10 Most Devastating Men's NCAA Tournament Losses
Losing hurts. Losing in the NCAA tournament adds a special sting. However, falling in March Madness when everyone expected you to win—or when the scoreboard suggested you would—is potentially legendary.
And not in a positive way.
As the 2020 men's tourney nears, B/R is looking back at the worst losses in the history of the Big Dance.
By definition, every loss is considered. Our focus, though, is on squandered leads, late collapses and out-of-nowhere upsets—not necessarily the most memorable results.
Mostly, this is an intensely subjective list because no NCAA tournament game has identical context. There are different seeds, leads, betting lines, players and stakes for every game. We've parsed through the history of bad and stunning losses to settle on the 10 results that left the losing team feeling miserable.
No. 15 Norfolk State Clips No. 2 Missouri (2012)
Led by future NBA role player Kyle O'Quinn, Norfolk State downed second-seeded Missouri 86-84. The 2012 tournament is the only one in history to include a pair of 2 vs. 15 upsets. The other came when Lehigh toppled Duke, and we'll get to that later.
No. 15 Coppin State Upends No. 2 South Carolina (1997)
During the regular season, Coppin State went 0-4 against Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas State and Illinois. Although the Eagles took K-State to overtime, the other three losses were by 24, 16 and 36, respectively. Nevertheless, they sprung the upset on South Carolina with a commanding 78-65 win.
No. 15 Richmond Beats No. 2 Syracuse (1991)
Richmond pulled off the first-ever No. 15 over No. 2 upset in March Madness. Curtis Blair tallied 18 points and six assists for the Spiders, who eliminated the 26-5 Big East champions.
UNLV Obliterates Duke in National Title Game (1990)
Duke responded with consecutive championships in the following years, but—yikes. This was a disaster. UNLV throttled the Blue Devils to cut down the nets in 1990, cruising to a 103-73 triumph while hitting 41 of their 67 shots.
10. Arizona Falls to Santa Clara (1993)
In the middle portion of this first-round contest, second-seeded Arizona put together a 25-0 run. The Wildcats scored the last 14 points of the opening half to recover from a 33-21 deficit and netted the first 11 points after the break to take a 46-33 advantage.
And, still, No. 15 Santa Clara pulled off this 1993 upset.
While it helped to have a future NBA Hall of Famer in Steve Nash on the roster, he finished 1-of-7 for 10 points. Pete Eisenrich (19 points) and DeWayne Lewis (13) led the Broncos, while John Woolery posted 10 points, six steals and three assists.
Most impressively, Santa Clara held Arizona without a field goal for a 15-minute stretch in the second half. The lockdown defense propelled the Broncos to a 64-61 victory.
9. CJ McCollum, Lehigh Down No. 2 Duke (2012)
CJ McCollum has since developed into an elite NBA scorer with the Portland Trail Blazers, but he first left an unforgettable mark on the 2012 tournament.
Listed as 12.5-point underdogs, No. 15 Lehigh rode McCollum's 30 points to a 75-70 victory in the round of 64. He added six assists for the Mountain Hawks, who limited Duke to a 6-of-26 three-point clip, including 1-of-7 from Seth Curry and 2-of-7 from Austin Rivers.
"We were definitely confident coming in, because we didn't have anything to lose," McCollum said, according to the New York Times. "Everyone except for our family members predicted us to lose, so there was no pressure on it. The pressure was all on them, and I'm glad that we were able to get the win."
8. Arizona's Elite 8 Meltdown (2005)
With four minutes remaining in this 2005 game, No. 3 Arizona boasted a 75-60 lead. Top-seeded Illinois needed a miracle to keep its fleeting national championship hopes alive.
"It was surreal," former Arizona assistant coach Josh Pastner told Grantland's Robert Mays in 2004. "I remember turning to our assistant with about 3:30 to go and saying, 'We're going back to the Final Four.' We just blew it. There's no other way to put it. We blew it."
The Illini clawed their way back, scoring 20 points in that final stretch to force overtime locked at 80. Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head and Co. earned a 90-89 victory and booked a trip to the Final Four.
7. UCLA Sends Home Adam Morrison, Gonzaga (2006)
Gonzaga ripped off a 27-3 pre-tourney record with a 14-0 clip in West Coast Conference action. Behind a National Player of the Year candidate in Adam Morrison, the 2005-06 Bulldogs had dreams of earning the program's first-ever Final Four berth.
At the very least, they seemed destined for the Elite Eight.
During the Sweet 16 against No. 2 UCLA, third-seeded Gonzaga seized a 17-point first-half advantage. The lead wavered, as you'd expect, yet remained in double digits as the clock ticked below 10 minutes, eight minutes, five minutes in regulation.
But in the final 3:15 of the contest, the Bruins outscored the Zags. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute made a layup and grabbed a steal in the closing seconds, and J.P. Batista's desperation shot didn't connect.
The lasting image came when Morrison crumbled to the floor as the buzzer rang, effectively signaling the end of his college career.
6. Michigan State's Title Run Ends Before It Starts (2016)
Despite holding a No. 2 seed, Michigan State entered the 2016 tournament as one of the betting favorites to cut down the nets.
Well, it didn't last long.
No. 15 Middle Tennessee surged to a 15-2 lead and consistently held off the Spartans' advances. MSU trimmed the lead to 23-22 but couldn't jump ahead. The Denzel Valentine-led Spartans pulled within two shortly after halftime but fell further behind. They fought back to one-point deficits twice in the final 10 minutes but never took the lead.
Put simply, it was a brilliant offensive showing from the Blue Raiders to secure the eighth No. 15 over No. 2 upset in tournament history.
5. Memphis Misses Free Throws, Loses Title to Kansas (2008)
Memphis would love to forget its nightmarish history of free-throw collapses in championship games.
In the 2005 Conference USA title game, Darius Washington Jr. headed to the stripe needing to hit two of three to tie. He made one. Three years later in the national championship game, Derrick Rose and Co. wasted an opportunity to prevent a Kansas comeback.
Memphis held a 62-56 advantage with 1:23 remaining, but Chris Douglas-Roberts clanged three free throws over that final stretch of regulation as Kansas trimmed it to 62-60. With 10.8 seconds left, Rose had a chance to seal the contest. However, he split the attempts before Mario Chalmers drilled a game-tying three-pointer.
Kansas would win in overtime.
4. NC State Completes Miracle Run (1983)
North Carolina State surprised the nation as a No. 6 seed that advanced to the 1983 national championship game. Fun story and all, but top-seeded Houston would smash the glass slipper, right?
You know the answer.
Favored by 7.5 points, the 31-2 Cougars had Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, but they struggled with altitude-related issues in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and foul trouble, respectively. NC State took full advantage of the situation, upending star-studded Houston in improbable fashion.
As the final seconds ticked away in a 52-52 game, Dereck Whittenburg heaved a 30-footer that stopped short of the rim. Lorenzo Charles, though, perfectly timed his jump to snag the missed shot and dunk the ball for a pseudo alley-oop and a national title.
3. Chris Webber's Infamous Timeout (1993)
On paper, there's no shame in losing the national championship to a 33-4 opponent that entered as the favorite anyway. Even relinquishing a 10-point first-half lead to a team of that caliber, while still painful, is at least understandable.
The "how" of Michigan's 1993 title loss is the devastating part of this story.
With the Wolverines trailing 73-71 with 20 seconds left, Chris Webber somehow managed to get away with a blatant travel after corralling a rebound. He dribbled toward the right corner, found himself in a double-team and called a timeout. The problem? Michigan didn't have any remaining, and the refs called a technical foul. The mistake gifted UNC two free throws and the ball.
Within moments, a two-point deficit ballooned to six. And the Fab Five watched their chance at a national title disappear.
2. No. 16 Seed UMBC Stuns No. 1 Virginia (2018)
If you like optimism, Virginia coach Tony Bennett suggested the team's 2019 title wouldn't have happened without this loss. That, however, doesn't lessen the significance of the first time a No. 16 seed ever derailed a No. 1 seed.
The ACC regular-season and tournament champions in 2018, Virginia arrived at the Big Dance a confident group. Even without star freshman De'Andre Hunter (broken wrist), the Cavaliers were expected to cruise past a UMBC team that needed to upset Vermont in the America East tournament to punch its ticket.
Even as the halftime score read 21-21, nobody was extremely concerned about Virginia. Shots would fall eventually.
And they did. Just for the other team.
UMBC assembled a 17-3 surge in four-plus minutes after halftime, and Virginia would never be within 11 points again. The Hoos shot 18.2 percent from three-point range and 41.1 percent overall, losing 74-54 in an upset that won't ever be forgotten.
1. Northern Iowa's Last-Minute Debacle (2016)
That's the best way to describe Northern Iowa's monumental collapse against No. 3 Texas A&M in 2016.
It seemed the 11th-seeded Panthers were a team of destiny; they'd toppled No. 6 Texas with a half-court buzzer-beater in the opening round. And here, the Panthers led A&M 69-57 with only 45 seconds remaining in the game. Northern Iowa could practically touch the second Sweet 16 appearance in program history.
But then, UNI completely forgot how to break a press.
Turnover. Layup. Turnover. Dunk. TURNOVER! THREE-POINTER! The Panthers pushed the lead to five, but a three-point play from Alex Caruso made it 71-69. And, once again, A&M forced a turnover in the backcourt and hit a game-tying layup with 1.9 seconds left.
The Aggies, who would win in double overtime, completed the comeback without committing a single foul.
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson had the unenviable task of putting the loss into words during the press conference.
"Unfortunately, we were on the wrong side of the—just a, crazy 30 seconds that, you know—a 30 seconds that, we aren't going to be able to ever have an answer for, nor do we need one," he said. "It just happened to go that way."