The NCAA Tournament offers basketball fans one of the most entertaining, suspenseful and shocking experiences of the year. For three weeks in March and early April, “March Madness” sweeps the nation. Brackets are filled out and inevitably busted. A Cinderella story emerges. A champion is crowned. Over the decades, countless games have produced moments of magic.
From the time I began watching sports there was always something captivating about March Madness. It was an impossible task narrowing those moments down to just ten, but someone had to do it. Here are the (my) top ten moments in NCAA Tournament history.
Valparaiso vs. Ole Miss (1998, First Round)
Any highlight reel of March Madness highlights has to have this shot. Valparaiso’s last-second win against Ole Miss is one of the iconic moments in the NCAA tournament and embodies the attitude every team needs to have going in to the tournament. As long as there is time left on the clock, anything can happen.
With 2.5 seconds remaining and Valparaiso down two, a perfectly designed play propelled the 13-seed past the 4-seed, Ole Miss Rebels. Jaime Sykes chucked a full-court pass to Bill Jenkins who then touched a pass to Bryce Drew. Drew’s wide-open three secured a 70-69 dramatic win for Valparaiso and he disappeared under a pile of his elated teammates. Valparaiso’s Cinderella run ended in the Sweet 16 but Drew’s shot will be immortalized in March Madness lore.
UMBC vs. Virginia (2018, First Round)
Every college basketball fan knew it would happen, it was just a matter of when. Prior to the 2018 NCAA Tournament, a 16 seed had never beaten a 1 seed. That all changed when the UMBC Retrievers knocked off the Virginia Cavaliers. The most shocking aspect of the game itself was that it wasn’t even close. The Retrievers pulled away and won without breaking a sweat against a team that was favored to win the National Championship.
Virginia coaches, players and fans were stunned as history had been made on their account. Tied at 21 at the half, UMBC turned it on in the second half and outscored Virginia by twenty! Virginia is known for its defensive efficiency year in and year out. This made it all the more shocking they surrendered over 50 points in a half to a significant underdog. The final score was 74-54, taking out any nerves that a 16-seed might have when going for an upset of this magnitude.
Jarius Lyles was the star for UMBC, scoring 28 points while making 3 three-pointers. As a team, UMBC went 12 for 24 from deep and Virginia had an off night at the wrong time. UMBC would go on to lose in the second round but their upset will live on forever. 16-seeds are now 1-139 all-time against 1-seeds, but every team facing the challenge now knows the task is no longer impossible.
Texas A&M vs. Northern Iowa (2016, Second Round)
This game right here put the Madness in March Madness. As a 3-seed, Texas A&M stormed back and avoided an upset in a way that few teams have in the history of college basketball. Northern Iowa, an 11-seed in 2016, was ready to take center stage that year and become the Cinderella story. All they had to do was inbound the ball. If only it was that simple.
Up 69-57 with 43.5 left on the clock, the Sweet 16 berth was practically in their grasp. Texas A&M launched a three, secured an offensive rebound and scored what seemed like a meaningless lay up with 34 seconds left. 69-59. That’s where things get interesting. Here comes that pesky task of inbounding the ball. A turnover on an inbounds pass and a quick lay up for the Aggies, 69-61. Another turnover led to an easy dunk, 69-63. In a blink of an eye the lead was cut in half. However, there were only 20 seconds left, UNI just needed a few free throws and they would advance. Not so fast.
After a five-second violation on UNI, A&M inbounded the ball and hoisted up another three-pointer. Of course it went in, 69-66. The wildest part of this sequence was maybe the only UNI basket. After that three a full court heave led to an easy dunk and a brief exhale from Northern Iowa. The only problem was the breakaway dunk only took two seconds off the clock. Should the UNI player have dribbled around, wasted precious seconds and taken his chances at the free throw line? We’ll never know. Just don’t foul Texas A&M, right?
In the famous words of Homer Simpson, “D’oh!”. Alex Caruso drove the whole length of the floor and scored an and-one lay up with 11.8 left in the game, 71-69. A trap in the corner on the ensuing possession led to another blunder by UNI and Texas A&M tied the game with 1.8 seconds on the clock. In 32.2 seconds an improbable 14-2 run by Texas A&M had forced overtime!
Casual fans might not even remember that this game was far from over. The contest went into double overtime, but in the end UNI couldn’t overcome the monumental collapse. Texas A&M went on to win 92-88 in a game for the ages. Unfortunately, the Aggies burnt through their March Madness magic and would lose in the next round to Buddy Hield and the Oklahoma Sooners.
2013 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
In 2013, Florida Gulf Coast made such a special run that the school was temporarily renamed “Dunk City”. Out of nowhere, the 15-seeded Eagles soared over their competition and became the first 15-seed to reach the Sweet 16. Through alley-oops, breakaway dunks, and putback slams, the highlight packages the FGCU produced in 2013 were something out of a video game. They weren’t just squeaking by their opponents with miracle shots either, they were dominating and advanced with ease.
However, after a pair of 10-point wins over Georgetown and San Diego State, FGCU finally met their match going up against interstate rival Florida. The run was cut short, but not before Dunk City took the college basketball world by storm.
2018 Loyola Ramblers
Sometimes a moment in March Madness can’t be quantified by a single game. A team can capture the Cinderella mentality and run rampant with it, ruining every bracket across America as it rallies off upset after upset. In 2018, that team was the Loyola Ramblers. With its unofficial team captain, Sister Jean, the Ramblers were everyone’s favorite team for a few weeks.
As an 11-seed, they won four games in a row on the way to the school’s first trip to the Final Four since 1963. It all started in the first round of the tournament with last second three-pointer against Miami. A 64-62 win set the stage for Loyola as a force to be reckoned with. Their intense games and razor-thin margins of victory only made the run that much more special.
They followed up that win against Miami with two separate one-point wins against Nevada and Tennessee. Both of those teams were projected to make deep runs in the tournament before Loyola got in their way. A win over Kansas State sent them to the Final Four where they lost 69-57 to Michigan. Marques Townes, Cameron Krutwig, Sister Jean and the Loyola Ramblers will always be remembered as one of the more epic runs to the Final Four in tournament history.
Duke vs. Kentucky (1992, Elite Eight)
This one is hard to write about. I have never been a Duke fan but there is no doubt this moment belongs on the list. However, I will abstain from using my writing prowess to elegantly express just how massive this moment was for Duke and its star player, Christian Laettner.
This shot and the ensuing run to a National Championship allowed Duke to begin its reign as the class of college basketball. I’ll just leave this here:
1982 – North Carolina Georgetown National Championship
Otherwise known as the game that introduced Michael Jordan to the world, the 1982 NCAA Championship had one of the wildest endings in the history of the tournament. Led by future Hall-of-Famer James Worthy, the North Carolina Tar Heels only lost twice all season heading in to the championship game.
In danger of losing with less than a minute on the clock, Michael Jordan hit his first iconic shot in 1982 against the Georgetown Hoyas. Few could have predicted his game-winning catalog would become so expansive, but with the title on the line MJ stepped up. The mid-range jumper gave UNC a 63-62 lead with 15 seconds left.
Georgetown had plenty of time to get the shot they wanted but their possession took a turn after crossing mid-court. Inexplicably, Fred Brown of Georgetown threw a pass right to James Worthy and the Hoyas immediately had to foul. Luckily for Georgetown, Worthy would miss both free-throws giving the team a second chance at last second glory. Instead of trusting their 7-foot freshman phenom, Patrick Ewing, Georgetown let Eric Floyd take the last shot. He missed and enabled Jordan’s shot to go down in college basketball history.
1983 – NC State Virginia National Championship
How fitting for a man who preached belief and never giving up to coach a team that did exactly that. Jim Valvano, better known as Jimmy V, provided North Carolina State and March Madness fans everywhere with a moment that will send chills down your spine and a tear down your cheek depending on how well you know the story of the man and the game.
As for the man, Jim Valvano was a passionate Italian basketball coach in the late 70s and early 80s. As a coach he is most known for the ’83 National Championship but as a man he is so much more. His life was cut short by cancer, but he has one of the most memorable speeches about the disease of all-time. Since his death, millions and millions of dollars have been raised for cancer research due to the Jimmy V Fund.
As for the game, North Carolina State had no business winning. They were going up against the Houston Cougars and Akeem Olajuwon, one of the best basketball players to ever step foot on the court. Olajuwon, a 7-foot tower of a player, captivated the nation all season long and was nearly impossible to stop. His teammates included Clyde Drexler and Michael Young and the dynamic team was dubbed “Phi Slamma Jamma” due to their fast-pace offense and dunking ability.
On this day, the class of college basketball met their match. The scrappy, hard-nosed, passionate team from NC State proved to be kryptonite for Houston. NC State made a point to slow the pace of the game to disrupt Houston from finding any rhythm. Foul trouble, altitude in Alberqueque and a solid game plan all aided the Wolf Pack.
Tied at 52 with seconds ticking off the clock, here’s what happened next:
2008 – Kansas Memphis National Championship
A battle between a college basketball titan and an undefeated upstart for the NCAA Championship had to make this list. For Kansas, Head Coach Bill Self had one of his best teams in school history led by Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush. On the other side, polarizing Head Coach John Calipari had one of the most talented freshman basketball players in NCAA history, Derrick Rose.
Memphis came in to the game with a sparkling 38-0 record and looking to cap off a perfect season. The back-and-forth affair came to a head with 10 seconds left and Memphis leading 62-60. Rose, only a freshman, was tasked with icing the game and the perfect season for his team. With all the pressure of that squarely on his shoulders, Rose made one of two. This left the door open for Kansas to pull off a miracle. Arguably the most important shot in the history of the Kansas basketball program, Chalmers came off of a dribble hand-off with just enough room to swish a three-pointer. Kansas would make their free-throws down the stretch in overtime and pull away for a 75-68 victory.
Villanova vs. North Carolina (2016, National Championship)
Full disclosure this is the best college basketball game (not involving UConn, Go Huskies!) that I’ve seen in my 26 years of living. It pains me to admit that I was rooting for North Carolina. I even had money on the line as they were my pick to win the yearly March Madness pool I enter with my friends.
The game featured the two best teams by far that year. As a 2-seed, Villanova was rarely tested in the NCAA tournament in 2016 besides an Elite 8 match-up against the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks. They won 64-59 and went on to win one of the most lopsided Final Four match-ups of all-time, beating Oklahoma 95-51. UNC on the other hand was 1-seed and played like it as well. Their blistering pace had teams tapping out early on a regular basis throughout the season. Loaded with talent, Roy Williams and his team beat every team they faced in the tournament by double-digts, including a 83-66 win over Syracuse in the Final Four. The stage was set in Houston for a heck of a game, and that’s exactly what the fans got.
Loaded with talent, UNC got a first-half surge from an unlikely star. Joel Berry was shooting the lights out while senior captain Marcus Paige struggled to find his rhythm. Berry had 15 points at half and propelled the Tar Heels to a 39-34 lead. In a game where unlikely stars came through in the clutch, Phil Booth was a big contributor for Villanova while Kris Jenkins barely played due to early foul trouble.
Although trailing, Villanova came to life in the second half. After a 13-2 run had seized control of the game for Villanova. Leading 67-57 with just under 5 to play, UNC was in trouble. Paige came to life in the final minutes of the game with big-time free throws and acrobatic lay ups. He saved his best shot for last. Trailing 74-71, Paige was caught in the air shooting a three but was able to double clutch and muscle a shot up. The off-balance three-pointer rolled around and in and tied the game at 74. Overtime, right? A definining moment would have to ensue with 4.7 seconds left or the National Championship was destined for five more minutes.
Let me reintroduce Kris Jenkins. A non-factor for most of the game, Head Coach Jay Wright called on his star player to win the title for his team and their fans. Ryan Arcidiacono sprinted up the court, handed the ball off to Jenkins who let it fly from just right of the top of the key. The jump shot looked good the second it left his hands. Before he knew it, Jenkins was swarmed by his teammates and covered in confetti. Villanova won 77-74 in a game that will be remembered forever.