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March Madness: The 20 Biggest Upsets in Tournament History

Jon GilbertCorrespondent IIDecember 19, 2016

March Madness: The 20 Biggest Upsets in Tournament History

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    Win McNamee/Getty Images

    Ah, March Madness. It's what turns casual basketball fans into diehards, even if it is only for a month.

    It's all about the buzzer beaters that dash title hopes and superhuman performances that etch previously unknown names into the history books of college basketball. It's about long-time coaches leaving the game with career-defining wins and Final Four runs straight out of dreamland.

    The NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament is the most exciting American sporting event. Period. It is because of the upsets. It's because of the underdogs that empower fan bases and ignite brackets.

    Here are the 20 biggest upsets in tournament history.

Honorable Mention: 1990: Murray State Almost Pulls off the Unthinkable

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    Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote is known for winning the 1979 national championship and coaching Magic Johnson in college. But he almost had a Sweet 16 run dashed in the first round of the 1990 NCAA tournament.

    The 20th greatest upset in tournament history wasn't an upset at all. Murray State almost did what no team has ever done, winning as a No. 16 seed. 

    The Racers forced overtime with a buzzer-beating three-point shot, but ended up falling 75-71. Oh, so close.

20. 2001: Hampton Topples Iowa State

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    I remember putting together my bracket in 2001 and wondering what to do with Iowa State. They were so impressive in the regular season that many of my friends had them advancing to the Final Four. I did not.

    I laughed at all of them until the rest of my bracket fell apart.

    Hampton got just enough roll on Jamaal Tinsley's lay-up that rimmed out to hold on to a massive upset.

19. 1956: Canisius Knocks off North Carolina State

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    The tournament had a different format than it does today, but Canisius provided a shocking upset nonetheless.

    NC State was ranked second in the country with high hopes going into the contest. Canisius didn't let that get in their way.

    It took four overtimes, but Canisius ended up victorious, 79-78.

18. 1996: Princeton Backdoor Cuts to Win over UCLA

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    Gabe Lewullis ran a classic backdoor cut straight out of the Princeton playbook. He got the pass and put in the game-winning layup with 3.9 seconds left. Those were two of the final nine points of the game that were all scored by the Tigers.

    Princeton coach Pete Carrill had announced his retirement the previous week after winning the Ivy League tournament. His team responded by beating the defending champions in the first round, magnifying the 13-seed over four-seed upset.

17. 1986: Arkansas-Little Rock Digs Digger and the Irish

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    Notre Dame was ranked 10th in the nation. They were 17-point favorites. And they were to be the upset victims of Arkansas-Little Rock.

    It was another 14-seed toppling a three-seed. The Irish couldn't overcome Arkansas-Little Rock's hot shooting in the second half. The Trojans shot 15-of-19 from the field in the second half for the 90-83 win over Digger Phelps' squad.

16. 1993: Steve Nash Leads Santa Clara to Huge Upset of Arizona

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    Arizona went on a 25-0 run in the game to seemingly take control. But freshman and future NBA MVP Steve Nash helped the Broncos overtake the Wildcats.

    It was only the second time that a 15-seed beat a two-seed after the tournament was expanded to 64 teams. Arizona shot 25 percent in the second half and went more than 15 minutes without a field goal. Santa Clara nabbed the 64-61 win.

15. 2011: Morehead State Conquers the Cardinals

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    The Madness builds up every year, and the 2011 tournament has already proven to be in on it with Morehead State leading the way.

    It was the Ohio Valley Conference versus the Big East Conference, two-time tournament coach Donnie Tyndall versus five-time Final Four coach Rick Pitino and the lowly 13-seed Eagles against the four-seed Cardinals.

    Demonte Harper let the clock run down with the Eagles down two. He then drained a three-pointer to give Morehead State a 62-61 lead. Future NBA first-rounder Kenneth Faried blocked Louisville's last second shot to lock the Eagles into the next round.

14. 2010: Kansas Gets Farokhmanesh-Ed

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    Ali Farokhmanesh pulled off one of the brashest moves in tournament history when he hoisted a three-pointer with time waning and his Northern Iowa team hanging onto a late lead over first-seeded Kansas.

    Farokhmanesh probably should have pulled the ball out to milk some clock. Instead he let the three fly from the wing and nailed it as the Panthers completed the upset, 69-67.

    The ninth-seeded Panthers were the first team to beat a top-seeded team in the second round since 2004.

13. 1994: Boston College Ends North Carolina's Sweet 16 Streak

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    For 13 straight seasons, the North Carolina Tar Heels advanced to the Sweet 16. But Boston College ended that run by shocking the Tar Heels 75-72 in the second round of the 1994 tournament.

    The Eagles weren't done yet. They went on to beat fifth-seeded Indiana before being knocked out in the Elite Eight.

    North Carolina seemed like a Sweet 16 shoe-in with Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace leading the way.

12. 2005: Jayhawks Knocked out in First Round

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    Twenty-one straight times, Kansas won its first-round games. Then Bucknell showed up.

    Kevin Bettencourt (19), Charles Lee (15) and McNaughton (14) accounted for 48 points as the Bison shocked the Jayhawks 64-63. McNaughton shot 6-for-7 from the floor and banked in a go-ahead hook shot for the 14th-seeded Bison with 10.2 seconds left.

    Kansas' Wayne Simien couldn't get the tying basket to fall and the No. 3 seed was eliminated.

11. 1997: Coppin State Stuns South Carolina

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    Having never won a tournament game before, Coppin State sure figured out how to make a bang in 1997. The 15th-seeded Eagles got the best of South Carolina in a first-round upset.

    Coppin State was a 30-point underdog. The Eagles made Las Vegas look silly when they danced into the second round with a 78-65 win.

    Coppin State took the lead at 55-54 with 6:12 to play and never let the Gamecocks get close again.

10. 2010: Ohio Blasts Georgetown

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    Georgetown boasted Austin Freeman and Greg Monroe. But Ohio had Armon Bassett.

    Bassett scored 32 points as the Bobcats trounced the Hoyas 97-83. Nobody saw the tiny team from Athens, Ohio trumping the proud and tradition-laden power from the nation's capital.

    D.J. Cooper added 23 for Ohio.

9. 1986: Cleveland State Draws Ire of Bobby Knight

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    Cleveland State's Run 'N Stun style overwhelmed Indiana in the first round of the 1986 tournament.

    The Vikings won 83-79 over the Hoosiers and won their second-round game before losing in the Sweet 16.

    Clinton Ransey led the way for the Vikings with 27 points and the team shot 58.9 percent from the field.

8. 1966: Texas Western Makes History with Win over Kentucky

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    Texas Western became the first team with an all-black starting five to win the national championship. It had to do so by pulling a great upset.

    With Kentucky as the heavy favorites, Texas Western completed a 28-1 season with its 72-65 win. Although the talent of Texas Western's team was undeniable, much of the country was backing the Wildcats in professional predictions. 

7. 1986: LSU Topples Top-Seeded Kentucky

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    This one was a foregone conclusion. Kentucky had already beaten LSU three times in 1986. It was a No. 1 seed taking on an No. 11 seed. The Tigers were without three key players thanks to defection, injury and academic issues.

    But LSU came up with the upset.

    The Tigers used "The Freak" defense to go all the way to the Final Four, the lowest-seeded team ever to do so. Their 59-57 win over the Wildcats is one of the more shocking results in tournament history.

6. 2008: Stephen Curry Outburst Leads to Win in Davidson's Upset of Georgetown

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    Davidson was just a speed bump in Georgetown's route to the Final Four. Leading by 17 and only allowing five points by Davidson star Stephen Curry in the first half, the Hoyas were on track for the Sweet 16.

    Then Curry caught fire. 

    The sophomore scored 25 points in the second half, leading the 10th-seeded Wildcats all the way back for a 74-70 win over the second-seeded Hoyas and their own Sweet 16 berth.

5. 1991: Richmond Shocks Syracuse

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    It's only happened four times in the history of the tournament. But Richmond was the first 15-seed to defeat a two-seed when it shocked Syracuse in 1991.

    The magnitude of the game could have been lost just one season earlier. But CBS had just paid for the rights to first-round coverage, gaining the contest prime-time coverage on network television.

    People across the country got to see one of the biggest upsets in tournament history and helped propel the madness into overdrive.

4. 1985: Villanova Snatches Championship from the Hoyas

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    Georgetown again is on the wrong end of an epic upset. The Patrick Ewing-led Hoyas were in pursuit of a second-consecutive national championship. They had charged into the title game to meet eighth-seeded Villanova.

    But the Wildcats were ready to make history. 'Nova shot 79 percent from the field to earn a 66-64 win that sent seismic waves through college basketball's core.

3. 1991: Duke Spoils UNLV's Shot at Back-to-Back Titles

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    The Runnin' Rebels expected the 1991 semifinal game to look much like the 1990 title game did. That was a 30-point drubbing that UNLV delivered to Duke.

    The Devils got their revenge in 1991, however.

    Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley took Duke to victory, shocking the Rebels and the world with a 79-77 win.

2. 2006: George Mason Knocks off Connecticut

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    It wasn't the first time that a No. 11 seed knocked off a No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four. LSU did it in 1986. But that was LSU, a nationally-respected program from a major conference.

    This was George Mason, a little school from an afterthought league that should have been content making the Sweet 16, let alone vying for a Final Four bid against a national power.

    But the Patriots weren't done, beating Connecticut 86-84 in overtime for one of the most exhilarating and improbable Final Four appearances.

1. 1983: Lorenzo Charles Dunks Home Championship for North Carolina State

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    Poor Jimmy Valvano. He just ran and ran like a wild man around that court looking for someone to hug. He had just witnessed his North Carolina State Wolfpack knock off Houston for a national title despite being heavy underdogs.

    The sixth-seeded Wolfpack won when Lorenzo Charles dunked home an errant shot to beat the buzzer, setting off Valvano's frantic celebration.

    The 54-52 win gave the Wolfpack a championship over Phi Slamma Jamma, Houston's historic team that featured Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon.

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