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Final Four Performances We'll Never Forget

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IINovember 17, 2015

Final Four Performances We'll Never Forget

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    We could ramble into infinity debating the top 10 performances in NCAA Final Four history—a category that spans 74 seasons of broad-ranging triumph.

    We could argue individual achievement over team excellence. We could agitate about where single-frame moments like Lorenzo Charles' 1983 putback slam belong alongside 40-minute showstoppers like Carmelo Anthony's 2003. We could dissect the word "performance" until it lost all lucid meaning.

    But it's best not to think too deeply on matters like this.

    The performances you never forget are just that—the ones that materialize without labored contemplation; the ones that seem as reflexively bound to the phrase "Final Four" as "apple" is to "red" or "sky" to "blue."

    If you've watched even a minute of tournament basketball in your life, you have those memories. Perhaps they're colored by your partisanship or your age, but make no apologies. They're your memories. They matter to you.

    Here, for your reading and commenting pleasure, are ours.

10. Villanova Can't Miss

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    Year: 1985

    Host Site: Rupp Arena (Lexington, Ky.)

    The Game: Villanova (8) def. Georgetown (1), 66-64

     

    Villanova's upset win over Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA title game produced no shortage of startling statistics.

    Rollie Massimino's Wildcats took exactly one more field-goal attempt (28) than free-throw attempt (27), and made the same number of each (22). No Villanova starter logged less than 34 minutes, and three—Dwayne McClain, Harold Pressley and Gary McLain—played all 40. The five starters combined took all 28 of the Wildcats' attempts, and each shot better than 66 percent from the field.

    All this would have been rather impressive if the opponent was St. Nowheresville JV. But against Patrick Ewing and his seemingly invincible Georgetown Hoyas—winners of the previous national championship and owners of a 69-5 record over the past two seasons—it was nothing short of miraculous.

    Villanova had edged into the tournament as a No. 8 seed. The Wildcats' only chance to beat Georgetown that day would be to play what Philadelphia Inquirer scribe Frank Fitzpatrick later called "the perfect game."

    They did.

9. Better Laettner Than Never

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    Year: 1991

    Site: The Hoosier Dome (Indianapolis)

    The Games: Duke (2) def. UNLV (1), 79-77; def. Kansas (3), 72-65

     

    Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski pleaded with his team to keep calm, but there would be no containing the Blue Devils—not on this night. Not after nipping undefeated UNLV 79-77 in the national semifinal. Not after avenging an ugly 30-point loss in the previous year's title game. Not after slaying a once-in-a-generation Goliath.

    Point guard Bobby Hurley pumped his right fist in a fury. Freshman Grant Hill bounded toward the sideline, hands aloft. And, for a moment, right before the shock settled and the players sprinted off court, the entire jubilant horde seemed to swirl around junior center Christian Laettner.

    Here was the night's hero, the man who'd scored 28 points in every which way and added two decisive free throws with 12 seconds left. Neither touched rim.

    In the championship game against Kansas, Laettner was again superb. His 18 points and 10 rebounds gave Duke the national title, its first in nine Final Four trips.

    The Blue Devils would repeat as champion a year later—thanks once more to Laettner's heroics. And like that, the school that couldn't get over the hump was on its way to dynasty.

8. It's Raining Glen

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    Year: 1989

    Site: The Kingdome (Seattle)

    The Games: Michigan (3) def. Illinois (1), 83-81; def. Seton Hall (3), 80-79 OT

     

    Few teams have entered tournament play under stranger, or more potentially crippling, circumstances than the '89 Michigan Wolverines.

    Two days before Michigan was set to play Xavier in the opening round, the famously puritanical Bo Schembechler—then serving as head football coach and athletic director—dismissed men's basketball coach Bill Frieder.

    The reason? Frieder had taken another job.

    Schembechler snarled to the press, "A Michigan man is going to coach Michigan." And sure enough, assistant Steve Fisher was given the reins.

    It was a melodrama that would've sunk most college basketball teams, but not Glen Rice and Michigan.

    The senior sharpshooter rampaged through the tournament field, saving some of his best work for the season's final weekend.

    Rice's 28 points on 12-of-24 shooting sprang Michigan to an upset over No. 1 seed Illinois in the semifinal game. Days later he racked up 31 in a wild overtime win against Seton Hall, bringing home Michigan's lone national championship in the process.

    By the time the Pirates' final desperation heave caromed off the backboard and into Rice's hands, the Big Ten Player of the Year had tallied a tournament-record 184 points and brought dazzling resolution to a championship run as bizarre as it was brilliant.

7. 'Never Nervous Pervis' Leads Louisville Past Duke

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    Year: 1986

    Host Site: Reunion Arena (Dallas)

    The Game: Louisville (2) def. Duke (1), 72-69

     

    Before the Fab Five. Before Carmelo. Before one-and-done and before the 'Brow.

    There was, and will always be, "Never Nervous Pervis" Ellison.

    In 1986—14 years after the NCAA permitted first-year eligibility—Ellison became the original freshman sensation, leading Louisville to an unlikely NCAA championship mere months after making his college debut.

    And aesthetically speaking, there couldn't have been a more perfect first, burdened as the Ellison was with gapped teeth, silver braces and a faint peach-fuzz mustache. He was, by look and disposition, the freshman's freshman, right up until the tipoff.

    As the starting center for Denny Crum's team, Ellison impressed with his athletic ability and abiding calm, averaging 13 points and almost 10 rebounds a contest. But it was on the game's biggest stage that the Savannah native shone brightest.

    Against top-seeded Duke in the national championship game, Ellison scored 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting and added 11 rebounds (five of them on the offensive glass). The Blue Devils—loaded as they were with upperclassmen like Jay Bilas, Tommy Amaker and Johnny Dawkins—were powerless to stop Louisville's 18-year-old child king.

    Afterward, Ellison became the first freshman in 42 years to be named the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, to which the aw-shucks teen reliably replied: "I'm happy I got it, but what's the m.v.p. when you got the national championship.''

6. Chalmers, for the Tie

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    Year: 2008

    Site: The Alamodome (San Antonio)

    The Game: Kansas (1) def. Memphis (1), 75-68 OT

     

    In recent tournament history, no shot looms larger than Mario Chalmers' game-tying three against Memphis in the 2008 title game.

    Though Tigers fans will somberly remind you that it should have never gotten that far.

    Down nine with just over two minutes left in regulation, Kansas clawed its way back thanks to timely shots by Sherron Collins and Darrell Arthur, along with a rash of miscues and missed free throws by Memphis.

    When Tigers freshman Derrick Rose went 1-of-2 from the line with 10 seconds left, the lead had dwindled to three, setting the stage for a Jayhawk miracle.

    Collins sprinted upcourt and nearly botched the handoff with Chalmers, who regained his footing and launched a three from the right wing.

    All twine. Chalmers finished with 18 points, and Kansas won the game in overtime, 75-68.

    Jayhawks coach Bill Self called it "the biggest shot ever made in Kansas history." You'll find no objection here.

5. Walton and the Wizard

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    Year: 1973

    Host Site: St. Louis Arena (St. Louis)

    The Game: UCLA def. Memphis, 87-66

     

    The 1973 NCAA title game was the nexus of UCLA's basketball dominance—an epochal crossroads between John Wooden's singular greatness and the legendary dominance of center Bill Walton, perhaps the Wizard's most ballyhooed pupil.

    The game is best remembered for Walton's stat line: 44 points, 13 rebounds, 21-of-22 shooting. On paper, it ranks as perhaps the most outstanding individual championship game performance—at any level, in any sport.

    The visuals were just as stunning. Walton savaged the Memphis State defense with a series of twisting bank shots and deft tip-ins, taking full control of the contest after intermission.

    Though the red-headed sage suffered a game-ending injury late in the second half—an omen of sorts for his professional career—the Bruins were well on their way to an 87-66 win by then.

    For Wooden, it was his and UCLA's seventh consecutive national title, a dynastic run unlike any the sport has ever seen. And for one night in March, the world of sport could not imagine a greater coach, player or program—nor has it since.

4. 'Melo on the March

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    Year: 2003

    Host Site: The Louisiana Superdome (New Orleans)

    The Games: Syracuse (3) def. Texas (1), 95-84; def. Kansas (2), 81-78

     

    It's amazing to think that just 10 years ago all the old bromides about college freshmen—too green, too credulous, too unreliable—still resonated in college basketball circles.

    And then Carmelo Anthony happened.

    The Baltimore-raised phenom carried a Syracuse team that began the season unranked to its first 30-win season in 13 years, elevating his game as the stakes heightened.

    Against Texas in the national semifinal, Anthony registered one of the all-time great single-game postseason performances, notching a career-high 33 points to go along with 14 rebounds and three steals.

    He was almost as scintillating against senior-laden Kansas in the title game, finishing with 20 points, 10 boards, seven assists and, ultimately, a share of Syracuse's only national championship to date.

    Anthony's performance shifted the standard for freshmen in college basketball, inspiring legions of blue-chip copycats and changing the way coaches manage young talent.

    Still, none of the imitators have eclipsed Anthony's accomplishments or disproved what Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim prophesied those many years ago when he told Sports Illustrated: "I think freshmen are more ready today. But I think as we go on, we're probably going to start to realize how special Carmelo really was."

3. Nation, Meet Magic

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    Year: 1979

    Host Site: Special Events Center (Salt Lake City)

    The Games: Michigan State (2) def. Penn (9), 101-67; def. Indiana State (1), 75-64

     

    Posterity would remember the 1979 Final Four as ground zero for the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird rivalry, but perhaps the finest performance of Johnson's college career came one round earlier, in Michigan State's 101-67 national semifinal romp over Penn.

    Against the Quakers, Johnson posted a triple-double (29 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) and missed just two shots—one from the field and one from the free-throw line. It was an early glimpse of the full-court brilliance that would turn Magic into a global phenomenon and change professional basketball forever.

    Two nights later against Bird's Indiana State Sycamores, Johnson tallied 24 points to deliver Michigan State its first NCAA title.

2. Keith Smart Beats Odds, Clock, Syracuse

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    Year: 1987

    Host Site: The Louisiana Superdome (New Orleans)

    The Game: Indiana (1) def. Syracuse (2), 74-73

     

    A former fast-food worker from nearby Baton Rouge, Keith Smart arrived in New Orleans as the most unlikely of Indiana Hoosiers.

    The junior college transfer had only been with the team since autumn, and in that time he'd gained more notoriety for his small stature (6'1") and large vertical (reported at 46 inches) than his on-court production (which, while significant, was largely overshadowed by that of All-American backcourt mate Steve Alford).

    One weekend in March would change all that.

    Following a solid 14-point performance against UNLV in the national semifinal, Smart played one of the greatest second halves in title-game history, scoring 12 of his team's final 15 points to bring Indiana back from the brink against Jim Boeheim's Syracuse Orangemen.

    It was the final two, though, that vaulted him into Hoosier lore.

    With his team trailing by a point and the game clock winding to zero, Smart sank a 16-foot jump shot from the left corner to give Indiana an improbable 74-73 win.

    For his 35-point weekend, Smart was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.

1. Danny Manning, Miracle Worker

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    Year: 1988

    Host Site: Kemper Arena (Kansas City, Mo.)

    The Games: Kansas (6) def. Duke (2), 66-59; def. Oklahoma (1), 83-79

     

    For all its sepia-toned folklore—from Naismith to Allen to Chamberlain and on—Kansas basketball has never seen an individual performance on the order of Danny Manning in 1988.

    Chances are, it never will.

    With a supporting cast ravaged by injury and suspension, the senior forward guided his 11-loss Jayhawks—henceforth remembered as "Danny and the Miracles"—to four straight regional wins, including an Elite Eight victory over rival Kansas State.

    Upon reaching Kansas City, Manning dropped 25 in a semifinal win against Duke and 31 against Big Eight foe Oklahoma in the title game to give Kansas its second national championship. Against the Sooners, he hit four consecutive free throws in the waning seconds to cement victory.

    Asked afterward what he was thinking during the decisive freebies, Manning told Sports Illustrated, "I was thinking, it's over." 

    That June, Manning was selected with the first overall pick of the NBA draft and would go on to a workmanlike 15-year pro career that included two All-Star selections. Of the other nine Jayhawks that played in the title-game win, only one, Kevin Pritchard, would appear in an NBA game.

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