory.

    It was a win that would spark Florida's national championship game run in school history. The Gators lost that contest handily to Michigan State, but without missed free throws and Miller's heroics, they wouldn't have been there in the first place. 

10. Scottie Reynolds: (2009: Villanova vs. Pittsburgh, Regional Final)

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    There is no other way to describe Scottie Reynolds' game-winning drive in 2009 other than "special."

    With third-seeded Villanova tied at 76-76 with Pittsburgh in their Elite Eight matchup, Reynolds took a designed handoff from a little behind the midcourt line and drove his way right into the Panthers defense.

    Despite needing to split two defenders at the three-point arc and get his layup over the outstretched arms of Gilbert Brown, Reynolds drained the basket to send the Wildcats to their first Final Four in nearly 25 years.

    It marked the crowning achievement in a whirlwind season for the junior guard. Villanova lost to a juggernaut North Carolina team in the next round, but Reynolds will always have the night he defeated his Big East rival on the grandest stage.

9. Bryce Drew (1998: Valparaiso vs. Ole Miss, First Round)

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    Bryce Drew went on to have success as the head coach at Valparaiso, but it's his brilliant performance as a player in the 1998 NCAA Tournament that will keep him in college basketball scripture forever.

    Playing under his father, Homer, Bryce had developed into one of the best young players in the country. As a senior, he won his second Horizon League MVP award and led the Crusaders to their third straight NCAA tournament appearance, where they met fourth-seeded Ole Miss in the first round.

    With Valparaiso having gone out after one game in each of their first few dances, Drew came out motivated to prevent that happening a third time. He led Valparaiso to a down-to-the-wire finish, where the Crusaders had the ball down 69-67 with 2.5 seconds remaining and the full length of the court remaining.

    Jamie Sykes heaved the ball down the floor to about 30 feet beyond the basket. Bill Jenkins received the contested pass and instantly launched it to Drew, who knocked down a three-pointer for the victory. 

    The sequence was more incredible than the shot itself, but Drew's brilliance remains the one shining light of Valparaiso's basketball program.

8. Tyus Edney: (1995: UCLA vs. Missouri, Second Round)

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    If you're looking for a fancy, intricate basketball play, you may want to look elsewhere. The top-seeded UCLA Bruins put the ball in point guard Tyus Edney's hands, him drive the entire length of the floor and put up a contested game-winner.

    Edney's fadeaway layup as time expired knocked off the glass and front rim before dropping through the net and giving the Bruins a 75-74 win over the eighth-seeded Missouri Tigers. UCLA would continue that momentum from its close call and win its first national championship in 20 years.

    That 1995 triumph is also the Bruins' last title, a fact that undoubtedly comes up at booster meetings in Westwood every year. Just know that the drought may have been a whole lot longer if not for the brilliant speed of Edney. 

7. James Forrest: (1992: Georgia Tech vs. USC, Second Round)

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    The NBA playoffs have Derek Fisher's jumper with 0.4 seconds remaining against the San Antonio Spurs. The NCAA tournament has James Forrest's turnaround three-pointer with 0.8 seconds to go, which gave the No. 7 seed Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets a shocking upset over the No. 2 seed USC Trojans.

    This is arguably the only shot on this list where the call is as iconic as the shot itself. Al McGuire's "holy mackerel!" has gone down as one of the best in NCAA history, a rare exclamation of the pure joy March Madness can cause. Often, broadcasters are too mundane in huge moments, trying not to allow their sports fandom cloud their vision.

    McGuire bucked that trend, giving fans one of the more relatable moments in history. Oh, and Forrest's shot more than deserved that type of call. So there's that, too.

6. Richard Hamilton: (1998: UConn vs. Washington, Regional Semifinal)

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    There aren't many cases where a three-time NBA All-Star and former NBA champion's most titillating on-court moment came as a college junior, but that may be the case for Chicago Bulls guard Richard Hamilton.

    Down 74-73 against 11th-seeded Washington in the waning seconds of their Sweet 16 matchup, the No. 2 seed Connecticut decided to play for the last shot. And by "last shot," I mean last succession of shots.

    Starting with a Jake Voskuhl shot with a little over seven seconds remaining, Connecticut had no fewer than four game-winning opportunities coming from shots and tips around the rim. The last of those opportunities landed with Hamilton, who threw up a prayer as he fell on his backside as time expired.

    The star guard spent a lot more time on his backside, as his teammates swarmed him after the shot went in to give UConn a one-point victory. The Huskies lost their next game to North Carolina, but Hamilton seemingly took those clutch lessons and carried them over to the next season, where he was the Most Outstanding Player in the 1999 tourney. 

5. Drew Nicholas (2003: Maryland vs. UNC-Wilmington, First Round)

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    There are times when a play is designed to have just one ball-handler, and then there is what Maryland guard Drew Nicholas did during the first round of the 2003 NCAA tournament.

    It's obvious to anyone who has ever watched basketball that Nicholas was given multiple passing options in the backcourt by Gary Williams. Instead, we got an exercise in the always risky proposition of hero ball.

    Most of the time, Nicholas' shot would clank off the rim and the sixth-seeded Terrapins would hear never-ending questions about how they were upset by a No. 11 seed. Luckily (or unluckily depending on your perspective), Nicholas' refusal to pass the ball resulted in one of the best individual shots in tournament history.

    With two defenders chasing him, one of whom being directly in his line of vision, Nicholas knocked down a fadeaway three-pointer to give Maryland a 75-73 victory over UNC-Wilmington. The shot breathed life into the struggling Terrapins, which went on to reach the Sweet 16. 

4. Tate George (1990: UConn vs. Clemson, East Regional Semifinals)

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    Of the greatest moments in Jim Calhoun's career, this may have been the first "lucky horseshoe" instance of the legendary Connecticut coach. He drew up a play not too dissimilar to an infamous play we will see from Duke two years later.

    Huskies guard-forward Scott Burrell sent a full-court inbounds pass to star Tate George with one second remaining. Having no time to do anything but throw up a turnaround jumper, George threw up a prayer that got answered.

    The victory kept the Huskies alive, but they would ultimately fall to the Blue Devils in the Elite Eight. 

    One reason George gets a little demerit here: His shot likely came slightly after the clock expired; however, the officials could not review the play at the time and the basket counted.

    Still, having the fourth-best buzzer-beater in NCAA history isn't bad. 

3. U.S. Reed (1981: Arkansas vs. Louisville, Second Round)

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    U.S. Reed's shot may have had the highest degree of difficulty in NCAA tournament history.

    Down 72-71 with mere seconds remaining on the floor, Reed took the inbounds pass and instantly looked to advance the ball up the floor. Unable to find teammates, the Arkansas guard dribbled to a little behind the midcourt line (almost with his head down) and launched up a contested prayer.

    It went in, sending the crowd into a state of pandemonium and causing a rare court-rushing experience for the Razorbacks.

    Many shots throughout tournament history have involved massive underdogs defeating national powers; others have led directly to national championships.

    This is neither.

    Arkansas was taking on defending national champion Louisville when Reed knocked down his game-winner, but the result was a No. 5 seed defeating a No. 4 seed in 1981. And despite the fantastic victory, the Razorbacks went on to lose in the Sweet 16.

    Nonetheless, the rarity of sinking a half-court winner vaults Reed up the list. 

2. Lorenzo Charles (1983: N.C. State vs. Houston, National Championship Game)

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    Jim Valvano's North Carolina State Wolfpack were barely expected to make it out of the first round in 1983. Five victories later—three of which coming by one possession—and they were in the national championship game, tied with Houston's "Phi Slama Jama," with the final seconds ticking off the clock.

    A sloppy possession ensued. N.C. State was unable to create offensive rhythm as Houston's defense locked down, and guard Dereck Whittenburg chucked up an ill-fated shot from near half court with around four seconds remaining. The shot unsurprisingly failed to hit rim, but forward Lorenzo Charles was there for a put-back and the rest has gone down in college basketball folklore.

    Valvano scampering around the floor, just looking for someone to hug. Charles' triumphant, semi-shell-shocked initial reaction. The dejected look from Houston's star-studded and heavily favored side. 

    All of it was there, forming the crux of what college basketball means to so many. The moment was not only captivating from a basketball perspective, but it has also lived on thanks to the characters involved.

    Valvano is now known better as the face of the Jimmy V Foundation and for his "never give up" speech, but this is one of the iconic moments that helped spur his ascent into the national conversation. 

    There may be one better buzzer-beater in NCAA history, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a more touching one. 

1. Christian Laettner (1992: Duke vs. Kentucky, East Regional Final)

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    This is arguably the most iconic play in college basketball for a reason. Down 103-102 to Kentucky with just 2.1 seconds on the clock and a full court to go, Duke had to think its 1992 NCAA tournament was over.

    One beautiful Grant Hill baseball pass, Christian Laettner turnaround jumper and questionable Kentucky defensive scheme later, and Duke captured a classic East Regional Final matchup en route to winning the NCAA championship.

    The most impressive (and underrated) thing here was Laettner's presence of mind. Most young players—especially considering the situation—would have simply jacked up a bad turnaround jumper. Instead, Laettner set his body with a dribble, turned over his right shoulder to create defensive separation and gave himself a lightly contested jumper.

    It was almost as if Laettner completely forgot he had Duke's entire season on the line. From Hill's pass to Laettner's cold-blooded calculation to the shot itself, this play was an absolute thing of beauty.

    More than two decades have passed, and announcers—both young and old—reference Laettner's shot when teams are in full-court situations in the waning seconds. It's an iconic moment not only for Duke and college basketball, but also for collegiate sports as a whole.

    Charles and Jimmy V are the sentimental choices. But Laettner, Hill and Coach K pulled off the greatest buzzer-beater in NCAA history.