Biggest Upsets in NCAA Tournament History
March Madness is an appropriate name for the annual NCAA basketball tournament. Of course, most of the games occur in the third month of the year. And upsets that defy all expectation and bust your bracket are maddening. But even when we have grown to expect the unexpected, upsets still cause head shaking.
The NCAA invites 68 teams to the big dance, then divvies them into four 16-team brackets. After play-in games, the opening rounds give way to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four. Three weeks of mania sets the stage for semifinals and a championship game.
With careful hindsight, we have recalled the tournament’s most unexpected outcomes. Some happened in the finals. Others occurred in the opening rounds. All of them shocked the basketball world.
(16) UMBC 74, (1) Virginia 54
Date: March 17, 2018
Location: Spectrum Center, Charlotte, N.C.
The University of Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers are the first and only 16th seed to knock off a No. 1 seed. It was an improbable and shocking first-round upset.
Virginia (31-3) was the top seed in the South Region, as well as the No. 1 seed in the whole tournament. The Cavaliers had not given up more than 70 points on defense all season.
Tiny UMBC was making just its second-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament. The Retrievers never trailed after halftime in this blowout.
How's that for unlikely?
(6) North Carolina State 54, (1) Houston 52
Date: March 17, 1983
Location: The Pit, Albuquerque, N.M.
North Carolina State accomplished the near impossible in one of the most emotion-packed championship games ever.
Top-ranked Houston was stacked. The Cougars, or "Phi Slamma Jamma" as they were called, had twin towers/future NBA players Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in the lineup.
But motivator extraordinaire Jim Valvano coached the Wolfpack.
Although N.C. State's halftime lead disappeared, the game was tied at 52 apiece in the final two minutes, and with seconds left on the clock, center Lorenzo Charles dunked the game-winner. Time expired. Pandemonium ensued.
(3) Texas Western 72, (1) Kentucky 65
Date: March 7, 1966
Location: Cole Field House, College Park, Md.
In the mid-1960s, before the brackets and seedings of today were March Madness custom, the NCAA tournament included only 22 teams.
The legendary Adolph Rupp coached Kentucky, and his Wildcats were playing in their fifth title game.
This trip to the finals was the first for Texas Western — and the Miners became the first team to start five black players in an NCAA basketball final.
Under the direction of coach Clem Haskins, Texas Western was sparked by 20 points from 5-foot-10-inch guard Bobby Joe Hill and beat all-white Kentucky in what is considered the most important game in college basketball history.
(8) Villanova 66, (1) Georgetown 64
Date: April 1, 1985
Location: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
Georgetown was the returning NCAA champion and was playing in its third final game in four years. The Hoyas (30-2) had future NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing and standouts Reggie Williams and David Wingate. They marched through the Big East Conference and reached the finals on a 16-game win streak.
But coach John Thompson’s team was Goliath, and Villanova, also in the Big East and coached by Rollie Massimino, was David. Played before the shot clock became part of the scene, Villanova successfully slowed the game down and simultaneously made an amazing 79 percent of its field goals.
The Wildcats remain the lowest-seeded team to ever win the tournament.
(11) George Mason 86, (1) Connecticut 84 (Overtime)
Date: March 26, 2006
Location: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.
George Mason became the first team from the unheralded Colonial Athletic Association to make the Final Four with its overtime victory over the University of Connecticut.
In that Elite Eight matchup, facing a dominating Huskies team that boasted five players who would be drafted into the NBA, the suburban commuter school (that made the tournament as an at-large entrant) prevailed. The Patriots never got rattled, even when they trailed by 12 points in the second half.
Along with 11th-seeds Louisiana State University and Virginia Commonwealth University, George Mason is the lowest-ranked team to ever make the Final Four.
(11) Virgina Comonwealth 71, (1) Kansas 61
Date: March 27, 2011
Location: Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas
To say it again, VCU, LSU and George Mason are the only 11 seeds to make it to the Final Four (where all three lost).
In Virginia Commonwealth's Elite Eight game against Kansas, the odds of an upset were long. Kansas had five future NBA draft picks on its roster, and the Jayhawks dominated everybody that season on the way to a 32-2 record.
But the Rams pulled off the long-shot win with the help of tough defense, holding Kansas to 35 percent shooting from the floor and limiting the Jayhawks to less than 10 percent shooting from 3-point range.
(14) Old Dominion 89, (3) Villanova 81 (Triple Overtime)
Date: March 17, 1995
Location: Times Union Center, Albany, N.Y.
The excitement of a 14 seed matching up with a three seed in the opening round was magnified when the game stretched into triple overtime.
Petey Sessoms paced Old Dominion (21-11) with 35 points and scored eight of those points in the third overtime, including a three-point play with 22 seconds left that clinched the game.
Villanova (26-8) trailed for most of regulation. The Wildcats kept jumping out to overtime leads, only to have Sessoms and the Monarchs thwart them each time.
And that's how you craft a classic upset, folks.
(6) Kansas 83, (1) Oklahoma 79
Date: April 4, 1988
Location: Kemper Arena, Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas is famous for strong teams, but this year, the Jayhawks weren’t the powerhouse that Oklahoma was. The top-seeded Sooners were 35-3, averaging 100 points a game, had future NBA All-Star Mookie Blaylock at point guard and beat Kansas (18-11) twice during the regular season.
The Jayhawks, however, saved their best for the NCAA finals. And that best came in the form of power forward Danny Manning.
Before being drafted into the NBA, Manning led his squad with 31 points and 18 rebounds to win the NCAA championship and get top billing in "One Shining Moment."
And this Kansas team became known as "Danny and the Miracles."
(15) Richmond 73, (2) Syracuse 69
Date: March 14, 1991
Location: Cole Field House, College Park, Md.
Richmond was the first No. 15 seed to ever upset a No. 2 seed in the opening round, and entering the 2019 tournament, this feat has happened only eight times.
In 1991, Billy Owens, the No. 3 pick in that year's NBA draft, led Syracuse. But Dick Tarrant coached the Spiders, and his career included more than a few upset wins.
The Orangemen trailed for the entire game, yet they had a chance to tie it with a 3-point attempt in the waning seconds. The shot missed, and Richmond held on to make history.
(15) Santa Clara 64, (2) Arizona 61
Date: March 18, 1993
Location: John M. Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City, Utah
Two years after Richmond became the first No. 15 seed to win an opening-round game, Santa Clara joined the ranks. The achievement was improbable — especially after Arizona closed out the first half on a 14-0 run and led by as many as 13 points in the second half.
In the end, the game came down to free throws.
Santa Clara’s Steve Nash (who would go on to be an NBA MVP) hit six free downs when it counted.
Arizona blew four shots from the foul line in the final eight seconds, and the Wildcats’ Damon Stoudamire missed a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have tied the game.
(15) Coppin State 78, (2) South Carolina 65
Date: March 14, 1997
Location: Civic Arena, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Before this game, tiny Coppin State from Maryland had never won an NCAA tournament game. In fact, the Eagles’ previous two visits to the big dance were blowout losses.
On top of that, going into this first-round matchup with South Carolina, no team from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference had ever won a March Madness game.
South Carolina was a 30-point favorite to beat Coppin State, but the Eagles outscored the Gamecocks 38-18 in the final 13 minutes to make a name for itself and the MEAC.
(15) Hampton 58, (2) Iowa State 57
Date: March 15, 2001
Location: BSU Pavillion, Boise State, Idaho
Hampton joined the Division I ranks in 1995, and this game was its first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament.
As a 15 seed making its debut on the big stage, the Pirates were all but written off before the game. But Hampton kept it close throughout, and with just seven seconds left in the second half, Tarvis Williams made a short jumper that gave them a one-point lead.
Iowa State’s Jamaal Tinsley managed to get downcourt to attempt a layup at the buzzer, but he was unable to finish, and Hampton’s NCAA record temporarily rose to 1-0.
(15) Norfolk State 86, (2) Missouri 84
Date: March 16, 2012
Location: CenturyLink Center, Omaha, Neb.
After Hampton, another 15 seed would not pull off a first-round upset for 11 years. This time, Norfolk State — which, like Hampton, was making its first-ever March Madness appearance — did the honors.
Missouri was a 21.5-point favorite. But Kyle O’Quinn, who would go on to play for the New York Knicks in the NBA, led the Spartans.
Playing in the game of his life for Norfolk State, O’Quinn scored 26 points and pulled down 14 rebounds. The rest is history.
(15) Lehigh 75, (2) Duke 70
Date: March 16, 2012
Location: Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, N.C.
Just hours after Norfolk State stunned Missouri, Lehigh took the court against mighty Duke, on a court that was about an hour’s drive from the Duke campus.
Lehigh had made the tournament before, but the Duke upset was its first win. Leading the Mountain Hawks was C.J. McCollum, who led all scorers with 30 points.
Make no mistake: Duke is a dynasty. This wasn’t the Blue Devils’ best squad, but they still were expected to easily get past Lehigh and make a run in the tournament.
That's why they play the games.
(15) Florida Gulf Coast 78, (2) Georgetown 68
Date: March 22, 2013
Location: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, Pa.
Maybe we should have expected Georgetown to be upset in the tournament. After all, the Hoyas had lost to a lower-ranked team in each of the four previous years. But this time was a first — they were kicked out of the bracket by a 15 seed.
Florida Gulf Coast made the big dance for the first time just six years after becoming a Division I team. The "Dunk City" Eagles bounced to a win after a 21-2 run early in the second half.
Unlike any of its predecessors that pulled off first-round upsets, FGC won its next game, too, becoming the first 15 seed to get into the Sweet 16.
(15) Middle Tennessee State 90, Michigan State 81
Date: March 18, 2016
Location: Enterprise Center, St. Louis, Mo.
The result wasn’t supposed to go this way, but Middle Tennessee State never trailed against second-seeded Michigan State.
Although basketball fans weren’t even sure where the Middle Tennessee State campus was located, and all the pre-tournament money was wagered on the Spartans winning it all, Reggie Upshaw led the Blue Raiders with 21 points, and the team hit 11 of 19 3-point attempts.
That's how you produce a stunner.