College Basketball

Ranking the Most Thrilling Games in Final Four History

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2014

Ranking the Most Thrilling Games in Final Four History

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    Charlie Neibergall

    Basketball fans live for thrilling Final Four moments that they will remember for ages.

    An opportunity for such moments arrives Saturday when Connecticut faces Florida and Wisconsin takes on Kentucky in the NCAA tournament semifinals. Will those games match the excitement provided by many of the semifinals and finals of past NCAA tournaments?

    Memorable Final Four games of the past are marked by amazing individual performances, stirring comebacks, stunning upsets and last-second game-winners.

    We took all those factors into consideration when producing our ranking of the 10 most thrilling games of the NCAA tournament semifinals and finals.

    We did not consider games played before 1951—the year the NCAA tournament field expanded from eight teams to 16.

    We start with a few games that missed the cut but deserve honorable mention.

Honorable Mention

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    UCLA coach John Wooden and Louisville coach Denny Crum
    UCLA coach John Wooden and Louisville coach Denny CrumAnonymous

    UCLA 75, Louisville 74: 1975 semifinals

    Louisville's Terry Howard, inserted into the game because he was 28-of-28 from the foul line for the season, missed the front end of a one-and-one with 20 seconds left and the Cardinals up by one in overtime. Richard Washington's basket won it for the Bruins, who then captured the title against Kentucky in John Wooden's final game.

     

    Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79: 1989 finals

    Rumeal Robinson hit two free throws with three seconds left in overtime to give Michigan the title for Steve Fisher, who became head coach after the regular season ended when Bill Frieder accepted a job at Arizona State.

     

    North Carolina 77, Michigan 71: 1993 finals

    With Michigan trailing by two points with 11 seconds left, Chris Webber called a timeout when the Wolverines had none left, which resulted in technical free throws and an emotional loss.

     

    Kansas 83, Oklahoma 79: 1988 finals

    Danny Manning collected 31 points, 18 rebounds, five steals and two blocks to lead the No. 6-seeded Jayhawks and coach Larry Brown to a huge upset of Oklahoma.

     

    Texas Western 72, Kentucky 65: 1966 finals

    In a game of immense social significance, the Miners' all-black starting five beat Kentucky's all-white roster.

     

    Duke 95, Maryland 84: 2001 semifinals

    The Blue Devils overcame a 22-point first-half deficit and ended up winning going away.

10. Indiana State vs. DePaul, 1979 Semifinals

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    Larry Bird
    Larry BirdAnonymous

    Indiana State's loss to Michigan State in the 1979 finals attracted a larger audience and has evoked more media coverage since, but the Sycamores' 76-74 semifinal victory over DePaul was a more riveting contest.

    Larry Bird's ability to lead Indiana State from what today would be considered mid-major status to the nation's No. 1 ranking intrigued the nation. Curious fans had heard of Bird and his feats but had not seen much of him until this televised game. He put all of his skills on display against the Blue Demons, who had a star of their own in freshman Mark Aguirre.

    Bird finished with 35 points on 16-of-19 shooting and added 16 rebounds and nine assists, though he also committed 11 turnovers. However, that amazing performance was barely enough for Indiana State to win the game by two and improve to 33-0.

    Bird, who scored 23 points on 11-of-12 shooting in the first half, did not score in the game's final six minutes. Instead, Aguirre helped DePaul take the lead on several occasions in the see-saw closing minutes.

    Bob Heaton's layup gave the Sycamores a 75-74 lead with 50 seconds left, and when Aguirre's tough, 22-foot shot under intense defensive pressure bounced off the rim, Indiana State got the ball and was fouled with one second remaining. A free throw set the final score.

9. North Carolina vs. Georgetown, 1982 Finals

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    Associated Press

    Memorable plays by two players made the 1982 championship game great theater, but for very different reasons.

    Sleepy Floyd gave Georgetown a one-point lead with 57 seconds left, and the Tar Heels called a timeout with 37 seconds remaining. With a star-studded lineup that included veterans James Worthy and Sam Perkins, coach Dean Smith had plenty of options.

    However, it was a freshman named Michael Jordan who hit a 16-foot shot from the left wing to give the Tar Heels a one-point lead with 16 seconds remaining.

    On the Hoyas' ensuing possession, Georgetown guard Fred Brown looked for a passing outlet from the top of the key with the seconds ticking away. He mistakenly passed the ball directly to Worthy, thinking for a split second that he was a teammate. 

    Georgetown fouled Worthy with two seconds left, and although he missed both foul shots, the Hoyas could not get off a decent shot in the 63-62 North Carolina victory.

8. Indiana vs. Syracuse, 1987 Finals

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    Susan Ragan

    Indiana fans will forever remember Keith Smart's game-winning shot in the 1987 championship game.

    Hoosiers All-American guard Steve Alford was the show for much of the game. He was 7-of-10 on three-point shots and collected 21 points in the first 29 minutes. He was the key player in a 10-0 Indiana run that overcame an eight-point deficit and gave the Hoosiers a 54-52 lead with 9:48 left.

    But Syracuse put the clamps on Alford after that, using a box-and-one defense to limit his touches.

    Syracuse bounced back to take a three-point lead with 38 seconds remaining. Indiana cut it to one on Smart's transition basket with 30 seconds left, and the Hoosiers had a final possession with 28 seconds remaining after Syracuse freshman Derrick Coleman missed the first free throw of a one-and-one situation at the foul line.

    Down by one, Indiana coach Bob Knight designed a play for Alford. However, Smart ended up with the ball along the left baseline. He took an off-balance 14-foot shot while falling toward the baseline. The ball fell through with four seconds left to give the Hoosiers the 74-73 victory.

7. Kansas vs. Memphis, 2008 Finals

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Memphis' late-game fade and Mario Chalmers' clutch three-point shot made the 2008 championship game one to remember.

    Memphis, which was 38-1 under coach John Calipari, seemed to have the game in hand when Robert Dozier's two free throws with 2:12 remaining gave the Tigers a nine-point lead. To that point, Memphis freshman guard Derrick Rose had dominated play in the second half. He scored 14 of his team's 16 points in one stretch to help provide the 60-51 lead.

    But free-throw shooting, which had been Memphis' Achilles' heel all year, doomed the Tigers. After Memphis guard Chris Douglas-Roberts made two foul shots with 1:39 left to make it a 62-56 game, the Tigers missed four straight free throws over the next two minutes as the Jayhawks launched a furious comeback.

    Kansas made all four of its field-goal attempts (including one three-pointer) and both free throws in the final two minutes of regulation. But the Jayhawks still trailed by three points, 63-60, after Rose ended the free-throw drought by sinking the second of two foul shots with 10.8 seconds left.

    With no timeouts left, Kansas hustled the ball up court, and Chalmers launched a shot from the top of the key, well behind the three-point line. The ball swished through with 2.1 seconds left, sending the game into overtime.

    Kansas dominated the extra period, winning 75-68.

6. North Carolina vs. Kansas, 1957 Finals

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    The 1957 Associated Press All-American team included Kansas' Wilt Chamberlain (left) and North Carolina's Lennie Rosenbluth (second from left).
    The 1957 Associated Press All-American team included Kansas' Wilt Chamberlain (left) and North Carolina's Lennie Rosenbluth (second from left).Associated Press

    The 1957 championship game pitted No. 1-ranked North Carolina, featuring Helms Foundation player of the year Lennie Rosenbluth, against No. 2 Kansas, which had an All-American of its own in 7'1" Wilt Chamberlain.

    The unbeaten Tar Heels had survived a triple-overtime game against Michigan State in the semifinals the day before (there was no off day between the semifinals and finals then), while the Jayhawks had blown out defending national champion San Francisco.

    Chamberlain had scored 36, 30 and 32 points in Kansas' first three tournament wins, and North Carolina coach Dick McGuire sent 5'11" Tommy Kearns to jump center against Chamberlain to start the game. Meanwhile, the other four Tar Heels set up in a zone defense prior to the tip, demonstrating the defense they would play throughout the game.

    The Tar Heels defense sagged back on Chamberlain, often double- and triple-teaming him while slowing the pace of the game. However, the Jayhawks jumped out to a 19-7 lead before the Tar Heels made a run to close the gap.

    Rosenbluth fouled out in regulation time, and Kearns hit a free throw in the closing seconds to force overtime. In the tense first overtime period, the teams scored two points apiece, and neither team scored in the second overtime.

    Chamberlain finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds but did little offensively in the overtime periods.

    Nonetheless, Kansas took a 53-52 lead into the closing seconds of the third overtime, and Chamberlain blocked a shot to keep the Jayhawks ahead. But North Carolina's Joe Quigg gathered up the loose ball following the block, drove to the basket and was fouled with six seconds left.

    He made both free throws as North Carolina wrapped up a perfect season with a 54-53 victory.

5. Duke vs. UNLV, 1991 Semifinals

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    SUSAN RAGAN

    Many considered UNLV one of the best teams in college basketball history when it faced Duke in the 1991 semifinals.

    The Rebels were the defending national champions and were riding a 45-game winning streak that included a 103-73 rout of Duke in the 1990 title game. Four starters from that 1990 UNLV team, including 1991 Naismith and Wooden player of the year Larry Johnson, were starters again in 1991, while Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley were the Duke mainstays both years.

    Adding to the drama was that UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian always seemed to be under attack by the NCAA, and the UNLV players were seen as unsavory characters.

    "It was just assumed that we were all thugs and incompetent and ignorant and uneducated," Greg Anthony, the starting point guard on the 1991 UNLV team, said in an ESPN.com story.

    Anthony fouled out with 3:51 left in the semifinals, but the Rebels still held a five-point lead with 2:32 remaining. Hurley then hit a key three-point shot, and Duke forced UNLV, without Anthony, into a 45-second shot-clock violation.

    Brian Davis converted a three-point play to give Duke the lead with 1:02 left, but Johnson tied it by making one free throw with 49.9 seconds remaining. Laettner hit two free throws with 12.7 seconds left to put Duke ahead by two, and Anderson Hunt missed a three-point attempt on UNLV's final possession.

    The game featured 17 ties and 25 lead changes and ended with Duke claiming a stunning 79-77 victory at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis.

    The Blue Devils beat Kansas 72-65 in the finals.

4. Loyola-Chicago vs. Cincinnati, 1963 Finals

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    Uncredited

    Loyola-Chicago's comeback from a 15-point second-half deficit before winning the title game in overtime on a last-second shot made its 60-58 victory over Cincinnati a memorable end to the 1963 season.

    Cincinnati seemed to be on its way to victory when it took a 45-30 lead with 13:56 left in the game. But a few minutes later, Cincinnati was in foul trouble, and coach Ed Jucker elected to go into a stall. It backfired. Several Cincinnati turnovers led to a 15-3 Loyola run.

    With 12 seconds left, the Bearcats still held a one-point lead with Cincinnati's Larry Shingleton at the foul line. He made his first free throw but missed the second, giving Loyola a final chance to tie.

    Loyola's Ron Miller appeared to travel, but it was not called, and he got the ball to Jerry Harkness, the catalyst of the Ramblers' late comeback. He hit a 12-footer with six seconds left to send the game into overtime.

    With the score tied at 58 in the extra period, Loyola held the ball for the last shot. Les Hunter attempted a shot with four seconds left that bounced off the rim. But teammate Vic Rouse was there to tip in the miss at the buzzer to give the Ramblers the title.

    All five Loyola starters played all 45 minutes.

3. North Carolina State vs. UCLA, 1974 Semifinals

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    Anonymous

    The 1974 semifinals game between No. 1-ranked North Carolina State and No. 2 UCLA felt like a title game, and it lived up to its enormous hype.

    The game, played in Greensboro, N.C., featured two of the best teams in college basketball history. UCLA had won the past seven NCAA championships and had won the past two with much the same cast it had in this one. UCLA senior center Bill Walton was the national player of the year the previous two seasons but had been beaten out for that honor in 1974 by North Carolina State guard David Thompson.

    The Bruins had handed North Carolina State its only loss of the 1973-74 season back in December by a lopsided 18-point margin. In fact, that was the Wolfpack's only loss in the previous two years, as they had gone 27-0 in 1972-73 but were ineligible to play in the postseason.

    The stars played like stars in the national semifinals. Walton finished with 29 points and 18 rebounds, but he was negated to a large degree by North Carolina State's 7'4" Tommy Burleson, who had 20 points and 14 rebounds. Thompson had 28 points and 10 boards.

    The game featured two North Carolina State comebacks and two overtimes.

    It appeared UCLA would beat North Carolina State again as the Bruins pulled out to an 11-point lead with less than 12 minutes left. But the Wolfpack responded with a 10-0 run to get back in the game.

    North Carolina State missed potential game-winning shots in the closing seconds of regulation and the first overtime, and UCLA seemed to be in control once again when it took a seven-point lead with 3:27 left in the second overtime.

    Again North Carolina State fought back, using its press to force uncharacteristic UCLA turnovers. When Thompson scored over Keith Wilkes with less than a minute left, the Wolfpack took a 76-75 lead. North Carolina would not trail again, finishing off an 80-77 victory.

    North Carolina State beat Marquette in an anticlimactic championship game, 76-64.

2. Villanova vs. Georgetown, 1985 Finals

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    GARY LANDERS

    Villanova pulled off one of the biggest upsets ever in an NCAA championship game by beating powerful Georgetown 66-64 with a near-perfect performance in the 1985 finals in Lexington, Ky.

    No. 1-ranked Georgetown still had Patrick Ewing from its 1984 national championship team and had crushed St. John's 77-59 in the semifinals in what figured to be the Hoyas' toughest challenge.

    Villanova, a No. 8 seed, had lost to Georgetown twice during the regular season but played a nearly flawless game in the finals. The Wildcats shot an amazing 22-of-28 from the field (78.6 percent) and made 22 free throws to just six for the Hoyas.

    Harold Jensen had the game of his life for the Wildcats. He scored 14 points and hit all five shots he attempted, including a 16-footer that gave Villanova a one-point lead with 2:37 left. Villanova increased its lead to as many as five points, but Georgetown's Michael Jackson scored with two seconds left to reduce the margin to two.

    Villanova needed only to get the ball inbounds to pull off the upset. Jensen inbounded the ball to Dwayne McClain, who ran into Georgetown's David Wingate. Both players fell to the floor, but McClain held on and covered the ball with his body as he raised his hand in celebration.

1. North Carolina State vs. Houston, 1983 Finals

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    Associated Press

    Houston, which was ranked No. 1 and featured Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, was a huge favorite in the 1983 finals against North Carolina State, a No. 6 seed that had lost 10 games.

    The athletic Cougars had dumped No. 2-ranked Louisville 94-81 in the semifinals in what was seen as the pivotal Final Four game.

    The Wolfpack, meanwhile, had been far from dominant in the tournament, needing two overtimes to get past first-round opponent Pepperdine, a No. 11 seed, and then winning one-point games in upsets of UNLV and Virginia, the latter featuring national player of the year Ralph Sampson.

    However, the Wolfpack stayed close against Houston by slowing the pace and relying on the outside shooting of guard Dereck Whittenburg and the surprising offense of Thurl Bailey.

    North Carolina State led by eight points at halftime, but a 17-2 Houston run in the second half gave the Cougars a seven-point lead. At that point, Houston coach Guy Lewis ordered the Cougars to go into a slowdown, even though they had used a fast-paced game and their athletic superiority to take the lead.

    The Wolfpack caught up, and with the score tied 52-52 with 1:08 left, North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano ordered his team to foul to take advantage of the Cougars' poor free-throw shooting. Houston freshman Alvin Franklin went to the line and missed the front end of a one-and-one.

    The Wolfpack held the ball for a final shot, but the play broke down, forcing Whittenburg to throw up a hurried 30-footer that was well short. However, Lorenzo Charles, who had scored just two points to that point, grabbed the air ball as it neared the rim and stuffed it home as the buzzer sounded.

    The unexpected play gave North Carolina State a 54-52 victory for one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history.

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