As we approach the madness of March, otherwise known as the NCAA Tournament, there are sure to be plenty of memories that come out of this year's event: stellar individual performances, Cinderella stories, and, hopefully, a few buzzer-beaters before it's done.
It's truly one of the best times of the year for a sports fan, and over time there have been plenty of unforgettable plays, shots, and victories from a tournament that seems to make time stop for those involved and those watching. Here's a countdown of the 25 most memorable moments in the history of the NCAA Tournament.
Longtime Marquette fans often refer to it as the greatest field goal in school history. It came in Marquette's 1977 national semifinal contest against UNC-Charlotte. With the game tied in the finals seconds, the late Jerome Whitehead managed to grab a tipped three-quarter court inbound pass, then leaped toward the goal. Somewhat unintentionally, he banked the ball off the glass, then the iron, and in for a 51-49 victory that sent Marquette to the national championship game and eventually the title.
Comeback victories are as much a part of March Madness as "One Shining Moment" and office pools, but arguably the greatest in the history of the tournament came during the 2005 regional finals. Playing in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois trailed Arizona by 15 points with a little over four minutes to play but, paced by Deron Williams and Luther Head, went on a furious 20-5 run to force overtime and then win it, 90-89, in overtime. It sent the orange-clad crowd into a frenzy and the Illini to the Final Four.
A No. 15 seed knocking off the second seed in the NCAA Tournament is relatively remarkable if it happens once a decade — or so. But twice in the same tournament, on the same day? That's simply amazing. But that is exactly what happened on March 16, 2012. It started when No. 15 Norfolk State stunned No. 2 Missouri, 86-84, thanks to 26 points and 14 boards from 6-foot-10 Kyle O'Quinn. Later in the day, C.J. McCollum scored 30, as Lehigh shocked second-seeded Duke, 75-70, in the first round. This is something we might have to wait a long time to see happen again.
Days after the tragic, on-court death of Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers, his teammate and best friend, Bo Kimble, figured it was time to pay tribute to his dear buddy. In the Lions' first-round win over New Mexico State, Kimble shot a free throw left-handed in honor of Gathers, a righty who often took free throws with his left. Kimble made it and did so two more times as get-it-and-go LMU made an emotional run to the regional final.
George Mason's run to the Final Four in 2006 remains one of the most improbable performances in NCAA Tournament history. Seeded 11th, the mid-major Patriots, under coach Jim Larranaga, upended Michigan State, No. 3 seed North Carolina and fellow upstart Wichita State to reach the regional final against top seed Connecticut. Against the Huskies, George Mason hit half of its 60 field-goal attempts to win in overtime and become the second double-digit seed to reach the Final Four in tournament history.
Talk about going out on top. Arguably the greatest coach in college basketball history, the "Wizard of Westwood" won the last game he coached for UCLA, 92-85, over Kentucky on March 31, 1975. John Wooden, who announced his retirement following the Bruins' semifinal victory over Louisville, claimed his 10th national championship over a 12-year span with UCLA, a mark that likely will never be broken.
Some believe the 1974-75 Indiana team that lost in the regional final to Kentucky was actually better than the 1975-76 squad that won it all without losing a game. That may be, but the 32-0 Hoosiers are still the last Division I team to go an entire season undefeated. Led by stars Scott May, Kent Benson and Quinn Buckner, Indiana shot 52.5 percent during a decisive 86-68 championship game victory over rival Michigan to complete the perfect campaign.
In one of the more memorable comebacks in the NCAA Tournament, Kansas overcame a nine-point hole against Derrick Rose and Memphis with a little more than two minutes to play in the 2008 national final. The rally was highlighted by Mario Chalmers' heavily contested three-pointer off the dribble with 2.1 seconds left to force overtime. It was a clutch shot for any time of the season, but the fact it happened in the biggest game of the year just added to the drama.
It was 50 years ago that Notre Dame star Austin Carr set an NCAA Tournament record that is likely to stand for another near half-century. On March 7, 1970, Carr dropped 61 points in a first-round game vs. Ohio, 112-82 losers to the Fighting Irish. Carr made 25 of his 44 field-goal attempts and went 11-of-14 from the free-throw line. In a loss to Kentucky the next game, Carr was held to 52.
UCLA capped its 30-0 season of 1972-73 with a seventh straight national title courtesy of an 87-66 win over Memphis State. More impressive was the performance from Bruins big man Bill Walton. He scored 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting and recorded 13 rebounds in 33 minutes — he left the game with an ankle injury. It's perhaps the most dominant all-time individual performance ever in the NCAA Tournament.
Indiana's most recent basketball national title came in dramatic fashion. Keith Smart was often overshadowed by Steve Alford during his brief time with the Hoosiers, but he'll forever have a place in Indiana basketball lore. Smart's jumper from the corner as time expired gave the Hoosiers' a 74-73 win over Syracuse for the school's fifth title, in 1987.
UCLA's road to an 11th national championship was almost derailed in the second round. No. 8-seed Missouri gave the top-seeded Bruins all they could handle and led by one point with 4.8 seconds left. Fear not, as UCLA guard Tyus Edney was there to save the day. Edney dribbled the entire floor then flipped in a runner over Missouri's Derek Grimm as time expired for the 75-74 victory.
One year earlier, in the national championship game, UNLV rolled to a 103-73 victory over Duke. It solidified the Runnin' Rebels as one of the best teams in college basketball history and was an embarrassing evening for the Blue Devils. In 1991, the same two teams met in the national semifinals. UNLV entered the matchup 34-0 and looked even better than the squad that won the title a year earlier. Duke, however, was a year older and wiser and stunned the Rebels, 79-77, behind 28 points from Christian Laettner en route to the school's first national title.
It was 45 years ago that North Carolina State delivered the first of its two unforgettable NCAA Tournament upsets. Led by David Thompson and Tom Burleson (combined 48 points and 24 rebounds), the Wolfpack stunned mighty UCLA 80-77 in two overtimes during the 1974 national semifinals. The loss for the Bruins snapped their remarkable seven-season run as national champions in what's often considered one of the best college hoops games of all time.
Freshman Michael Jordan's go-ahead jumper in the final seconds of regulation ultimately gave North Carolina a national title-game victory over Georgetown in 1982. It's one of the most memorable shots in NCAA Tournament history. Shortly after Jordan's bucket came perhaps the most memorable turnover of all time. Georgetown's Fred Brown dribbled and lost among the moving bodies, inadvertently passed the ball right to Carolina's James Worthy, who dribbled down court and was fouled, securing the championship for the Tar Heels.
It was bound to happen at some point, right? A No. 16 seed was going to knock off a No. 1. Perhaps nobody thought the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) would be the team to do it. But the Retrievers did, in a totally dominant fashion, 74-54 over No. 1 overall seed Virginia during the 2018 tournament. UMBC was 24-10 entering the tournament but shot 54.2 percent from the field, made 12 threes, and held the Cavaliers to 4-of-22 shooting from distance to pull off one of the greatest upsets ever. Of course, Virginia rebounded nicely, winning the championship the next season.
Loyola-Chicago's Cinderella run to the Final Four in 2018 offered college basketball fans an opportunity to revisit an important moment, not only for the sport but also for the civil rights movement. During the 1963 tournament, all-white Mississippi State shunned objections from the state's governor to play its regional semifinal contest against Loyola, an integrated team. Thanks to a cunning travel game plan, Mississippi State made it to Michigan to play the Ramblers, who won the game. In the national title game, Loyola started four black players while Cincinnati had three in its starting lineup, an extreme rarity at the time. Loyola went on to win its only national championship and the respect of many across the country.
One year after being stunned by No. 16 seed UMBC, Virginia earned full redemption by winning the school's first national title. The Cavaliers might also have solidified themselves as perhaps the most worthy champs ever by surviving a grueling and intense three-game stretch. In the regional final, Virginia overcame 42 points from Purdue's Carsen Edwards and needed a Mamadi Diakite-tying bucket at the end of regulation to ultimately win in overtime. And who can forget Kyle Guy's three free throws with 0.06 seconds left to rally and stun Auburn with a 63-62 Final Four win. Finally, the Cavaliers capped their run with an entertaining 85-77 overtime title-game victory over Texas Tech.
The rivalry between college stars Magic Johnson of Michigan State and Indiana State's Larry Bird began 40 years ago, on March 26, 1979. Johnson had 24 points, seven rebounds, and five assists to help the Spartans beat Bird (19 points, 13 rebounds, five steals) and the previously undefeated Sycamores, 75-64, for their first title in what's still the highest-rated televised college basketball game.
Michigan's "Fab Five" had two shots at a national title and fell short both times. The final attempt, in the '93 game against North Carolina, remains the most disappointing. While the game was highly entertaining, it will also be remembered for Chris Webber calling that infamous timeout the team didn't have. A technical was assessed, the Tar Heels got the ball and ultimately the championship. What's forgotten is that Webber posted 23 points and 11 rebounds and blocked three shots in what would be his final collegiate contest.
Prior to the 1985 title game, it was believed Villanova needed to play the perfect game to upset fellow Big East foe and national power Georgetown. The eighth-seeded Wildcats pretty much did. Villanova shot a Final Four-best 78.6 percent, and big man Ed Pinckney outplayed Hoyas star Patrick Ewing to help claim the 66-64 victory and the school's first national championship. The Wildcats are still the lowest seed to ever win a national championship.
Villanova's next visit to the national final was even more memorable and emotional for Wildcat fans. In one of the most competitive and entertaining title games in NCAA Tournament history, North Carolina guard Marcus Paige's leg-splitting three tied the game with 4.7 seconds left. Then Kris Jenkins went one better, hitting perhaps the greatest three-point shot ever at the buzzer to give Villanova the 77-74 victory.
By now, the story of Texas Western's 1966 national final win over all-white Kentucky is well told, and it remains not only one of the greatest moments in sports history but also a significant event in terms of civil rights in American. Coached by Don Haskins, who didn't seem to see color, but talent, when it came to his athletes, Western was the first squad to win a national title with five black starters. It beat Kentucky, among the country's great programs and one that, as often reported, sided with conformity when it came to the racial perspective of the times.
Duke's 104-103 overtime-victory over Kentucky in the regional final is widely regarded as the best game in NCAA Tournament history. The contest was insanely competitive — Kentucky shot 56.9 percent and Duke a ridiculous 65.4 — and the teams combined to go 20 of 38 from three-point range. It was heated and physical, and it truly exemplified the madness of March. Of course, the most lasting memory of that game was Christian Laettner's winning turn-around jumper from the free-throw line off a perfect three-quarter court inbound pass from Grant Hill.
The most memorable air ball in college basketball history led to one of the sport's most unforgettable dunks and certainly the greatest finish of an NCAA Tournament final. Upstart North Carolina State stunned heavily favored Houston (complete with its dunk-filled Phi Slama Jama lineup) on Lorenzo Charles' catch and dunk off a Dereck Whittenburg short three-pointer. What also will forever live in tournament lore is the image of coach Jim Valvano scrambling on the floor of The Pit looking for a hug.
Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.