Greatest NCAA Tournament Moments
The NCAA tournament started in 1939 and has become an American tradition. From Selection Sunday to "One Shining Moment" and everything in between, the action and brackets have been captivating fans for decades.
Each year produces buzzer-beating shots, unbelievable upsets and breakout players. And every March, we get more madness.
To appreciate what's next, let’s look back at the events that have left a lasting impact.
These are the most memorable moments in NCAA tournament history.
#25: Mario Chalmers Saves Kansas
What was memorable: Memphis was on the way to its first national title, with Kansas down by nine points and two minutes left in the 2008 championship game. But a furious rally, capped by a game-tying 3-pointer from Mario Chalmers with two seconds remaining, sent the game to overtime. There, Kansas took control to win its third NCAA title.
End result: The 3-pointer is now known in Lawrence, Kan., as "Mario’s Miracle," and thanks to his histrionics, Chalmers was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
Bottom line: Chalmers was the starting point guard for two NBA championship-winning teams in the NBA, but he’s still better known for that shot than anything he did as a professional. He had his jersey retired by Kansas in 2013, making him the first player from that 2008 team to have his jersey retired.
#24: Tyus Edney Goes Coast-to-Coast
What was memorable: Down by one with five seconds remaining, No. 1 UCLA had to go the length of the court to avoid losing to No. 8 Missouri. The Bruins only had one player who could get up and down the court that quickly, and it was 5-foot-10 Tyus Edney, who went coast-to-coast, avoided a Missouri double team and laid the ball in off the backboard to stun the Tigers.
End result: The dramatic win saved the Bruins from being eliminated in the second round, and they went on to win the national championship. Edney was inducted into the UCLA Hall of Fame in 2009 and has served as a UCLA assistant for the past 10 years.
Bottom line: What many people forget about that UCLA team is that it had five other future NBA players besides Edney, including NCAA Player of the Year Ed O’Bannon. Yet Edney was chosen for that final play because he was the only one with the speed to pull the play off.
#23: Darvin Ham’s Slam-wich
What was memorable: This wasn’t a buzzer-beater or a miraculous upset.It was simply Darvin Ham of Texas Tech showing off his extraordinary power by shattering a backboard with a dunk. During Texas Tech’s second-round matchup with North Carolina, Ham put back a dunk that broke the rim and left the backboard in thousands of pieces.
End result: Not even the 28-minute delay from a shattered backboard could slow down the momentum of the Red Raiders. They defeated UNC and advanced to their first Sweet Sixteen in 20 years.
Bottom line: Ham’s epic dunk was immortalized on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline of "Smashing." One year later, Ham was a rookie in the NBA and entered into the slam dunk contest, where he lost to another rookie, Kobe Bryant.
#22: Austin Carr Races to a Record
Year: 1970 and 1971
What was memorable: 61, 52, 45, 52, 26, 47. That’s the number of points Notre Dame's Austin Carr scored in each of his final six NCAA tournament games. Carr is the tourney’s all-time leading scorer in terms of a single-game high (61) and per-game average (41.3).
End result: Unfortunately for Carr, his feats are often forgotten, in part, because his team lost four of those six games. In both 1970 and 1971, Notre Dame lost in its regional semifinal and then lost again in the third-place game, which was abolished in 1982.
Bottom line: Carr was the only player of his era who was in the same stratosphere as Pete Maravich when it came to scoring, and Carr's tournament portfolio is proof of that. No other college player has even topped 50 points in an NCAA tournament game since Carr’s exploits in the early 1970s.
#21: Dwyane Wade Arrives on the Scene
What was memorable: Approaching March Madness in 2003, all of the talk surrounding amateur basketball centered around a high school kid named LeBron James and a college freshman named Carmelo Anthony. Dwyane Wade of Marquette changed that and inserted himself into the conversation by recording 29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in an upset of No. 1 Kentucky to send the Golden Eagles to the Final Four.
End result: Wade’s triple-double was just the fifth in NCAA tournament history and the second that happened in the Elite Eight or later. Marquette lost its next game in the Final Four, but the run marked the Golden Eagles' first Final Four appearance since their 1977 championship.
Bottom line: Wade’s draft stock soared after this game, and after considering returning to school for his senior season, he elected to go pro. That led to one of the greatest drafts in NBA history featuring Wade, James, Anthony and Chris Bosh all selected in the top five.
#20: Loyola Marymount Lights Up the Scoreboard
What was memorable: In 1990, Loyola Marymount played a run-and-gun style of basketball and led the NCAA in both points scored and points allowed. So you expected there to be lots of points when the No. 11 Lions took on the No. 3 Michigan Wolverines. But no one expected the final score of 149-115, making it the most points ever by one team and the most points ever combined in one game.
End result: Lost in the shuffle of the highest-scoring game in NCAA tournament history was that No. 11 LMU knocked off the defending champions. The Lions scored less than half as many points in their next game but still prevailed before getting knocked off by eventual champion UNLV in the Elite Eight.
Bottom line: LMU’s style of play was so revolutionary for the college game that their coach soon got offers to coach again in the NBA. Paul Westhead jumped from LMU to the Denver Nuggets the next season, and Loyola Marymount hasn’t even sniffed the NCAA tournament since then.
#19: Adam Morrison Doesn't Hold Back
What was memorable: Adam Morrison had one of the greatest college basketball careers in recent memory, but his lasting image on a court was him sobbing uncontrollably. Morrison’s Gonzaga team blew a 17-point second-half lead to UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen, and he began crying on the court when he thought the game was over. But the game wasn’t over, and Gonzaga had one last shot to tie the game with two seconds remaining. However, they missed it.
End result: While no one has a problem with a show of emotion by a college kid, the fact that Morrison began crying with time still left to play earned him mockery afterward. Gonzaga was down just two and had possession of the ball, but Morrison was used as a decoy on the ensuing play, and some think that was due to Morrison perhaps not being mentally ready for the moment.
Bottom line: Despite getting two rings with the Los Angeles Lakers, Morrison is considered an NBA bust. Not even the most diehard fans could remember anything noteworthy he did in the NBA, so him weeping at the end of his final college game remains the last signature moment of his basketball career.
#18: Bryce Drew’s Game-Winner
What was memorable: The No. 13 Valparaiso Crusaders were in need of a miracle when trailing by two with two seconds left in their first-round matchup. And a miracle was exactly what they got to knock off the No. 4 Ole Miss Rebels. On a play named "Pacer," Valparaiso made a three-quarters-court inbounds pass, and then another pass to Bryce Drew without the ball hitting the floor. Drew then turned his open 3-point look into a buzzer-beater to give Valparaiso the upset.
End result: The Valparaiso basketball program has been around since 1917, and this moment ranks as the peak of the Crusaders team. The 1998 team went on to win its second-round game, and the Sweet Sixteen appearance remains the only in program history.
Bottom line: Hitting a buzzer-beating game-winner is one thing, but hitting a buzzer-beating game-winner when your dad is the head coach is a whole other thing. That was the case for Bryce as his father, Homer, was the team’s coach. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when your coach/dad draws up that play for you.
#17: Fred Brown’s Brain Fart
What was memorable: Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot in the 1982 national championship game gets all the acclaim, but that shot didn’t end the game. With 15 seconds left, Georgetown had a chance to take the lead against North Carolina, but sophomore Fred Brown had a brain fart for the ages by passing the ball to the wrong team. Brown panicked and threw the ball right to James Worthy to theoretically seal the win for Carolina.
End result: Somehow, someway, Georgetown had another chance to stay alive as Worthy missed both of his free throws after being fouled. A half-court shot by Sleepy Floyd fell short, and the Tar Heels won the championship.
Bottom line: Usually what happens after a great basketball player like Jordan hits a shot is often forgotten. Those following plays are usually nondescript and don’t add to the story. But this play was different because it was something you usually only see from 8-year-olds on a basketball court. Brown showed that the mental side of the game is just as important as a player’s skill, and his nerves got the best of him in this situation.
#16: The Capstone for Cap
What was memorable: Widely considered the greatest college basketball player of all time, Lew Alcindor, aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (nicknamed "Cap"), ended his UCLA career in epic fashion. His final college game also marked his third straight NCAA championship as his Bruins defeated Purdue 92-72, and Cap had 37 points and 20 rebounds.
End result: How does an 80-2 college record sound? That was Alcindor’s UCLA record in his final three years (freshmen were ineligible to play), he won three national titles, three Final Four MOP awards and was a three-time national player of the year.
Bottom line: To top things off for Alcindor, his dad was a musician, and Ferdinand Alcindor played the trombone in UCLA’s band during his son’s last game. The unmatched success of Alcindor in college served as a precursor to his equally successful pro career.
#15: Duke Ends UNLV’s Perfection
What was memorable: The Runnin’ Rebels entered the 1991 Final Four on a 45-game win streak and were defending champions after knocking off Duke by 30 points in the 1990 title game. But Duke was out for revenge and were equipped with a hungry freshman forward named Grant Hill and All-American Christian Laettner.
End result: Duke did the impossible in stopping the Runnin’ Rebels with a 79-77 victory in a game that featured 10 future NBA players. The Blue Devils went on to win the title game against Kansas while UNLV wouldn’t win another NCAA tournament game for 15 years.
Bottom line: Take the differences between Magic and Bird, multiply those by 1,000, and you’ll approximate the differences between UNLV basketball and Duke basketball. This era was the peak for UNLV basketball, but it gave rise to similar eras such as the Fab Five of Michigan. This game was just the beginning for Duke, which repeated as champs the following year and have won three more NCAA titles since then.
#14: Stephen Curry’s Breakout Party
What was memorable: Stephen Curry was an unheralded prospect who ended up at tiny Davidson, and no one expected much from him in the NCAA tournament. But Curry provided a glimpse of what was to come, lighting up the scoreboard and averaging 32 points per game as No. 10 Davidson upset the No. 7, No. 3 and No. 2 seeds in the tournament.
End result: Davidson made it all the way to the Elite Eight before being eliminated by the eventual champion, Kansas Jayhawks. But Curry made his mark, and even LeBron James, then in his fourth NBA season, took in one of Davidson’s games from courtside just to see Curry up close and personal.
Bottom line: Curry went from someone who couldn’t even get a scholarship from a school in a major conference to being an NBA lottery pick on the heels of his tournament performance. His range and marksmanship translated from college to the NBA where he revolutionized the game of basketball with his outside shooting.
#13: Game of the Century Part II
What was memorable: The first "Game of the Century" took place weeks earlier between the UCLA Bruins and Houston Cougars. That game was the first NCAA regular-season game to be nationally broadcast, and Houston ended UCLA’s 47-game win streak. Their rematch took place in the 1968 Final Four, and even though it wasn’t billed as the "Game of the Century Part II," it had quite the hype since it was on an even bigger stage.
End result: UCLA avenged its earlier loss with a dominating 101-69 victory to advance to the national championship game. John Wooden devised a diamond-and-one defensive scheme to counter Cougars star Elvin Hayes and limited him to just 10 points after he scored 39 points in their first matchup.
Bottom line: The rematch of the Game of the Century had a heavyweight-boxing-match type of feel, and it was headlined by Hayes vs. Lew Alcindor. Hayes became the first overall pick in the 1968 NBA draft, and Alcindor was taken first one year later. They played against each other 60 times in the NBA, but none of those games were as important as the two they had in college.
#12: Gordon Hayward Is Inches Off
What was memorable: Before his horrific leg injury, Gordon Hayward’s most infamous moment on a basketball court came in his final college game. Butler trailed by two points in the title game to Duke when Hayward grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled to half-court and launched a desperation 3-pointer for the improbable win. Unfortunately for him and Butler, the shot was just a tad too strong as it hit the backboard, then the rim and bounced off, giving Duke the win.
End result: Hayward’s miss was not only a loss for Butler, but it was a loss for mid-major programs. Butler was attempting to become just the second mid-major program ever to win the NCAA championship since the field expanded to 64 teams (the other was 1990 UNLV). Instead, a blue blood in Duke claimed its fourth NCAA title under Coach K.
Bottom line: It’s not hyperbole to say that if this shot went in, it would be considered the greatest shot in college basketball history. A half-court buzzer-beater to win the national championship? That’s the type of thing kids dream about in their driveways while growing up. Even though the shot didn’t go in, the narrow miss still is one of the most memorable moments in tourney history.
#11: Kris Jenkins Saves His Best for Last
What was memorable: Never before in the history of the NCAA tournament championship game had a game ended on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer until Villanova’s Kris Jenkins did it in 2016. The play came just after North Carolina's Marcus Paige hit an off-balance, double-pump 3-pointer of his own to tie the game with 4.7 seconds left.
End result: Jenkins’ game-winner was memorable and historic, but to Villanova, it was pretty ordinary. That’s because they ran that play every single day in practice, and simply called it ‘Nova. The shot gave the Wildcats their first national championship since 1985.
Bottom line: While this was the first title game to end with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, it wasn’t the first title game to end with a buzzer-beater. Thus, this entry doesn’t rank higher, and you’ll have to keep reading to see the other buzzer-beater that topped it.
#10: NC State Ends UCLA’s Run
What was memorable: All good things must come to an end, and UCLA’s run of seven straight national championships ended in the Final Four to North Carolina State. UCLA star Bill Walton called it the most disappointing game of his career considering that the Bruins had a seven-point lead in double overtime before the Wolfpack rallied for the win.
End result: Boosted by the Final Four being a theoretical home game for NC State, with it taking place in Greensboro, N.C., the Wolfpack then went on to defeat Marquette for their first NCAA championship. UCLA didn't stay down for long as the Bruins rebounded to win the 1975 championship.
Bottom line: With all due respect to North Carolina State, this game is known more for UCLA losing than the Wolfpack winning. The Bruins were attempting to win their eighth straight title, which would have tied the Boston Celtics, whose run ended one year before the Bruins’ streak began.
#9: Bo Kimble Honors the Late Hank Gathers
What was memorable: Tragedy struck Loyola Marymount just two weeks before the 1990 NCAA tournament when Hank Gathers, who led the NCAA in scoring the previous year, collapsed and died during a West Coast Conference tournament game. Gathers was just 23 years old and had a heart disorder that also had caused him to collapse just three months earlier.
End result: The West Coast Conference suspended play of LMU’s game and cancelled the remainder of the tournament. The commissioner then awarded LMU the automatic birth to the NCAA tournament due to them having the best conference record in the regular season.
Bottom line: Gathers’ friend and teammate, Bo Kimble, who had grown up with Gathers and played with him since high school, decided to honor his friend during the 1990 NCAA tournament. During LMU’s run to the Elite Eight, Kimble shot the first free throw of each game left-handed as a tribute to the southpaw Gathers. Kimble, who was naturally right-handed, made all three of his left-handed free-throw attempts.
#8: Christian Laettner Sinks 'The Shot'
What was memorable: In what many consider the greatest college basketball game of all time, Christian Laettner received a length-of-the-court pass, took one dribble and knocked down a jump shot to send Duke to the 1992 Final Four. The Blue Devils prevailed over Kentucky 103-102 in overtime and kept alive their bid to repeat as national champions.
End result: After "The Shot," Duke narrowly beat Indiana in the Final Four before blowing out the Fab Five and Michigan in the title game. The Blue Devils became the first team to repeat as national champions since UCLA won in 1973.
Bottom line: There have been several basketball shots nicknamed "The Shot," and many of them were authored by Michael Jordan in the NBA. But when it comes to college basketball, Laettner’s fake, then dribble, then fadeaway jumper against Kentucky receives the honor of being "The Shot."
#7: One Shining Moment Makes Its Debut
What was memorable: Can you imagine the NCAA tournament without "One Shining Moment" closing the final broadcast? That’s how the first 48 tournaments went until song debuted in 1987 after the Indiana Hoosiers beat the Syracuse Orangemen to win the national title. The song actually was supposed to debut after Super Bowl XXI weeks earlier, but the broadcast ran long, and it was instead first used for the 1987 NCAA tournament.
End result: The song has become as synonymous with March Madness as cutting down the nets. The song was written by David Barrett and sung by various artists, including Teddy Pendergrass and Ne-Yo, but Luther Vandross' version has become most people’s favorite and still is used today.
Bottom line: Much like the old NBA on NBC theme song, when people hear "One Shining Moment," they immediately know what the tune is associated with. Most college basketball fans won’t even turn off their TVs until after the song and video montage — even if it’s 20-30 minutes after the title game is over.
#6: Magic vs. Bird (Part I)
What was memorable: No one ever would have guessed that the marquee players from the 1979 championship game would later engage in the greatest player-versus-player rivalry in NBA history. Larry Bird, a senior at Indiana State, led the undefeated Sycamores against Magic Johnson, a sophomore at Michigan State.
End result: Michigan State ended Indiana State’s 33-game win streak and won their first national championship by a final score of 75-64. Johnson led all players with 24 points to go along with seven rebounds and five assists while Bird had 19 points, 13 rebounds and five steals.
Bottom line: The media did a great job of highlighting the differences between Magic and Bird, both in terms of basketball style and in terms of culture. The pregame hype helped make this title game the most-watched college basketball game of all time, even 40 years later. In the NBA, Magic, with the Lakers, and Bird, with the Celtics went on to win eight of the next nine championships between 1980 and 1988.
#5: Mike Jordan Becomes Michael Jordan
What was memorable: A skinny freshman for North Carolina displayed the confidence and clutch genes that would become trademarks of his career by knocking down the game-winning shot in the 1982 national championship game. UNC defeated Georgetown 63-62 to win its first championship in 25 years and earned coach Dean Smith the first championship of his career.
End result: Jordan entered UNC as Mike Jordan, but Smith preferred to call people by their given names. Jordan went by both Mike and Michael throughout his freshman year, but broadcaster Brent Musburger referred to him as Michael after sinking that shot, and the name stuck.
Bottom line: Powell Latimer, a writer for The Daily Tar Heel, described the transformation of Jordan with that shot best:
"His Airness. M.J. Air Jordan. Before Michael Jordan was any of these things, before he was the most recognizable athlete in the world, he was Mike Jordan, the freshman for North Carolina. Then he hit a game-winning shot in the 1982 national championship game, and Mike became Michael Jordan, who became all of the above."
#4: The Most Infamous Non-Timeout in NCAA History
What was memorable: The Fab Five injected new life into college basketball in the early 1990s, and their best chance to win an NCAA title game came in 1993. They were down by two points with 11 seconds left, but Chris Webber called a timeout, even though Michigan had none remaining. That resulted in a technical foul, and North Carolina made both of its free throws to seal the game.
End result: The Fab Five made the national championship game both as freshmen in 1992 and sophomores in 1993, but they have zero titles to show for it. They also don’t even have the Final Four banners to show for it as those were vacated after it was revealed Webber accepted money while in college, thus making him an ineligible player.
Bottom line: Chris Webber went on to have a Hall of Fame-worthy NBA career, but that "timeout" has followed him throughout his career. In 2013, USA Today ranked it as the biggest boneheaded play in NCAA tournament history.
#3: Jim Valvano Just Wants a Hug
What was memorable: This was the first-ever buzzer-beater to end a national championship game, and the put-back dunk by North Carolina State’s Lorenzo Charles was memorable, but coach Jim Valvano’s reaction was priceless. His team had just won the national championship, and Valvano was running around the court just looking for someone to hug and celebrate with.
End result: The NCAA title game win over Houston marked the Wolfpack’s first championship since 1974, and it would be the only one that Valvano won in his career. The finish remained the only championship game buzzer-beater until Kris Jenkins of Villanova did the same in 2016.
Bottom line: Much like Michael Jordan’s gooseneck after his last shot with the Bulls, the reaction by Valvano is remembered just as much as Charles’ game-winner. This image would become the lasting memory of Valvano’s career until he gave his inspirational speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards, which came just weeks before he died of cancer.
#2: No. 16 UMBC Makes History
What was memorable: 135 games played and 135 losses. That was the record of No. 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament prior to 2018. Then the University of Maryland, Baltimore County pulled off the biggest upset in tournament history by knocking off the Virginia Cavaliers, who were not only the No. 1-ranked team in their bracket, but the No. 1-ranked team in the entire 68-team field.
End result: UMBC fell in the next round, but their win has had an even larger impact. For years, opponents to expanding the NCAA tournament field always could point out that a No. 16 seed had never won a game, so there was no need for an even lower-ranked team making the field. That point is no longer valid and more upsets like this could lead to further expansion.
Bottom line: There’s no recency bias here, but it just so happened that the newest moment on this list almost became the most memorable moment. Almost. You could argue that this is the biggest on-court moment in NCAA tournament history, but the impact of the tournament goes beyond what happens on the court.
#1: Texas Western Breaks Barriers
What was memorable: The 1966 title game was the first to feature a team with an all-black starting lineup as Texas Western faced the all-white starting lineup of Kentucky. Many NCAA conferences had yet to integrate so this game was seen as an important step for college basketball and changed perceptions that some coaches had of black players.
End result: No. 3 Texas Western (now known as UTEP) defeated No. 1 Kentucky and ended the Wildcats' 27-game winning streak. The result remains the only national championship in program history, and it was the first national championship that the Miners won in any sport.
Bottom line: This game and Texas Western’s victory did more to advance college basketball than perhaps any other basketball game. The season after Texas Western’s win, there was at least one black player at every southern conference, which was a big difference than just one year earlier.