Ranking the 10 Best NCAA Tournament Games in the Modern Era
The excitement of the NCAA Tournament is hard to beat. Since it’s a single-elimination venue, every contest is in essence a win-or-go-home Game 7. Here are the best NCAA Tournament games since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
10. UCLA 75, Missouri 74: 1995 Second Round
Top-ranked UCLA was in a dogfight with eighth-seeded Missouri late in the game of this underrated back-and-forth classic, when Bruins point guard Tyus Edney saved the day—and their national championship hopes. The Tigers led 74–73 with 4.8 seconds left when Edney took the inbounds pass, drove the length of the court, and hit a running lay-in as time expired to cap off a wild final minute that saw three lead changes and send UCLA to the Sweet 16—and eventually win the national championship.
9. Wisconsin 71, Kentucky 64: 2015 National Semifinals
It almost wasn’t fair how much talent Kentucky had in 2015. Coach John Calipari referred to his bench players as “reinforcements” as his juggernaut squad went through the regular season, conference tournament, and the Midwest Regional with a perfect 38–0 record. But in the Final Four, Calipari’s Wildcats ran into a very good revenge-minded Wisconsin squad (35–3 record) that had lost to Kentucky the previous year in the Final Four. The battle featured seven lead changes and 11 ties before the Badgers pulled away in the final seconds for the win.
8. Kansas 75, Memphis 68 OT: 2008 National Finals
Memphis became the first 38-win team when they beat UCLA in the National Semifinals two days earlier, but the team had one well-known weakness—free-throw shooting—that would come back to bite them against fellow No. 1 seed Kansas.
Another back-and-forth tilt, Memphis started to pull away midway through the second half and had a comfortable 60–51 lead with 2:00 left when it all came apart. A quick jumper by Darrell Arthur and then a steal followed by a 3-pointer from Sherron Collins suddenly turned it into just a four-point game with 1:49 left. Still, all the Tigers had to do was hit their free throws down the stretch—but they didn’t. Memphis missed four of their final five at the charity stripe in regulation, and Mario Chalmers’s game-tying, buzzer-beating, 3-pointer sent it to overtime where Kansas prevailed.
7. Arkansas 76, Duke 72: 1994 National Finals
Duke was in its seventh Final Four in nine seasons and looking for their third title in the last four years when they ran into a high-scoring Razorbacks team. Duke squandered all of a 10-point second-half lead (and then fell behind) before Grant Hill’s 3-pointer tied the game at 70 with 90 seconds remaining. On Arkansas’s ensuing possession, with the shot clock down to 1 second, Razorbacks guard Scotty Thurman unleashed a ridiculous, high-arching 3-pointer—that just made it over the outstretched hands of Duke’s Antonio Lang—and in for a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
6. Illinois 90, Arizona 89 OT: 2005 Regional Finals
Illinois was 35–1 and had been ranked No. 1 for more than three months, yet the Fighting Illini suddenly found themselves down an unsightly 15 points with just under 4 minutes remaining against a talented Arizona squad in a game that had been close for the first 30 minutes of play. But Illinois didn’t fold. After threes by Deron Williams and Luther Head, Head’s steal and layup cut the lead to seven with 1:22 left. Another 3-pointer by Head closed the gap to five with 57 seconds left. Then back-to-back steals and Williams’s 3-pointer tied the game at 80 and sent it to overtime where the Illini prevailed.
5. Villanova 66, Georgetown 64: 1985 National Finals
Villanova had already lost twice to Georgetown in the regular season, and the eighth-seeded Wildcats were fully expected to lose a third time to the heavily favored Hoyas in the title game, who entered the game with a 30–2 record. Instead, the 10-loss Villanova squad shot the lights out—22 of 28 (78 percent) from the floor overall—to pull off the stunning upset of the Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown squad.
4. Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79 OT: 1989 National Finals
Neither of these teams were expected in the title game in 1989. Third-seed Michigan had just fired head coach Bill Frieder before the tournament after Frieder announced he was headed to Arizona State following the season. Seton Hall, also a 3-seed, was in its first (and still only) Final Four appearance, while being coached by P.J. Carlesimo.
The game was close throughout, with Seton Hall being led by John Morton’s 35 points and Michigan by Glen Rice’s 31. But it all came down to a pair of free throws by Michigan guard Rumeal Robinson with just 3 seconds remaining and Seton Hall clinging to a 79–78 lead. The clutch Robinson hit both free throws to win it for the Wolverines.
3. Indiana 74, Syracuse 73: 1987 National Finals
Syracuse had quite a team in ’87 with Rony Seikaly, Sherman Douglas, and then-freshman Derrick Coleman who grabbed 19 rebounds in this championship tilt. Bob Knight’s Indiana squad was mainly led by guard Steve Alford, who drained seven 3-pointers against the Orange but was shut down late in the game. Syracuse actually had the lead for more of the game, but this championship contest was tied numerous times down the stretch.
Syracuse already had a two-point lead when guard Howard Triche hit one of two free throws to stretch it to three with 38 seconds left. But Keith Smart’s running jumper, with 30 seconds left, cut the lead to one. After Coleman missed the front end of a one-and-one, Smart hit another jumper—this time from the side, just inside the 3-point arc, with three seconds left—to win it in thrilling fashion.
2. Duke 79, UNLV 77: 1991 National Semifinals
Defending champion UNLV was 34–0 and had been ranked No. 1 the entire season when they ran into Duke—a team making their third straight Final Four appearance. The Runnin’ Rebels had embarrassed the Blue Devils in the title game the year before, winning 103–73 while setting records for most points scored in a title game and largest margin of victory.
Duke, with a 30–7 record entering the game, had improved from the year before. The result was a rematch for the ages featuring 17 ties and 25 lead changes—a situation that the dominant Runnin’ Rebels hadn’t seen all year.
The Blue Devils were poised down the stretch, and when star forward Christian Laettner hit a pair of free throws with 12.7 seconds left to break the 77-all tie, UNLV had just one more chance. Runnin’ Rebels All-American forward Larry Johnson, though, passed up a potential game-winning 3-pointer with 6 seconds left—in preference of a heavily guarded three by Anderson Hunt, that was off—the Blue Devils had won.
1. Duke 104, Kentucky 103 OT: 1992 Regional Finals
Less than a year after their epic win over UNLV that kept the Runnin’ Rebels from being the first repeat champions in nearly two decades, the Blue Devils found themselves in a dogfight with Kentucky that seriously threatened their own quest to repeat as champions. The game featured not only a pair of powerhouse programs, but also two of the best coaches in the game—Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino, who now have seven titles between them.
While Duke—which entered the game with a 31–2 record—was in the unfamiliar position of being the hunted, Kentucky was attempting to get back on the national scene after a two-year postseason ban left the program in tatters. But they were back and were hungry for a signature win and a Final Four appearance.
A back-and-forth game all the way, Kentucky kept the pressure on in overtime, forcing the Blue Devils to answer every time they took the lead. The thrilling final minute saw an an incredible five lead changes, and the final one seemed to be when Wildcats guard Sean Woods banked in a running one-hander in the lane with 2.3 seconds left to put Kentucky ahead 103–102.
With their season and championship hopes now hinging on a miracle, Duke’s Grant Hill executed a perfect, three-quarters court inbounds pass to the senior Laettner—who had made all nine field goal attempts and all 10 free throws up to that point. Laettner caught it, took a quick dribble, and nailed the game-winning turnaround jumper from just above the free-throw line at the buzzer to stun Kentucky, save the Blue Devils’ season, and send the arena into total pandemonium.