A sad fact: In a world in which the coronavirus didn’t exist, this weekend would have been Final Four weekend (and I would have been in Las Vegas).
Oh, what could have been …
Now I'm stuck at home in Ohio, where I conducted an exhaustive review of every single game-winning shot in NCAA Tournament history while social distancing. Unfortunately, two of the game-winners date to the 1940s, when highlight film of many games was unavailable. So attempting to rank the best of the 124 game-winners (click here for game-winner criteria) would be fruitless. (Plus, there’s plenty of “Best of March Madness” YouTube clips out there for you to watch.)
Instead, let's focus on the most interesting and absurd factoids from tournament games that involved game-winners.
The first game-winning shot in the NCAA Tournament came in the 1944 national championship game.
With score tied at 40 in the waning seconds of a Utah-Dartmouth overtime "thriller," the Utes' Herb Wilkinson caught a pass from Wat Misaka and buried a championship-winning 30-footer with three seconds left. In this barnburner to end all barnburners, Wilkinson finished with a whopping seven points (3-for-14 from the floor). Both teams shot horrendously -- Utah was 16-for-72 from the floor (.222); Dartmouth 19-for-76 (.250). Shockingly, this was not the lowest-scoring game with a game-winner.
The lowest-scoring NCAA Tournament game with a game-winner was the next buzzer-beating game: the 1949 Oklahoma A&M-Wyoming regional semifinal.
Jack Shelton of Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) "dunked in the winning fielder," according to a newspaper account, for the go-ahead basket in its 40-39 win. Shelton finished with a game-high 16 points, making him one of only two players to score in double-digits in this game –- which likely resembled an eight-grade game in 2020.
In the first round of the 1956 tournament, Dartmouth’s Larry Blades nailed a 15-footer to break a 59-59 tie against West Virginia at the buzzer.
According to his basketball-reference page, this was the only season of D-1 basketball Blades played. Making this walk-off shot even more improbable was the fact that Blades was 0-for-5 from the field until the final possession. Blades and Dartmouth went on to lose their next game to Canisius College.
Another game-winning buzzer-beater came in the 1963 national championship. Vic Rouse tipped in a ball at the horn to give Loyola (Ill.) a 60-58 overtime win over Cincinnati.
Rouse finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, but only shot 6-for-22 from the field. This title game featured one of the most bizarre box scores of all time: Loyola shot 23-for-84 (.274) from the field; Cincinnati 22-for-45 (.489). Loyola somehow attempted 39 more field goals than the Bearcats, and Cincinnati outrebounded Loyola, 45-34. The difference was turnovers -- Cincinnati had 16; Loyola three. Loyola played only five players, all on whom played all 45 minutes. Cincy only played six players, with its “sixth man” only playing four minutes. Strangely, there were five assists total in this game -- four by Cincy; one by Loyola.
In the 2016 national title game, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit a 25-footer from deep as time expired to beat North Carolina, 77-74.
The finish in this game was incredible. North Carolina's Marcus Paige made a double-clutch three with 4.7 seconds before Jenkins’ buzzer-beater. On the final play, Jenkins inbounded the ball to Ryan Arcidiacono, who took the inbound pass and pushed the ball up the court in a hurry, veered right, and dropped the ball off to the trailing Jenkins, who calmly walked into the shot of a lifetime. Speaking of shots of a lifetime…
In the first round of the 2016 tournament, Northern Illinois’ Paul Jesperson banked in a half-court three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Texas in the first round, 75-72.
Jersperson’s heave came after Texas hit a short jumper with 2.7 seconds left. This winning shot edged Arkansas’ U.S. Reed (what a name!!) and the 49-footer he hit to beat the Louisville by a point in the second round in 1981. Those were easily the longest game-winners in March Madness history. On the other hand…
In the 1977 Marquette-Charlotte Final Four game, a full--court pass was deflected into the hands of Jerome Whitehead. The 6-foot-10 forward then "dunked” the ball, which rattled around the rim and through the basket as time expired.
Whitehead’s buzzer-beater broke a 49-all tie and capped off his monster 21-point, 16-rebound double-double, propelling Marquette to the national championship game. Marquette beat North Carolina, 67-59, for the title. The other national title-winning dunk came six years later.
In the 1983 national championship title game, NC State’s Lorenzo Charles dunked home an air ball by Dereck Whittenburg with one second left to upset heavily-favored "Phi Slama Jama" Houston, 54-52.
Charles finished the game with four points, seven rebounds and one block. He was severely outplayed by his counterpart, future Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, who finished with 20 points, 18 rebounds and seven blocks. But Hakeem didn’t box out Charles on the game’s final play. If Charles’ game-winner wasn’t the most improbable one to win a title, it must be when ...
Duke’s Christian Laettner nailed “The Shot” -– his famous 16-foot turnaround jumper at the horn to lead Duke past Kentucky, 104-103, in the 1992 Elite Eight.
Grant Hill hit Laettner with a full-court inbound pass with 2.1 seconds, Laettner dribbled once, turned, and swished a fadeaway that still ruins Kentucky alums’ days. "The Shot" sent Duke to the Final Four, where it won the title. Laettner had a ridiculous stat line: 31 points on 10-for-10 shooting and 10-for-10 from the free throw line. A perfect game. Most would consider "The Shot" to be the most important buzzer-beater in NCAA Tournament history. On the other end of the spectrum…
The most meaningless buzzer-beater in NCAA Tournament history came in the 1978 third-place game, when Arkansas’ Ron Brewer drilled a 17-footer to break a 69-69 tie against Notre Dame.
Yes, there used to be a third-place for the teams that lost in the Final Four. And yes, Ron Brewer, who was drafted No. 7 overall in the 1978 NBA Draft, is the father of Ronnie Brewer, another Arkansas great, who was drafted No. 14 overall in the 2006 NBA Draft.
And, finally, yes, I take back calling this shot “meaningless,” because I’d do damn near anything to get to watch even a third-place game this weekend.
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