The Most Amazing March Madness Moments of All Time
The beauty of a single-elimination tournament like March Madness is that one improbable game or one amazing play can send even the most heavily favored team home for the summer. When an entire season can turn on one shot, the most important moments are often the ones that have no business happening.
The latest addition to March’s All-Implausible team is Florida Gulf Coast, which last year set a new standard for success by a No. 15 seed. For 34 games, Georgetown and San Diego State were clearly better teams than the Eagles, but for one game each when it counted, Brett Comer and FGCU could still outrun and outjump the favorites to achieve postseason immortality.
Herein, a closer look at the little 15th seed that could, along with 19 other teams, games and plays that amazed college basketball fans around the country.
Bo Kimble Pays Tribute to a Friend
Heartbreaking losses are the norm for the postseason, but even March Madness doesn’t see many heartbreaking successes. One obvious exception is Bo Kimble, who led an upset run straight out of a Disney movie in 1990.
Kimble was the second-best player in the record-setting Loyola Marymount offense, but his childhood best friend—Lions star Hank Gathers—had collapsed on the court and died of a heart attack during the WCC tournament.
In honor of his fallen comrade, Kimble (a right-hander) shot his first free throw of each NCAA tournament game as a lefty, as southpaw Gathers would have done.
He made every one of those left-handed shots, four in all, while sparking the 11th-seeded Lions to a stunning Elite Eight finish (where they were eliminated by eventual champion UNLV).
Harold Arceneaux Puts on a Show
In March 1999, current NBA point guard Damian Lillard was only eight years old, meaning that Lillard’s alma mater of Weber State was even more obscure than it is at the moment.
Third-seeded North Carolina had little reason to fear the Big Sky champs, but the Tar Heels quickly learned that they weren’t running this show.
Instead, The Show—as WSU junior Harold Arceneaux was known—was running them, right out of Seattle's KeyArena.
The hot-shooting Arceneaux’s 36-point explosion led a stunning 76-74 upset, and he added 32 more in the next game as the Wildcats took Florida to overtime before bowing out.
Arceneaux is far from the only small-conference player to go from unknown to hero in the Big Dance, but as there’s not room on this list for every one of his spiritual compatriots, he stands here as a representative of them all.
Mario Chalmers Lives out a Dream
In echoing gyms and backyard courts around the country, the scenario plays out in the imaginations of thousands of aspiring basketball stars: Clock ticking down, championship on the line, and your team has one chance to make the game-saving shot.
The only difference for Mario Chalmers was that his version played out in real life in front of 43,000 fans at the Alamodome, site of the 2008 title game.
Chalmers’ Kansas Jayhawks had taken advantage of every errant free throw by Derrick Rose and the Memphis Tigers down the stretch, but they still trailed by three points as the clock slipped under 10 seconds to play.
With everything riding on one play, Chalmers swished a three-pointer with 2.1 seconds remaining, forcing an overtime in which KU would cruise to a national championship.
Tate George Beats the Clock
Fans who wonder why it’s worth measuring basketball games down to the last 0.1 of a second need only ask the 1990 Clemson Tigers.
The No. 5 seeds would have upset top-seeded UConn that year if there had only been 0.9 seconds left on the clock, but the Huskies had 1.0 seconds, and Tate George used every fraction.
Trailing by a point, UConn had to inbound from under its own basket, so Scott Burrell did the only thing he could do.
The small forward launched a pass as far down court as he could get it in the direction of senior guard George, who managed to catch it and loft a turnaround over a flatfooted Tigers defense that sent the Huskies to the Elite Eight.
CCNY Turns a Double Play
Even before it was explicitly prohibited (by both the rules and the timing of the respective competitions), it was rare for the same team to compete in both the NCAA tournament and the postseason NIT.
City College of New York had already won the latter title—the more prestigious one in 1950—when it faced Bradley in a championship-game rematch in the NCAAs.
5’8” Braves star Gene Melchiorre, who scored a game-high 16 points, had a chance to put the title on ice for favored Bradley with under a minute to play.
Instead, CCNY’s 6’4” Irwin Dambrot (pictured, center) blocked Melchiorre’s shot, then launched a pass downcourt to Norm Mager for the go-ahead score. The Beavers held on to become the only team ever to hold both postseason titles simultaneously.
The Original Princeton Offense Comes Through
There have been bigger upsets by seeding than a 13th seed beating a No. 4, but few have had the baggage around them that UCLA and Princeton had in 1996.
It wasn’t just an Ivy League underdog against a basketball blue blood—it was Pete Carril’s plodding, backdoor-passing Tigers against the run-and-gun defending national champs.
As it turned out, though, Princeton’s slowdown game took the wind out of the speedy Bruins, leaving the score tied at a meager 41 points heading into the final seconds.
As the Tigers continued to milk the clock for all it was worth, freshman Gabe Lewullis made one last backdoor cut, Steve Goodrich put a pass on the money, and UCLA’s title defense ended as quickly (and as slowly) as it began.
David (Thompson) Takes Down the Ultimate Goliath
Logically, John Wooden’s impossible streak of seven consecutive national titles had to end sometime. Subjectively, though, fans weren’t about to believe Wooden’s UCLA team was mortal until somebody finally drove a stake through it.
The final blow was eventually struck in the 1974 national semis, but the Bruins did not go quietly.
After a tooth-and-claw battle through two overtimes, the NC State Wolfpack finally took the lead for good on a David Thompson jumper over Bruins scoring ace Keith Wilkes (later known as Jamaal).
The high-flying Thompson, who won Most Outstanding Player honors for the eventual champs, had been in seventh grade the last time UCLA had lost a March Madness game.
Rumeal Robinson Beats the Odds
In theory, the probability of a 64 percent foul shooter hitting back-to-back free throws is 41.0 percent. In reality, when those two free throws come in the final second of overtime with a national championship at stake, the chances ought to be even lower.
That being the case, Seton Hall could have been in much worse shape at the climax of the 1989 title game, with scattershot Michigan junior Rumeal Robinson stepping to the charity stripe in a game the Pirates led by a point.
Sometimes, though, the odds don’t matter, and Robinson nailed both free throws to secure an 80-79 win and the Wolverines’ only national championship.
Michael Jordan Provides a Taste of Things to Come
Even Michael Jordan didn’t start off as Michael Jordan. Coming out of Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C., Jordan was one among many McDonald’s All-Americans on a list that included such now-forgotten names as Eugene McDowell and Aubrey Sherrod.
The first major sign of how far MJ would separate himself from that pack was the 1982 national title game.
Jordan was a very good complementary player on the 1981-82 Tar Heels, but UNC was James Worthy’s team. Indeed, Worthy was the decisive factor for most of the national final against Georgetown, gashing the Hoyas defense for 28 points.
When Carolina needed one basket to erase a one-point deficit, though, it turned to the skinny first-year guard wearing No. 23. With 17 seconds to play, Jordan buried the jumper that put the Heels ahead to stay and made himself a household name for the first time.
Tyus Edney Goes the Distance
The defining team of West Coast basketball provided a new benchmark for coast-to-coast play in 1995. With 4.8 seconds on the clock, top-seeded UCLA needed to go the length of the floor to avoid a major upset at the hands of Missouri.
It’s the kind of situation that makes the smallest players on the floor become the most dangerous, and 5’10” Tyus Edney obliged.
Every Tigers defender had a chance to stop Edney’s desperation dash, but no one did, and his twisting, floating finish saved the Bruins to continue on their way to a national title.
North Carolina Outlasts Kansas
Of all the unlikely aspects of the 1957 national title game—and there were plenty in the triple-overtime contest—the unlikeliest was the player who became the hero.
Although scoring star Lennie Rosenbluth had his usual 20 points as North Carolina finished an undefeated season, it was unheralded Joe Quigg who had to save the game in the final moments.
First, the junior center buried two clutch free throws to give the Heels a 54-53 lead with six seconds remaining.
Then, even more remarkably, he used every inch of his listed 6’9” height to deflect a final entry pass headed for 7’1” Kansas center Wilt Chamberlain, costing the Big Dipper his only shot at a collegiate championship.
Loyola Rises to the Occasion
Although Loyola (Chicago) hasn’t been to the Big Dance since 1985, the Ramblers were a legitimate title contender heading into the 1963 tournament.
That said, they were also decided underdogs in the championship game against an Ed Jucker-coached Cincinnati squad that was playing in its fifth consecutive Final Four and had won the 1961 and 1962 titles.
The final was one of the tightest ever played, and with four seconds left in overtime, it was still tied, 58-58.
Les Hunter couldn’t connect on a game-winning jumper for Loyola, but teammate Vic Rouse soared for the championship-winning tip-in to beat the buzzer and the Bearcats.
Keith Smart Seizes the Moment
Even if Keith Smart had been a boom instead of a bust as an NBA coach, he’d always have been known for one shot in 1987.
Syracuse’s Derrick Coleman had just missed a free throw that kept the game within reach, but Indiana still trailed by a point in the final 26 seconds of the national championship game.
Steve Alford, the Hoosiers’ 22 point-per-game All-American, would have been the obvious choice to take the final shot, but with Alford guarded by ‘Cuse standout Sherman Douglas, IU went elsewhere.
Smart, who averaged just 11.2 points a night as the Hoosiers' other guard, saw his opening and nailed the title-winner with just three seconds left to play.
Norfolk State and Lehigh Offer 2-for-1 Upset Special
In the first 27 years after the tournament field expanded to 64 teams, there were four 15-vs.-2 upsets. On one Friday in 2012, two such wins arrived within hours of each other.
First, towering Kyle O’Quinn amassed 26 points and 14 rebounds against a Lilliputian Missouri team, leading Norfolk State to an 86-84 win.
Later that evening, an Austin Rivers-led Duke squad proved to be no match for Lehigh, as Mountain Hawks junior C.J. McCollum battered the Blue Devils with 30 points, six boards and six assists.
Bryce Drew Borrows a Trick from the Gridiron
In college football, trick plays in key situations have provided many of the sport’s greatest highlights. In basketball, though, there aren’t many chances for misdirection—except for the one Valparaiso found in 1998.
Trailing by a pair when Ansu Sesay of fourth-seeded Ole Miss failed to sink his free throws, Valpo had just 2.5 seconds to find a way to score.
What they found was a basketball answer to football’s hook-and-ladder play, with Bill Jenkins tapping the long inbounds pass to star guard Bryce Drew for the most remarkable assist in March Madness history.
Danny Manning Takes Over
It wasn’t as though Oklahoma didn’t know what to expect from its 1988 title-game opponent. The top-seeded Sooners had already dealt conference rival Kansas a pair of convincing losses, including 73-65 at Phog Allen Fieldhouse that February.
Nevertheless, Kansas hung right with a loaded OU squad featuring future pros Harvey Grant, Mookie Blaylock and Stacey King, taking the game to halftime in a 50-50 tie.
In the second half, Danny Manning took over, and behind his 31 points and 18 rebounds, the Jayhawks became the second-ever No. 6 seed to win it all.
Dunk City Makes the Sweet 16
Even after 2012’s relative glut of wins from No. 15 seeds, no such team had ever advanced past the round of 32 until last year. Florida Gulf Coast changed all that, bringing a swagger that few Cinderella teams have ever possessed.
Dunk City blew away Georgetown in its March Madness opener in a 78-68 win that wasn’t even that close, providing some of the tournament's best highlight-reel jams in the process.
Sherwood Brown and Bernard Thompson, who combined for 47 points against the Hoyas, then added 40 more to take down San Diego State before Florida finally outran the Eagles in the Sweet 16.
Christian Laettner. Enough Said.
The fact that Christian Laettner made a great play to win a game for Duke was far from a surprise.
By 1992, the Blue Devils senior had established himself as one of the most successful power forwards in collegiate history (and already had some March Madness heroics under his belt, too).
Even so, Laettner’s miraculous game-winner in the 1992 Elite Eight has become the most famous shot in college history for good reason.
Despite having to inbound under its own basket, and despite solid defense on its senior star at the foul line, Duke still continued on course to a national title because he hit an exceptionally difficult buzzer-beating turnaround to finish a classic back-and-forth battle with Kentucky.
Villanova Redefines Accurate Shooting
Villanova put on one of the greatest offensive exhibitions in Division I history in the 1985 national final.
Facing heavily favored Georgetown (led by three-time All-American Patrick Ewing), the smaller, lighter Wildcats shot an absurd 78.6 percent from the floor, missing just one field goal in the entire second half.
With 6’9” Ed Pinckney bottling up the 7’0” Ewing, ‘Nova was able to stay just a whisker ahead of a Hoyas team that had swept a pair of regular-season meetings in Big East play.
When Harold Jensen’s jumper put the Wildcats on top to stay with 2:37 left, Villanova became the first and only No. 8 seed to take home the national championship.
Lorenzo Charles Beats Houston at Its Own Game
In the first four years of seeding, the NCAA tournament had been won by four teams seeded in the top three. That didn’t figure to change in 1983, when top-seeded Houston was prohibitively favored against a surprising NC State squad (a No. 6 seed) in the title game.
However, Jim Valvano’s Wolfpack managed to put the brakes on the vaunted Cougars offense, holding Clyde Drexler to four points and leaving the game knotted at 52 in the closing seconds.
Even then, Dereck Whittenburg’s 30-foot heave came up well short of becoming the game-winner—at least, it did until Lorenzo Charles grabbed the air ball and jammed it home at the buzzer to get the last laugh (and last dunk) against Phi Slamma Jamma.