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25 Most Clutch Performances in NCAA Tournament History

Jake CurtisFeatured Columnist IIDecember 29, 2016

25 Most Clutch Performances in NCAA Tournament History

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    A clutch performance in an NCAA tournament involves more than merely making a game-winning shot.

    A big shot at the end of a game is certainly part of the equation. However, a player's overall contribution, not just an attention-grabbing moment, is what constitutes a clutch performance.

    That's why game-winning shots by North Carolina State's Lorenzo Charles in 1983 or Indiana's Keith Smart in 1987 did not get them on this list. Even Mario Chalmers' game-tying three-pointer against Memphis in 2008 did not earn him a spot in our ranking of the top 25 most clutch performances in the NCAA tournament.

    Our rankings are based on four criteria:

    1. The significance of the game.

    2. The quality of the opponent.

    3. The player's impact on the game.

    4. The level of pressure involved.

25. Danny Ainge (BYU), 1981

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    Danny Ainge barely made it on this list because, for the first 39:52 of BYU's third-round game against Notre Dame in 1981, he did little.

    Ainge had just 10 points on 3-for-9 shooting when BYU took possession 94 feet from its basket with eight seconds left, trailing 50-49.

    In those closing seconds, however, he produced the epitome of a clutch play, as recorded on YouTube. Ainge took the ball in the backcourt going full speed. He went behind his back to get past several defenders at midcourt, and he challenged the Irish big men as he neared the basket.

    With an internal clock telling him time was short, but never in a panic, Ainge put up a controlled four-foot shot that swished through with two seconds left.

    The Cougars won 52-51.

24. Mateen Cleaves (Michigan State), 2000

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    Mateen Cleaves' 18 points and four assists in Michigan State's 89-76 victory over Florida in the 2000 championship game tell little of his contribution to the victory.

    Although he was a leader more than a scorer, Cleaves hit all three of his three-point attempts in the first half to put the Spartans ahead to stay.

    However, his clutch performance came in the second half, when disaster seemed imminent. Michigan State led by six points when Cleaves rolled his ankle with 16:18 left and had to be carried off the court, according to an account on the Michigan State website

    It seemed unlikely he would return.

    But just 4:29 later, he limped back onto the court, his ankle bulging with the extra tape under his sock. Cleaves could barely move. He still managed to lead a 16-6 run with his passing and ball-handling that salted the game away.

23. Nick Collison (Kansas), 2003

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    Nick Collison scored 33 points and pulled down 19 rebounds in Kansas' 69-65 victory over Duke in the 2003 national semifinals.

    But it wasn't just that he hit 14 of 22 shots or played all 40 minutes. It was when he made his contributions that earned him a spot on this list.

    Jayhawks star guard Kirk Hinrich was on the bench with four fouls and Kansas trailed by a point with 7:12 left when Collison scored seven straight points to put Kansas in control. Duke was never able to recover.

22. Tyus Edney (UCLA), 1995

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    Tyus Edney's game-winning shot against Missouri in the second round of the 1995 NCAA tournament was much like Ainge's in 1981.

    The difference was that Edney had already played a solid game before his historic moment. Plus Edney had less time to pull off his last-second heroics.

    Edney had already hit 3-of-5 three-point attempts and added seven assists in the game. But the Bruins still trailed by a point when UCLA took the ball out of bounds at the far end of the court with just 4.8 seconds left.

    Perhaps the fastest player in the country off the dribble, Edney streaked up court after taking the inbounds pass, as shown in a YouTube video. He went behind his back at midcourt to elude a defender, then barreled into the lane.  

    The 5'10" Edney lofted a shot over Missouri's 6'9" Derek Grimm, and the ball banked in as the buzzer sounded. UCLA won the game 75-74 and went on to win the national championship.

21. Jack Givens (Kentucky), 1978

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    The very definition of clutch is being able to come up with the best game of your career in the biggest game of your career.

    Jack Givens scored a career-high 41 points in his final college game, and it just happened to be in the 1978 NCAA championship game. 

    He hit 18 of 27 shots and pulled down eight rebounds in a 94-88 victory over Duke. He scored his team's final 16 points of the first half when the Wildcats stretched a one-point lead to seven. Kentucky remained in control the rest of the way.

20. Gail Goodrich (UCLA), 1965

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    Gail Goodrich's clutch performance is almost identical to Givens'. But Goodrich scored one more point than Givens in his final game, putting him one spot ahead of Givens in the rankings. Plus, Goodrich did it against the nation's No. 1-ranked team.

    Goodrich made 12-of-22 field-goal attempts and 18-of-20 free throws to finish with 42 points in a 91-80 victory over the Wolverines in the 1965 NCAA title game.

    He did it without the benefit of the three-point shot and is still the only guard to score more than 35 points in a national championship game.

19. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (UCLA)/Elvin Hayes (Houston), 1968

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    Elvin Hayes of Houston and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) of UCLA had so many big postseason games, they needed to be included somehow. 

    Listing them as a pair for performances during the 1968 NCAA tournament seems appropriate.

    In a second-round game against a No. 8-ranked Louisville team that featured Wes Unseld, Hayes poured in 35 points and hauled in 24 rebounds to lead the Cougars to a 91-75 victory.

    Abdul-Jabbar's clutch performance came when he and his teammates should have been emotionally spent. One day after the Bruins beat No. 1-ranked and unbeaten Houston in the national semifinals to avenge an early-season loss to the Cougars, Abdul-Jabbar collected 34 points (on 15-of-21 shooting) and 16 rebounds in a 78-55 demolition of No. 4-ranked North Carolina in the finals.

18. Fennis Dembo (Wyoming), 1987

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    Flamboyant Fennis Dembo scored 41 points when his No. 12-seeded Wyoming team upset No. 4-seeded UCLA 78-68 in the second round of the 1987 NCAA tournament.

    Dembo hit 9-of-14 shots from the floor and made all 16 free throws, while adding nine rebounds and six assists. And he did it all while woofing at UCLA's Reggie Miller much of the game.

    Although it had nothing to do with his clutch performance, Dembo received much of his fame from his distinctive name. Sports Illustrated explained that his first name was bestowed on him by his mother, who declared that her childbearing days were "finis" after Fennis and twin sister Fenise were born to give her 11 children.

17. Bobby Joe Hill (Texas Western), 1966

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    Forgotten amid the historical significance of Texas Western's 1966 title-game victory over Kentucky were the clutch contributions Bobby Joe Hill made in that game.

    The game is remembered primarily because Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) was the first team to feature five African Americans in the starting lineup in a national championship game, according to an ESPN.com report. Kentucky, the nation's No. 1-ranked team, had five white starters and had never had an African American on its roster. 

    The Miners might not have won that game had it not been for the performance of Hill. Though he led the team in scoring that night with 20 points, his clutch plays came at the defensive end.

    With the score tied at 9-9, Hill stole the ball cleanly from Kentucky's Tommy Kron and scored on a breakaway layup. On the ensuing possession, Hill swiped the ball from All-American Louie Dampier and raced in for another layup. Two possessions, two Hill steals, two Hill baskets. Kentucky never recovered from that early deficit, and the Miners won 72-65.

    Hill's performance was clutch not only for that particular night, but for college basketball historically.

16. Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse), 2003

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    Carmelo Anthony's performance as a Syracuse freshman on April 5, 2003, made him an unmitigated star.

    Before a national television audience and 54,432 people at the New Orleans Superdome, he scored 33 points, hitting 12-of-19 shots overall and 3-of-4 three-point shots. He also collected 14 rebounds while committing just one turnover in a 95-84 victory over Texas in the national semifinals.

    Anthony scored his team's first 11 points of the second half to help beat Texas, which was the No. 1 seed in the region and featured T.J. Ford, the Naismith and Wooden national player of the year.

15. Dave Corzine (DePaul), 1978

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    Dave Corzine not only scored 46 points in DePaul's 90-89 double-overtime victory over Louisville in the 1978 NCAA tournament, but he hit the game-winning shot as well.

    The 6'11" Corzine played all 50 minutes in that second-round game against the No. 9-ranked Cardinals. He made 18-of-28 field-goal attempts and all 10 of his free throws and also pulled down nine rebounds.

    Nonetheless, his team was behind by a point when he made a hook shot with six seconds left in the second overtime to provide the victory.

14. Austin Carr (Notre Dame), 1970

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    Austin Carr made the list on the basis of a remarkable two-game sequence in 1970.

    In a first-round game in Dayton, Ohio, against a 21-4 Ohio team that had been ranked as high as No. 5 that season, Carr scored 61 points in Notre Dame's 112-82 victory. That's still the most points scored in an NCAA tournament game.

    Five days later, in a second-round game against No. 1-ranked Kentucky, Carr scored 52 points in a 109-99 loss. Carr hit 22-of-35 shots in that game and also had eight rebounds. His scoring enabled the Irish to hold a lead well into the second half before the Wildcats' superior overall talent began to prevail.

    Kentucky's Dan Issel scored 44 points in that game, but Carr's two-game performance pushed that to the background.

13. Dwyane Wade (Marquette), 2003

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    Kentucky was the nation's No. 1-ranked team when Dwyane Wade took the Wildcats apart in the course of an 83-69 Marquette victory that earned the Golden Eagles a berth in the 2003 Final Four.

    Wade finished with a triple-double, scoring 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds and 11 assists. He added four blocked shots for good measure.

    His multi-faceted assault led to a shockingly easy victory over a Kentucky team that had won 26 in a row and was expected to contend for the national title.  

    The 6'5" Wade blocked a shot by Kentucky's 6'9" Marquis Estill early in the game that set the tone and helped Marquette take a 21-point lead in the first half. The Wildcats never got the deficit below 12 points in the second half of the lopsided upset.

12. Andre Miller (Utah), 1998

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    If it's possible to be sensational in an understated way, Utah's Andre Miller accomplished the feat in 1998.

    Arizona was seeded No. 1 and returned the top seven scorers from the team that had won the national championship in 1997. It was expected to crush the Utes in a third-round game in 1998 to earn a berth in the Final Four.

    The game was indeed lopsided, but it was Utah that did the dominating.

    Miller orchestrated the 76-51 rout with amazing poise from his point guard spot, controlling every aspect of the game. He finished with a triple-double of 18 points, 13 assists and 14 rebounds while handling Arizona's pressure defense with ease to create scoring opportunities.

    Miller clearly outplayed his point guard counterpart, Arizona's Mike Bibby, who was 3-of-15 from the field while collecting seven points and one assist.

11. Bryce Drew (Valparaiso), 1998

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    Placing Valparaiso's Bryce Drew this high may be a stretch.

    His numbers in Valpo's first-round upset of No. 4 seed Mississippi in 1998 were good, but not great: 22 points, eight assists.

    But when a team seeded 13th pulls off a major upset with a perfectly executed play in a pressure-packed situation on a big stage, it needs to be cited.

    This ranking probably belongs to the team as a whole, although the moment is embodied by Drew, who applied the finishing touch.

    With Mississippi leading by two points, the Crusaders had the ball out of bounds at the opposite end of the court with 2.5 seconds left.  Jamie Sykes' long inbound pass found Bill Jenkins above the top of the key, as noted in the YouTube video of the play.  Jenkins had jumped to catch the pass and was still airborne when he delivered his touch pass to Drew, who was waiting on the right wing.  

    Drew calmly launched a 23-foot, three-point shot that fell through at the buzzer, giving Valparaiso a 70-69 victory.

10. Jeff Fryer/Bo Kimble (Loyola Marymount), 1990

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    The performance of Loyola Marymount's Bo Kimble and Jeff Fryer against Michigan in 1990 was clutch on both a basketball level and a human level.

    Kimble's boyhood friend and Loyola Marymount teammate Hank Gathers had died on the court just two weeks earlier during the West Coast Conference tournament, as reported on an ESPN.com article.

    Kimble had vowed to shoot his first free throw in every NCAA tournament game left-handed in honor of Gathers, who was right-handed but shot free throws left-handed.

    Kimble made his left-handed free throw in the second-round game against Michigan, which was the defending national champ and a No. 3 seed in 1990.  Kimble wound up with 37 points, seven rebounds and four assists in the game.

    Fryer was even better. He hit 15-of-20 shots, including 11-of-15 from three-point range, to finish with 41 points. His 11 three-pointers are still an NCAA tournament record.

    Despite the loss of Gathers, who had led the nation in both scoring and rebounding in 1989, the 11th-seeded Lions not only pulled off the upset, but won big, 149-115.

9. Bill Russell (San Francisco), 1956

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    By collecting 26 points and 27 rebounds in San Francisco's 83-71 victory over Iowa in the 1956 championship game, Bill Russell confirmed his reputation as one of the game's great clutch players.

    Had blocked shots been recorded then, his numbers would have been more impressive. And it may have been his shot-blocking skills that had the biggest impact on the win over Iowa.

    The Dons played the 1956 postseason without fifth-year senior K.C. Jones. As noted by an Associated Press story (which spelled Jones' first name incorrectly), Jones played during the 1955-56 season but was ruled ineligible for the NCAA tournament because he had played one game in a previous season before being sidelined by appendicitis. 

    That put more pressure on Russell.

    In the championship game, Iowa burst out to a 15-4 lead. But, as noted in an Aram Goudsouzian article titled "The House that Russell Built," the tide seemed to turn when Russell blocked shots on consecutive Iowa possessions in the first half. On the ensuing possession, Russell intimidated an Iowa player into taking a wild shot, and the tone was set.

    San Francisco dominated from that point and won its 55th straight game.

8. Steph Curry (Davidson), 2008

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    Nothing epitomizes clutch play better than a player who rebounds from a slow start to lead his team to a major victory.

    Davidson's Steph Curry demonstrated that principle in the Wildcats' 74-70 second-round victory over Georgetown in 2008.

    Curry, then a sophomore, had scored 30 of his 40 points in the second half of a first-round victory over Gonzaga. But when he missed 10 of his first 12 shots against Georgetown, it seemed the run was over for Curry and the No. 10-seeded Wildcats. After all, Georgetown was seeded No. 3 and led the nation in field-goal percentage defense that season, according to NCAA,com. 

    The Hoyas built a 17-point lead early in the second half. With 14:30 left in the game, Curry had just five points, and Davidson trailed by 15 points.

    He then scored 25 points over the remainder of the game. He made a three-pointer and a two-pointer on consecutive possessions that broke a tie and gave the Wildcats a five-point lead with less than three minutes left. He made four consecutive free throws after the Hoyas had climbed to within two with 32 seconds remaining.

    Curry finished with 30 points, and Davidson won by four.

7. Bill Bradley (Princeton), 1965

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    Although the 58 points Bill Bradley scored against Wichita State in 1965 represent the second-highest total in NCAA tournament history, that performance is not why he's on the list.

    That came in a consolation game for third place, a game deemed so insignificant it's not longer played. Clutch performances are not achieved in games that mean little.

    Bradley earned his way to the No. 7 spot earlier in the tournament, in a third-round game against No. 4-ranked Providence. Bradley collected 41 points (on 14-of-20 shooting), 10 rebounds and nine assists in a 109-69 demolition of the heavily favored Friars. 

    Bradley scored on a long-range jumper the first time he touched the ball. He scored the game's first five points, and Providence was reeling thereafter.

    That victory meant something, because it put Princeton into the Final Four.

6. Artis Gilmore (Jacksonville), 1970

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    Jacksonville and Artis Gilmore were not well known to most of the nation until the 7'2" Gilmore collected 24 points and 20 rebounds in a 106-100 upset of No. 1-ranked Kentucky in the third round of the 1970 NCAA tournament.

    Kentucky All-American center Dan Issel scored 28 points in the game, but he fouled out, as did several other Kentucky players.

    Gilmore's numbers alone don't warrant such a high place in the rankings.  But he affected the game in numerous ways, which became apparent for the first time in that game.

    Blocked shots were not an official statistic at the time, but Gilmore had several blocks that day and generally owned the paint defensively.

    Kentucky focused most of its defensive pressure on Gilmore, with Issel guarding him man-to-man and the rest of the Wildcats sagging back on him.  Kentucky later went to a zone defense to try to limit Gilmore. Gilmore still got his points, while Jacksonville's perimeter players were left open for shots.

5. Larry Bird (Indiana State), 1979

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    Larry Bird's college career is best remembered for his matchup against Magic Johnson's Michigan State team in the 1979 finals.

    However, his best clutch performance came in the national semifinals, when Bird did virtually everything in Indiana State's tense, 76-74 victory over DePaul, which was seeded second in the region and ranked No. 6 in the country.

    Bird made 16-of-19 shots from the field while scoring 35 points. He also had 16 rebounds and nine assists.  His clutch performance in a Final Four game removed all doubt about whether Bird and Indiana State could hold up against traditional power teams after playing a comparatively weak schedule in the Missouri Valley Conference.

    Bird's performance would have been ranked even higher were it not for his 11 turnovers that day.

4. Bill Walton (UCLA), 1973

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    UCLA center Bill Walton had his best game as a collegian in the 1973 championship game against Memphis State. 

    He scored 44 points, a record for a championship game. More noteworthy was the fact that he made 21-of-22 field-goal attempts in an era when dunking was illegal. He also had 13 rebounds and played just 33 minutes.

    Walton was in foul trouble much of the game and picked up his fourth foul with 9:27 left. He had to leave the game at the 2:51 mark after turning his ankle.

    By that time, the Bruins were well on their way to an 87-66 victory.

3. David Robinson (Navy), 1986

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    This is the challenge David Robinson and his Navy teammates faced on March 16, 1986:

    They had to face Syracuse, the No. 2 seed in the regional, in the second round on the Orangemen's home court, the Carrier Dome. Three months earlier, on the same court, Syracuse had defeated Navy by 22 points.

    This time, however, Robinson scored 35 points, collected 11 rebounds and blocked seven shots as the Midshipmen stunned Syracuse and its fans 97-85.

    Syracuse's sophomore center Rony Seikaly, who would be the ninth overall pick in the NBA draft two years later, fouled out trying to guard Robinson and finished with just four points and four rebounds.

    The next year, Robinson would score 50 points in a first-round loss to Michigan, However, it was the game against Syracuse, with things seemingly stacked against him, where Robinson produced his finest clutch performance.

2. Danny Manning (Kansas), 1988

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    Kansas had squeezed into the 1988 national championship game, but the unranked Jayhawks were still heavy underdogs in the finals against Oklahoma.

    The Sooners had beaten Kansas twice during the regular season and were ranked No. 4 in the nation. They had two big men (6'11" Stacey King and 6'8" Harvey Grant) who would later become NBA lottery picks and figured to make things difficult for the 6'10" Manning.

    While Oklahoma had talent galore, Manning had very little help and was the focus of all opposing defenses.

    But Manning, who had carried the Jayhawks to the title game, did it one more time. He scored 31 points, collected 18 rebounds and made five steals to lift the Jayhawks and coach Larry Brown to a stunning 83-79 victory over the Sooners.

1. Christian Laettner (Duke), 1992

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    Even if Duke's Christian Laettner had not hit that memorable game-winning shot against Kentucky, his performance that day might rank among the top 10 clutch performances in NCAA tournament history.

    He was nearly perfect in that classic 104-103 overtime victory that put the Blue Devils into the 1992 Final Four.

    Laettner was 10-of-10 from the field and 10-of-10 from the foul line, finishing with 31 points and seven rebounds. He scored Duke's final eight points in the second overtime, all of which tied the game or put the Blue Devils ahead.  And it all occurred in one of the most entertaining NCAA tournament games ever played.

    The final sequence pushed Laettner to the top spot in the rankings.

    The beauty of that last play was the poise Laettner showed in the ultimate pressure situation.

    Following a timeout with 2.1 seconds left and Kentucky leading by a point, Grant Hill heaved a full-court pass that Laettner corralled at the top of the key. Instead of throwing up a hurried shot, Laettner had the presence of mind to dribble once with his back to the basket and pivot to get himself in a comfortable shooting position. He launched a smooth 17-footer that fell through for the winning points, as shown in this YouTube video.

    Duke went on to win the national championship.

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