College basketball loves its underdogs like no other sport, largely because no other sport has seen underdogs do so much. As the NCAA tournament field has expanded, smaller and smaller schools have stunned national powers on the game’s biggest stage.
Not all the great upsets had to wait for the postseason, either. Next week, Chaminade can celebrate the 29th anniversary of one of the most jaw-dropping surprises in any sport, when the tiny NAIA school (now host of the Maui Invitational) defeated top-ranked Virginia and its Goliath of a center, Ralph Sampson.
Herein, a rundown of the most amazing underdog wins in college hoops, from Chaminade’s early-season stunner to some of history’s most famous NCAA championship games.
5-12 upsets are old hat in the modern tournament, but in 1984 (when the field was still 48 teams), there wasn’t any seed lower than No. 12. The Spiders had to win a play-in game over Rider just to get the opportunity to (presumably) lose to Auburn.
The Tigers, for their part, were led by the frontcourt pairing of sophomore Chuck Person (19.1 points and eight boards a night) and junior star Charles Barkley (15.1 points and 9.5 rebounds per game).
They’d fallen in the SEC tournament to top-seeded Kentucky, but still came in with a 20-10 record.
Richmond needed a big game from its own future NBA forward, Johnny Newman, who led the team with 26 points.
The most aptly-named Spider, Bill Flye, added 19 as Richmond jumped out to a huge early lead (17 points at halftime) and held on for the hard-earned victory.
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After decades of basketball futility, Ole Miss seemed ready to turn things around in 1997-98. The team topped 100 points three times in finishing with a 22-7 record, earning a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Their opponents were the little-known Valparaiso Crusaders out of the Mid-Continent Conference. Valpo had started the season just 10-9, but rode an 11-game winning streak into March Madness.
After an epic second half featuring nine lead changes, the Rebels appeared to have the game sewn up. But, with a 69-67 lead and All-America forward Ansu Sesay on the free throw line, two missed foul shots gave Valpo one last chance.
The result is a play that will live forever in March Madness highlight reels, as Jamie Sykes’ full-court heave found Bill Jenkins, who delivered a perfect touch pass to coach’s son Bryce Drew for the game-winning three-pointer.
Heading into the 1987 NCAA tournament, Austin Peay had been lucky even to get a No. 14 seed. The Governors had won the Ohio Valley tournament on a 30-foot buzzer beater after finishing a paltry 16-11 in the regular season.
Austin Peay hung right with the third-seeded Illini (led by soon-to-be first-round pick Ken Norman at SF), getting another buzzer-beater to tie the game at halftime.
They continued to stay competitive with the help of the then-new three-point line, getting five treys from 6’8” PF Darryl Bedford (who scored 24 on the day).
Even so, it took one more piece of last-second magic to pull the upset.
Tony Raye—who had assisted on the first-half buzzer-beater—was fouled by Illinois with two seconds left in regulation, and the 56-percent foul shooter drained both to win the game for the Governors.
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Entering the 1997 NCAA tournament, MEAC representatives were 0-15 all-time in March Madness. Coppin State wasn’t a bad team at 21-8, but hadn’t shown any obvious signs of changing its conference’s dismal record.
The Eagles, a No. 15 seed, faced second-seeded South Carolina, coming off a rare SEC East title and a 24-7 year. The Gamecocks’ high-scoring three-guard lineup, led by B.J. McKie, had every reason to assume they’d roll over Coppin State.
In actuality, what happened was just the opposite. Coppin State drained almost twice as many free throws as South Carolina and the Gamecocks’ three guards were outscored 42-31 by Eagles Danny Singletary and Antoine Brockington.
Just as important, 6'11" Ryan Stack and the Gamecock frontcourt couldn’t get the job done on the glass, as South Carolina was outrebounded 39-29 in the loss.
The grandfather of NCAA tournament upsets saw North Carolina State come into the 1956 tourney as the No. 2-ranked team in the nation. The Wolfpack was led by the ACC Player of the Year, center Ronnie Shavlik (grandfather of former Duke standout Shavlik Randolph).
Canisius probably isn’t a familiar name to many hoops fans, considering that the Golden Griffins haven’t been to the NCAAs in 15 years.
At the time, though, they were coming off a Sweet 16 trip in which they’d beaten a pair of unremarkable opponents (Williams and Villanova) before getting slaughtered by Tom Gola and LaSalle.
Even so, the Golden Griffins were given little chance against the 6’8” Shavlik, who did score 25 points in the game. He was outdone, however, by Canisius junior Hank Nowak, who poured in 29.
To say the game was decided by offense, though, would be a definite overstatement. In all four overtimes, the combined score was just 14-13 in favor of the underdogs.
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It had been 19 seasons since the Tar Heels had failed to win their postseason opener when they entered the 1999 NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed.
Even with the loss of Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison from the previous year’s roster, North Carolina brought seven-foot center Brendan Haywood and standout PG Ed Cota to anchor a 24-9 team.
Weber State, a largely-unknown 14th seed out of the Big Sky Conference, didn’t have anything like the name recognition of the Tar Heels. What they did have was a secret weapon.
Harold “The Show” Arcenaux, the Wildcats’ star guard, poured in 36 points to match the most any opponent has ever scored on UNC in postseason play.
Arcenaux would rack up another 32 points in Round 2, but it wouldn’t be enough as Weber State fell to Florida in OT.
Even after losing star forward Marcus Fizer, Iowa State looked like an outstanding team heading into the 2001 NCAA tournament. The second-seeded Cyclones had gone 25-5 in winning the Big 12, and future Pacers point guard Jamaal Tinsley was leading a potent offense.
In a rarity for such a low seed, the 15th-seeded Pirates did have a size advantage with 6’9” forward Tarvis Williams, the team’s leader with 21.9 points and 6.9 boards a night.
Even so, the MEAC champs were just 24-6 in the regular season against one of the nation’s weakest schedules.
The Cyclones led by double digits in the second half, but Hampton battled back behind point guard Marseilles Brown. A Williams block set Brown up for a layup that cut the lead to one with 1:44 to play.
With 6.9 seconds to play, Brown returned the favor, setting up Williams for the game-winning leaner in the paint. When Tinsley missed a last-ditch layup, Hampton became the fourth 15 seed in history to come away victorious.
The 1995-96 UCLA Bruins weren’t on a par with the team that had won the previous year’s national title, but they weren’t anything to sneeze at, either. Jim Harrick’s squad had won the Pac-10 with a 23-7 record, earning a No. 4 seed in March Madness.
The 13 seed they drew was a Princeton Tigers team looking to send outgoing head coach Pete Carril out on a high note.
Carril’s famed Princeton offense, with its ceaseless back-door cuts and passes out of the high post, had earned the Tigers an Ivy League title and a 21-6 mark.
With the Tigers’ ball control preventing Toby Bailey and J.R. Henderson from getting out and running, the Bruins’ offense sputtered. Princeton milked the shot clock so thoroughly that the game was tied at just 41-41 when the Tigers set up for their final possession.
One more back-door pass later—from Steve Goodrich to Gabe Lewullis—the defending champs were headed home and the Tigers were moving on to the second round.
Few teams have looked quite as invincible heading into the national championship game as the 1998-99 Duke Blue Devils.
With future NBA standouts Elton Brand and Shane Battier in the frontcourt, plus Corey Maggette coming off the bench, Duke had won 37 of 38 games, including 32 in a row.
UConn, for its part, was a strong No. 3 seed at 33-2, but hardly a likely candidate to slow down the Blue Devils’ juggernaut.
Swingman Richard Hamilton was scoring 21.5 points a game, but only two other Huskies were averaging better than 7.1 points a night.
Hamilton got just enough help in the title game, though, as the backcourt of Ricky Moore and Khalid El-Amin combined for 25 while Hamilton poured in 27.
Kevin Freeman and Jake Voskuhl held Brand to just 15 points, so even a 25-point effort from “Alaskan Assassin” Trajan Langdon wasn’t enough to save Duke.
In 1986, the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 teams for the first time. The value of the bigger field was immediately demonstrated by 14th-seeded UALR, whose 22-11 regular-season record wouldn’t have been good enough to make the old 48-team field.
Their opponent was a Notre Dame team that had struggled in recent tournament play but was, in 1986, a consistent national contender.
Point guard David Rivers was the star (16.7 points and 4.9 assists a night), but future NBA forwards Donald Royal and Tim Kempton played substantial roles as well.
The Trojans dominated on offense, shooting better than 50 percent from the field. TAAC Player of the Year Myron Jackson had 16 by halftime, while future Bulls guard Pete Myers wound up as the leading scorer with 29 points for the game.
Even so, Rivers kept the Irish close until the final minutes, when strong free throw shooting sealed the game for one of the first 14 seeds (along with Cleveland State the same day) to win in NCAA tournament play.
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Heading into the 1994 NCAA tournament, Dean Smith’s Tar Heels had made the Sweet 16 for 13 consecutive seasons.
The defending national champs were ranked No. 1 in the country behind a versatile offense led by Eric Montross inside and Jerry Stackhouse outside.
Boston College, for its part, had fallen out of the Top 25 by the time March Madness began. The ninth-seeded Eagles narrowly escaped from Washington State in Round 1, but few gave them any chance against UNC.
B.C., though, jumped out to an early lead before holding off a Tar Heel comeback in the second half. Eagles star Bill Curley had 18, while the backcourt of Gerrod Abram and Howard Eisley combined for 32.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, never got their offense into gear, with Stackhouse leading the team at just 15 points on the day.
The backbreaker was the offensive performances from Donald Williams and Rasheed Wallace, who shot a combined 4-for-22 from the field in the defeat.
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Many of Syracuse’s stars of the late '80s were gone by the 1991 tournament, but scoring ace Billy Owens was still around to lead a 26-6 squad.
However, the then-Orangemen looked more vulnerable than many No. 2 seeds after an upset loss to Villanova in the Big East tournament.
Richmond, meanwhile, had won 15 of 17 coming into the NCAAs and had already established a reputation as a dangerous postseason foe. Veteran coach Dick Tarrant had his squad believing they could become the first No. 15 seed ever to win a game.
That confidence showed as the Spiders jumped out to an eight-point halftime lead. Even with Owens playing a terrific game (22 points, seven rebounds), Richmond stayed on top with a balanced offense orchestrated by PG Curtis Blair (18 points and six assists on the day).
Richmond held on late thanks to 18-for-22 free throw shooting, setting a precedent for future 15th seeds to follow.
Second-seeded Arizona entered the 1993 NCAA tournament boasting one of the nation’s best backcourts.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, even the tandem of Khalid Reeves and future NBA standout Damon Stoudamire wouldn’t be enough to come away with a first-round win.
15th-seeded Santa Clara had some backcourt star power of its own, in the person of then-unknown Canadian point guard Steve Nash.
Even with Nash’s burgeoning talents, though, the Broncos had finished a mere 18-11, ending up third in the WCC before earning a bid to the big dance with a conference tournament championship.
While the game is often billed as Nash’s debut on a national stage, he had a pedestrian 10 points and four assists.
What he did do was nail six straight free throws to close out the contest after forward Pete Eisenrich had keyed the Santa Clara win with 19 points and eight rebounds.
A No. 4 seed winning the national title wouldn’t normally qualify as an epic upset, but Arizona’s path to the 1997 championship was unique in NCAA history. The Wildcats finished fifth in the Pac-10, the lowest conference finish for any NCAA champion.
On top of that, Arizona—having already knocked off Kansas and North Carolina—was facing its third No. 1 seed of the tournament. Rick Pitino’s Kentucky squad was defending its 1996 national title, led by NBA-bound swingmen Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson.
Arizona, though, had NBA talent of its own, led by Mike Bibby at point guard. Lute Olsen’s Wildcats hit 34 free throws—14 by MOP Miles Simon—to Kentucky’s nine in squeaking out a victory.
The loss blocked Kentucky (which would beat Utah in the 1998 title game) from a championship three-peat.
By all rights, this game should not have been the shocker that it turned out to be. Texas Western, ranked No. 3 in the AP poll, had lost just one game all season (albeit to an unimpressive Seattle team).
Kentucky, meanwhile, was certainly a strong team, but their mystique had little to do with the talent of this particular group of Wildcats.
Future ABA legend Louie Dampier led a high-scoring bunch that also featured coaching icon Pat Riley at forward, but Kentucky was also once-beaten (by Tennessee).
That the Miners were given so little chance at the win had something to do with the track record of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp—who had four NCAA championships to his name—but mostly to do with the racial climate of 1966.
Texas Western (now UTEP) was the first team in history to use an all-black starting lineup, while Kentucky (as it had always been) was all-white.
The Miners, though, confounded Rupp’s offense-oriented team with a slowdown game and a tenacious defense that held the Wildcats to 38 percent shooting.
When Bobby Joe Hill stole the ball from the Wildcats’ guards on consecutive possessions—and converted both fast-break layups—Texas Western extended its lead to 16-11 and never trailed for the rest of the night.
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With 2011’s expansion to a 68-team field, many commentators argued that no team deserved its at-large bid less than Virginia Commonwealth.
The 11th-seeded Rams proved that idea a fallacy with wins over USC, Georgetown, Purdue and Florida State, but to get to the Final Four they had to get through Kansas.
The top-seeded Jayhawks were 34-2 on the year, and had just demolished another upstart, Richmond, by a 77-57 margin.
With the hulking Morris twins in the middle, Kansas looked like a safe bet to grind down the undersized Rams in spite of their high-pressure schemes.
Instead, VCU’s lone post presence, Jamie Skeen, blew up for 26 points (including four treys), while reserve guard Brandon Rozzell added 12.
Markieff Morris, meanwhile, imploded with eight turnovers as the Jayhawks missed three-pointer after three-pointer (2-for-21 on the day) against the swarming Rams.
VCU’s ensuing date with eighth-seeded Butler was the lowest combination of seeds ever to meet in Final Four play.
Sometimes an upset is big not because the winning team is bad, but because the losing team is so monumentally good. Bill Walton’s UCLA Bruins fit squarely in the latter category.
John Wooden’s squad had won 88 consecutive games entering their 1974 meeting with Notre Dame, a streak dating back to before any of the Bruins on the '74 team were playing varsity ball.
UCLA boasted a future Hall of Fame center in Walton and another many-time NBA All-Star in swingman Keith Wilkes, giving every impression of extending the streak indefinitely.
Digger Phelps’ Irish, though, had some talent in their own right, with standout center John Shumate being joined by freshman star Adrian Dantley (another player bound for Springfield). Indeed, Notre Dame would take over the Bruins’ No. 1 ranking with their victory.
With three minutes left, though, it looked like win No. 89 was in the books for Wooden, as UCLA led 70-59.
A furious late run by the Irish was capped by Dwight Clay’s desperation jumper from the corner, making Notre Dame both the last team to beat UCLA before the streak and the first team to beat them to end it.
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Do not adjust your computers: Duke winning a Final Four game was not only considered an upset, but an upset of legendary proportions.
Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV team had run the Blue Devils out of the gym in winning the 1990 title by a record 30-point margin. Both teams returned essentially identical rosters for the 1991 rematch in the national semis.
Moreover, UNLV came in with a daunting 27-0 record and a growing reputation as the greatest college team ever assembled.
Soon-to-be No. 1 draft pick Larry Johnson was the ringleader at PF, but he had plenty of help on the perimeter from future pros Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony and 1990 tournament MOP Anderson Hunt.
It was Duke, however, that would use the game to build the legends of two of college basketball’s greatest individual players.
Christian Laettner led the Blue Devils with 28 points and seven boards, while Bobby Hurley (a year away from setting the all-time Division I assists record) had 12 points and seven assists for the victors.
Laettner also had a lot to do with holding LJ to an uncharacteristic 13 points on just 10 field-goal attempts.
LSU had its share of problems in 1985-86, but the Tigers picked the right time to get hot.
A record of 22-12 in an unremarkable SEC saddled them with a No. 11 seed, but upset wins over Purdue, Memphis and Georgia Tech earned them a chance for revenge on their season-long tormentors from Kentucky.
The top-seeded Wildcats were led by future Knick Kenny “Sky” Walker, who averaged 20 points and 7.7 rebounds a game.
Eddie Sutton’s team had won the SEC title and brought a gaudy 32-3 record (with three wins over LSU alone) into the Elite 8 showdown.
Walker played right on his averages, but the Tigers’ shifting man-zone defense (dubbed “the Freak”) shut down the rest of the Wildcats.
Star forward John “Hot Plate” Williams led LSU with 16, but it was 6’6” Ricky Blanton, a converted guard playing center, who nailed the last-second layup that made LSU the first-ever No. 11 seed in the Final Four.
In 1981, the DePaul Blue Demons were in their second season of featuring future NBA stars Mark Aguirre (later a No. 1 overall pick of the Mavs) and Terry Cummings (No. 2 overall to the Clippers).
Ray Meyer’s team was ranked No. 1 in the nation entering the 1981 tournament after going 26-1 in the regular season.
In the old 48-team field, the top four seeds in each region got byes into the second round, meaning that DePaul was playing its first game when it faced the ninth-seeded Hawks.
St. Joe’s, meanwhile, had narrowly escaped from No. 8 seed Creighton, 59-57, in Round 1.
DePaul’s vaunted offense deserted it for this game, as the Blue Demons were held scoreless for the final six-and-a-half minutes.
Skip Dillard, normally an impeccable foul shooter, missed the front end of a one-and-one with 13 seconds to play to set up John Smith’s game-winning layup (which gave the Hawks their only lead of the day).
Aguirre, playing his final college game, finished with a career-low eight points and one rebound.
A No. 9 seed is better than most Ivy League champions can hope for, but in 1979 (when the NCAA tournament field was just 40 teams), no No. 9 seed had ever made a Final Four.
After topping eighth-seeded Iona, it seemed a safe bet that upstart Penn would be put in its place by the top-seeded ACC champions from North Carolina.
Although the Tar Heels were a few years away from their most overpowering rosters, Dean Smith’s 23-5 club had plenty of talent. Mike O’Koren averaged 14.8 points and 7.2 boards a night, while swingman Al Wood led the team with 17.8 points a contest.
However, O’Koren proved to be no match for Penn star Tony Price (father of the Pacers’ A.J.), who scored a game-high 25 points along with nine rebounds and six assists.
With four other Quakers scoring in double figures, Penn had just enough offense to outlast UNC and move on to the third round.
The Quakers would become the second Ivy League squad and first No. 9 seed to play in a Final Four, but having made it that far, they got demolished by Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans.
Other teams had pulled upsets before, but the squad that put the Colonial Athletic Association on the NCAA tournament map was the 2006 George Mason Patriots.
The 11th-seeded Patriots were 0-3 all-time in March Madness until a run through Michigan State, North Carolina and Wichita State to reach the Elite 8.
Waiting for them there were the UConn Huskies, boasting future NBA talent as usual. Jim Calhoun’s top seeds were led by current Grizzlies star Rudy Gay, with standout point guard Marcus Williams also playing a key role.
Early on, it looked like UConn’s superior athletic ability would prevail, as the Huskies took a nine-point lead into halftime. Jim Larranaga’s squad didn’t quit, though, and battled back to a 74-72 lead with 7.9 seconds left in regulation.
When star guard Tony Skinn missed the front end of a one-and-one for the Patriots, a Denham Brown reverse sent the game to overtime.
Even then, George Mason hung tough, and after taking a five-point lead early in the OT, they never trailed again. Brown’s desperation three at the buzzer went begging, and George Mason went to the Final Four.
The Houston Cougars of the early ‘80s were one of the most talent-rich college teams ever assembled.
Led by future Hall of Famers Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, the speedy, high-flying Cougars earned the nickname Phi Slama Jama for their thunderous dunks.
Their opponents for the 1983 NCAA title were a solid but unspectacular No. 6 seed, North Carolina State.
The Wolfpack had already escaped from Ralph Sampson and top-seeded Virginia, so another seemingly-unstoppable center wasn’t going to scare Jim Valvano’s squad.
Led by 6’11” Thurl Bailey, NC State jumped out to an eight-point halftime lead, only to see the Cougars battle back. With time running down, though, the Wolfpack had the ball in a 52-52 tie.
Dereck Whittenburg, who had already scored 14 points on the night, heaved up a long shot (from what would now be three-point range), but came up short.
The Cougars, apparently thinking time would run out, had left Wolfpack forward Lorenzo Charles unguarded at the rim.
Just before the clock expired, Charles dunked home Whittenburg’s miss for his fourth point of the night and one of history’s most implausible national titles.
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After coming up short in the 1982 title game, the Georgetown Hoyas won the 1984 national title. With superstar center Patrick Ewing returning for his senior season, another championship looked to be in the bag for 1985.
The 1985 Final Four was famously a block party for the Big East, with three teams from the conference getting in. The least likely of the trio was eighth-seeded Villanova, which had gone just 19-10 in the regular season.
The Wildcats had played Georgetown tough, taking the Hoyas to overtime earlier in the year, but ultimately the Wildcats had lost both meetings.
With only 6’9” Ed Pinckney to counter the 7’0” Ewing, it didn’t look likely that Rollie Massimino’s squad would reverse that trend.
The Wildcats played a fine game defensively, holding Ewing to 14 points and forcing other Hoyas (like David Wingate, who added 16) to take shots.
The deciding factor, though, was Villanova’s astounding offensive performance, as the Wildcats shot an otherworldly 78.6 percent from the field—missing just a single shot after halftime—in becoming the lowest seed ever to take home the NCAA championship.
Early in the 1982-83 season, Virginia was coming off a tough non-conference spurt that had included wins over Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas and Akeem Olajuwon’s Houston Cougars.
7’4” center Ralph Sampson, on his way to his third consecutive Naismith award, was the leader of the top-ranked Cavaliers, but sharp-shooting Rick Carlisle (now the Mavericks’ head coach) gave them a serious perimeter presence as well.
On their way back from a trip to Japan, the Cavaliers had scheduled what appeared to be a throwaway game against Chaminade.
The NAIA Silverswords had just beaten Division I Hawaii, but there was no reason to believe they could do the same against mighty Virginia.
The key for Chaminade was 6’5” center Tony Randolph.
Though he was surrendering nearly a foot in height and 80 pounds of weight to Sampson, Randolph had faced the Cavaliers’ star when both were Virginia high-schoolers, and knew that with help, he would have a chance to contain him.
Randolph got that help (some of it from a flu bug Sampson was battling), and the national player of the year scored just 12 points on the night (while contributing to his team's ugly total of 25 turnovers).
On the other end of the floor, Chaminade swingman Richard Haenisch lit up Virginia for 38 points. Even then, Chaminade needed more than a little luck to finish off the upset.
A controversial double-dribble call against Virginia’s Othell Wilson killed the Cavaliers’ chance at a game-tying basket, and the Silverswords hit their free throws to finish out the most unbelievable win in college basketball history.
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