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Ranking the Best Final Four Games in NCAA Tournament History

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistMarch 31, 2013

Ranking the Best Final Four Games in NCAA Tournament History

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    We're down to the Final Four in the 2013 NCAA tournament, leading us to recall some of the great games that took place in the national semifinals.

    Although the national championship game gets most of the attention in history books, we focus here on the Final Four, which has given us just as many riveting contests, if not more.

    Games in six different decades are included in our countdown of the top 10 NCAA tournament semifinal games of all time.

    We hedged a bit in our rankings. Special mention is given at the outset to one game that is not included in our top-10 countdown, and the No. 10 spot is shared by two games that deserved inclusion.

Special Mention: UCLA vs. Houston, 1968

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    A game decided by 32 points can't be included in a list of the best games, simply because the outcome was never in doubt.

    However, UCLA's 101-69 victory over Houston in the 1968 semifinals may rate as the best single-game performance by a college basketball team in history. That makes it worthy of special mention.

    The 1968 Bruins were considered by many as the best college basketball team ever assembled. ESPN rated that squad the best team ever, and CBSSports.com ranked it No. 2.

    However, UCLA was ranked No. 2 when it met Houston in the 1968 Final Four. The unbeaten, No. 1-ranked Cougars had beaten UCLA earlier in the season and had won the 14 games since then by an average margin of 34.9 points a game. Houston's Elvin Hayes was named national player of the year, and he had scored 39 points in the earlier victory over the Bruins.

    Had Houston beaten UCLA again, it would go down as one of the greatest teams of all time.

    But on March 22, 1968, UCLA coach John Wooden used a diamond-and-one defense on Hayes, limiting him to 10 points and five rebounds. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) had 19 points and 18 rebounds as all five UCLA starters scored in double figures.

    UCLA took a 22-point lead at halftime and crushed the mighty Cougars. UCLA shot 51.8 percent from the field. Houston shot 28.2 percent.

    UCLA won the national title the next night against North Carolina.

10. Duke vs. Maryland, 2001/Michigan vs. Kentucky, 1993

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    Michigan's Fab Five got to the national championship game for the second year in a row with its 81-78 overtime victory over Kentucky in the 1993 semifinals.

    Chris Webber finished with 27 points, and Jalen Rose added 18, and each made clutch plays in this taut game.

    Kentucky's Travis Ford seemed to get away with a walk before he hit two foul shots with 10 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime.

    The Wildcats led by three with 1:10 left in the extra period. But Ray Jackson got the Wolverines within one with 56 seconds left, and Webber scored the go-ahead basket with 43 seconds to go.

    Rose hit two pressure free throws to make it a three-point game, and the Wildcats could not make a three-pointer in the closing seconds.

    Webber's fine performance was all but forgotten two days later when he called the infamous timeout that Michigan didn't have in the closing moments of a 77-71 loss to North Carolina in the finals. 

    In the 2001 semifinals, ACC foes Duke and Maryland met for the fourth time that season. Maryland streaked to a 22-point lead in the first half, and seemed to be on its way to an easy victory.

    But the Blue Devils featured a group of future pros, including Carlos Boozer, who was playing just his third game since returning from a broken foot. He scored 19 points in the game as Duke methodically got itself back into contention.

    With about seven minutes left, Duke went ahead on a Jason Williams three-pointer and eventually won, 95-84.

    Duke beat Arizona in the title game.

9. North Carolina vs. UNLV, 1977

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    UNLV was the highest-scoring team in the country in 1977, averaging 107.1 points a game.

    The Runnin' Rebels got the pace of the semifinal game going in their favor early on. They scored 49 points in the first half against North Carolina and led by 10 points early in the second half.

    However, Dean Smith went to a zone defense in the second half to slow UNLV down. When the Tar Heels finally got the lead, they went to their famed four-corner offense, slowing what had been a fast-paced game to a crawl. This was before college basketball had a shot clock, and the stall tactics frustrated UNLV, as suggested in a Las Vegas Sun article years later.

    UNLV stayed close, but North Carolina made the critical free throws in the closing seconds to post an 84-83 victory.

    The Rebels scored only 29 points in the final 19 minutes and North Carolina shot 70 percent from the field in the second half.

    Tar Heels freshman Mike O'Koren scored 31 points, and North Carolina won despite committing 27 turnovers.

    North Carolina lost to Marquette in the finals.

8. Connecticut vs. Duke, 2004

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    Connecticut center Emeka Okafor had no points and one rebound in the first half of the 2004 national semifinal game against Duke. But he had 18 points and six boards in the second half to lead the Huskies to a 79-78 comeback win.

    The Blue Devils led by eight points with less than three minutes left when they suddenly went cold. Standout shooters J.J. Redick and Luol Deng missed shots down the stretch for Duke, which allowed UConn to score 12 straight points with the game on the line, according to an ESPN.com report.

    Okafor had five of those 12 points, including a bucket that put the Huskies ahead with 25 seconds left.

    UConn beat Georgia Tech in the finals.

7. UCLA vs. Drake, 1969

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    This 1969 semifinal game has been virtually forgotten. That's partly because the semifinals did not get much media exposure in those days and partly because few people were paying attention to a game that figured to be a blowout.

    UCLA was expected to breeze to its third straight national championship in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's senior season. Drake, a Missouri Valley Conference team, did not seem to have the weapons to offer any challenge to the mighty Bruins. None of Drake's starters was taller than 6'5", according to an Associated Press report.

    Things started poorly for the Bulldogs, who shot air balls on their first two attempts and fell behind, 11-2. They climbed back into contention and trailed just 41-39 at halftime.

    Drake's 6'8" Rick Wanamaker came off the bench and blocked a shot by the 7'2" Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor). But Drake's effort seemed to be in vain when the Bruins took a 12-point lead with 3:48 left.

    That's when the Bulldogs applied a full-court press and surprisingly got back in the game. When Dolph Pulliam scored on a putback with seven seconds left, Drake trailed by just a point, according to the AP article.

    However, UCLA maintained its poise, got the ball inbounds, made its free throws and avoided what might have been the biggest upset in Final Four history with an 85-82 victory.

    Willie McCarter had 24 points for Drake, and John Vallely led the Bruins with 29.

    UCLA beat Purdue by 20 points in the finals.

6. Indiana State vs. DePaul, 1979

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    Larry Bird produced one of the greatest games in NCAA tournament history in the 1979 semifinals. He scored 35 points on 16-for-19 shooting and added 16 rebounds and nine assists in Indiana State's tense 76-74 victory over DePaul.

    Bird came close to a quadruple-double as his statistical line was also marred by 11 turnovers.

    The victory got undefeated, No. 1-ranked Indiana State into the title game against Michigan State and Magic Johnson. But the Sycamores barely made it to that game.

    A DePaul rally led by Mark Aguirre helped the Blue Demons carry a one-point lead into the final minute. A Bob Heaton score gave Indiana State a 75-74 lead with 36 seconds left, and Aguirre missed a difficult 20-foot shot under pressure with three seconds left.

5. UCLA vs. Louisville, 1975

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    The most memorable player in the 1975 NCAA semifinal game between UCLA and Louisville was someone who played just two minutes.  And it was not a happy two minutes for Louisville reserve Terry Howard.

    UCLA overcame a four-point deficit in the final minute of regulation to force overtime. But Louisville had a one-point lead and the ball with less than a minute left in the extra period.

    That's when Howard entered the game for one reason: to get fouled. Howard was 28-of-28 from the foul line for the season at that point, and he simply dribbled around until he was fouled with 13 seconds left.

    He went to the line for a one-and-one in position to virtually put the game away, as there was no three-point shot available at the time. But Howard missed the front end of the one-and-one, ending his perfect streak and giving the Bruins a final chance.

    UCLA's Richard Washington made a 14-foot baseline jumper with three seconds left, as shown in these video highlights of the game. The Bruins won 75-74.

    UCLA beat Kentucky in the title game.

4. NYU vs. Ohio State, 1945

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    Only eight teams participated in the NCAA tournament in 1945. The term "Final Four" was not even coined until 30 years later.

    But in the 1945 semifinals, Ohio State had a seemingly safe 10-point lead over New York University with less than two minutes left.

    The Violets took to fouling, and it paid off in a big way. In those days, teams had the option of shooting a single free throw on a foul or taking the ball out of bounds. Three times in the closing moments, Ohio State chose to shoot the free throw instead of retaining possession. Three times, Ohio State missed the foul shot, according to an Associated Press account of the game.

    NYU freshman Don Forman hit the game-tying basket in the final minute to send the game into overtime, and NYU won it in the extra period, 70-65.

    NYU lost to Oklahoma State in the title game.

3. North Carolina vs. Michigan State, 1957

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    North Carolina was 30-0 and ranked No. 1 when it was nearly upset by Michigan State in a thrilling triple-overtime game in the 1957 NCAA semifinals.

    The 16-8 Spartans thought they might have won the game when Michigan State's Jack Quiggle tossed in a 50-foot shot at the final buzzer of regulation time when the game was tied, according to a CBSSports.com report.

    Today such a shot probably would have forced officials to review the play on a monitor for several minutes to determine whether or not it was released in time. In 1957, there was no sideline monitor, no replay rule and no red light around the backboard to signal time had expired. The officials simply decided immediately that the shot had come an instant too late, forcing overtime.

    Michigan State seemed to be on the verge of victory again in the first overtime. It held a two-point lead and its star, Johnny Green, was at the foul line with 11 seconds left. With no three-point shot at the time, one foul shot would have clinched it.

    At that point, a Michigan State player sidled up to North Carolina guard Tommy Kearns and said to him, "Thirty-and-one," according to a USA Today report.

    However, Green missed the free throw, and North Carolina's Pete Brennan grabbed the rebound. Instead of passing ahead, Brennan dribbled the length of the floor and made a game-tying shot with four seconds left to force a second overtime.

    North Carolina eventually won in the third overtime, 74-70, but not before two players from each team fouled out.

    Tar Heels All-American Lennie Rosenbluth was the game's high scorer with 29 points, but it took him 42 shots to do it. He was just 11-of-42 from the floor, according to Michigan State Spartans by J. Chris Roselius.

    The next night, North Carolina beat Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain, 54-53, in another triple-overtime game.

2. Duke vs. UNLV, 1991

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    Duke's 79-77 victory over seemingly invincible UNLV in the 1991 NCAA semifinals easily could top our list.

    UNLV was a heavy favorite in the game. Plus, for a variety of reasons, Jerry Tarkanian and his Rebels were the villains, according to a USA Today report. They came into the contest on a 45-game winning streak and were 34-0 on the season when they faced Duke. UNLV is still the last team to enter the NCAA tournament with an unbeaten record.

    More significant was the fact that UNLV had four starters back from a Rebels team that had crushed Duke 103-73 in the 1990 championship game.

    Late in the 1990-91 season, Cedric Ceballos, who was in the NBA at the time and had faced UNLV while at Cal State Fullerton in 1989-90, told me the 1991 Rebels would give the worst NBA teams a run for their money if the game were played in Las Vegas.

    Meanwhile, Duke had lost to North Carolina by 18 points in the ACC tournament.

    Somehow Duke stayed with UNLV in the second half of the 1991 semifinals. Rebels point guard Greg Anthony fouled out with 3:51 left, but UNLV led by five points before Duke's Bobby Hurley made a three-pointer with 2:14 to play.

    UNLV then was called for a 45-second shot clock violation with 1:24 remaining, according to a report by The Baltimore Sun. (The 35-second shot clock was instituted two years later.)

    Duke's Brian Davis converted a three-point play to put the Blue Devils ahead by a point with 1:02 left.

    UNLV star Larry Johnson missed two free throws with 49.9 seconds to go, but Duke's Thomas Hill was called for a lane violation on the second attempt. Johnson made the additional free throw to tie the game.

    Christian Laettner was fouled with 12.7 seconds left after grabbing an offensive rebound on Hill's missed shot. Laettner hit both free throws to finish with 28 points and put the Blue Devils ahead by two.

    Duke claimed the victory when UNLV's Anderson Hunt, who had scored 29 points, missed on a wild three-point attempt.

    Duke beat Kansas in the title game.

    "I still say, more than my UConn buzzer-beater (to get Duke to the 1990 Final Four) and more than my UK buzzer-beater (the famous 104-103 win over Kentucky in 1992), the most glorious moment of my career at Duke was that first championship (in 1991)," Laettner told USA Today.

1. North Carolina State vs. UCLA, 1974

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    North Carolina State's 80-77 double-overtime victory over UCLA in the 1974 semifinals stands above the rest for a variety of reasons:

    First, it matched two of the best teams in college basketball history. CBSSports.com ranked the 1974 Wolfpack as the ninth-best team in history. It ranked the 1973 Bruins, who had many of the same players in 1974, as the No. 3 team of all-time.

    Second, North Carolina State had gone unbeaten the previous season but was ineligible to play in the postseason because of NCAA sanctions, according to the North Carolina State website.

    Third, North Carolina State was ranked No. 1 coming into the 1974 postseason, but its only defeat that season had been a decisive 18-point loss to UCLA in December. 

    Fourth, UCLA was going for an almost unimaginable eighth straight national championship.

    Fifth, the game featured two classic matchups: North Carolina State's David Thompson, the Associated Press Men's College Basketball Player of the Year, against UCLA's Keith Wilkes, and UCLA's Bill Walton, the Naismith College Player of the Year, against North Carolina State's 7'4" Tom Burleson.

    Sixth, and most importantly, it was a spellbinding game.

    UCLA built an 11-point lead with less than 12 minutes left, but the Wolfpack rallied to tie it. Burleson missed potential game-winning shots at the end of regulation and at the close of the first overtime, according to a report by Sports Illustrated.

    When UCLA took a seven-point lead with 3:27 left in the second overtime, it appeared UCLA was headed for the finals again. But North Carolina State rallied one more time. After UCLA's David Meyers missed a critical one-and-one with 1:16 left and the Bruins leading by a point, Thompson banked in a shot to put the Wolfpack ahead to stay.

    Thompson finished with 28 points in 45 minutes of action, according to Sports-Reference.com. Walton had 29 points and 18 rebounds while playing all 50 minutes.

    North Carolina State beat Marquette in the title game.

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