We’re only a few days away from one of the best weekends in college basketball. With Louisville, Michigan, Wichita State and Syracuse set to go to battle this weekend, expect to hear a whole lot of Cinderella, zone defense and Trey Burke talk. It’s inevitable. Hopefully, the games live up to the billing. But in all likelihood, none of them will make this list.
Here are the top 10 Final Four games in NCAA Tournament history.
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10. GEORGIA TECH vs. OKLAHOMA STATE (2004)
A matchup that pitted two teams that rarely make headlines in the NCAA Tournament, let alone their own conferences. The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets were carried by their dynamic backcourt of Will Bynum and Jarrett Jack all the way to San Antonio. As for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, they had the Graham twins, Joey and Stephen, along with Tony Allen and John Lucas III.
At 31-3 coming into the meeting, Oklahoma State was playing like one of the best teams in the nation. Meanwhile the 27-9 Yellow Jackets received an at-large bid as their ticket to the tourney. That April night in the Alamodome would become an unforgettable game. Georgia Tech was able to hold the lead for most of the game, but John Lucas III and the Cowboys wouldn’t go away quietly. Lucas drilled a three-pointer with 26.3 seconds left to tie the game at 65. Georgia Tech milked the clock down to its last ticks on the final possession and Bynum connected on a layup in the closing moments of the game to propel Georgia Tech to its first and only National Championship appearance.
9. HOUSTON vs. VIRGINIA (1984)
In one of the lower scoring Final Four games, the Houston Cougars went up against the Virginia Cavaliers. Houston had the most dominant force in all of college basketball at the time in Akeem Olajuwon (later Hakeem) — in all three of his seasons as part of Phi Slamma Jamma, the Cougars reached at least the Final Four. Virginia, on the other hand, was the more surprising participant in this game. While they had household names on their roster like Rick Carlisle and Olden Polynice, their 20-11 record said they weren’t the best of teams.
The Cougars took a slight 25-23 lead into halftime and couldn’t put the Cavaliers away for good; a late comeback by Virginia put the game into overtime. In a contest where neither team eclipsed 50 points, both teams fought, tooth and nail. Olajuwon tallied a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds, but he wasn’t the Cougars’ most vital player in this game. Forward Michael Young led the team in scoring with 17 points, and it was a put-back by Young’s high school teammate and freshman Ricky Winslow that sealed the 49-47 victory for Houston.
8. DUKE vs. MARYLAND (2001)
One of the most storied rivalries in ACC basketball comes to life whenever the Duke Blue Devils and the Maryland Terrapins face off against each other. In 2001, the fans were treated to this matchup a total of four times. Duke was able to escape three meetings, including a couple of two-point victories. The Blue Devils were loaded with talent — their roster featured Shane Battier, Jason (later Jay) Williams, Chris Duhon, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer. The Terrapins didn’t lack in talent either, with players like Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox.
The Metrodome played as host in the team’s final meeting of that season and Maryland came out firing on all cylinders. The Terrapins held a 22-point lead at one point in the first half and went into halftime with a 49-38 lead. Maryland couldn’t have played any better, but Duke couldn’t have played any worse. The Blue Devils stormed back in the second half and outscored the Terrapins 57-35 to clinch a trip to the title game with a 94-85 win. At the time, Duke’s comeback from an 11-point halftime deficit set a Final Four record.
7. UCLA vs. DRAKE (1969)
From 1964 through 1975, the UCLA Bruins were one of the most dominant basketball teams in the world. Led by Hall of Fame coach John Wooden, the Bruins captured 10 NCAA National Championships in that 12-year span. However, in 1969 they ran into an unexpected road bump in the Drake Bulldogs during the Final Four. Drake almost pulled off the most stunning upset in NCAA Tournament history.
UCLA led 41-39 at halftime, a game closer than any of their 11 other victories in three tournament games — the average margin of victory in those 11 games was 23 points. The Bruins seemed to be sleepwalking through the game, and the Bulldogs stayed close. It wasn’t until 6-8 Drake big man Rick Wanamaker blocked the shot of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then named Lew Alcindor) that UCLA started playing full throttle. Even still the Bulldogs remained close. After the Bruins built a nine-point lead, Drake was able to bring it back down to just a single point with one minute remaining. In the end, UCLA hung on for a three-point win, advancing them to their third-straight National Championship.
6. INDIANA STATE vs. DePAUL (1979)
Before Larry Legend was born, there was Larry Bird from French Lick, Indiana. Bird collected numerous trophies that season (Oscar Robertson Trophy, Naismith Award, John R. Wooden Award, Adolph Rupp Trophy and Eastman Award) but his storied NCAA title game performance against Earvin “Magic” Johnson almost never came to fruition.
In Salt Lake City, Utah, the Indiana State Sycamores ran into the DePaul Blue Demons, who reached the Final Four after defeating the UCLA Bruins. The Blue Demons were lead by Mark Aguirre, who along with DePaul’s four other starters played all 40 minutes of the game. But even Aguirre was no match for Bird on this night. Bird would score 35 points, pull down 16 rebounds and dish out nine assists in order to outlast the Blue Demons 77-74.
5. UCONN vs. DUKE (2004)
In 2004, the Alamodome played host to one of the most memorable Final Fours in NCAA history. The first game of the two appeared earlier on this list and the night was capped off by an even greater game between the Connecticut Huskies and the Duke Blue Devils, two of the top teams all season. Star players were abundant in this game as Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Luol Deng, J.J. Redick, Chris Duhon and Shelden Williams were all on the court that night.
Duke seemed to have the early advantage over UConn, taking a 41-34 lead into halftime, a lead that the Blue Devils would hold onto for almost the entire game. However, late in the game the two most prevalent big men on the Blue Devils’ roster — Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph — fouled out. With less than three minutes to play, Duke had built a 75-67 lead over the Huskies and all seemed to be lost. Yet, UConn would go on a 12-0 run carried by Okafor’s five points, three rebounds and great interior defense. The Huskies would hold on to win, 79-78, and eventually won the NCAA title as well over Georgia Tech.
4. NORTH CAROLINA vs. UNLV (1977)
The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were the most entertaining basketball team in the country during the 1977 season. The Rebels were the highest-scoring team, averaging a remarkable 107.1 points per game. In Atlanta, two of the best coaches in college basketball history faced off against each other as Dean Smith and the North Carolina Tar Heels played Jerry Tarkanian and the Runnin’ Rebels in the Final Four.
“Tark the Shark” and UNLV got off to a quick start in the first half and were able to put up 49 points and held a 10-point lead over UNC at halftime. Not to be out-coached, Smith and the Tar Heels switched into a zone defense in the second half and the game changed for good. Once the Tar Heels pulled ahead of the Runnin’ Rebels, Smith instructed his team to use the famed four-corner offense to slow the game down (there was no shot clock at the time). UNLV was able to hang close, but UNC sunk their free throws down the stretch and the Tar Heels advanced to the National Championship. 84-83.
3. MICHIGAN vs. KENTUCKY (1993)
The Fab Five and Michigan were back in the Final Four for the second consecutive year. Led by Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose, the Wolverines were making their way easily through the tournament and were trying to capture a national title that had eluded them the previous season. In the Superdome, they would first meet the Kentucky Wildcats and their star forward, Jamal Mashburn.
Mashburn and Webber lived up to their top billing; Mashburn scored 26 points and grabbed six rebounds for the Wildcats while Webber poured in 27 points and 13 rebounds for the Wolverines. Kentucky’s Travis Ford sank two free throws at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime. With 1:10 remaining in the extra period, the Wildcats held a three-point lead, but a Ray Jackson bucket cut the deficit to one with 53 seconds left and a go-ahead bucket from Webber put Michigan ahead for good with 43 seconds left. A pair of Jalen Rose free throws would seal the 81-78 victory for Michigan.
2. UNC vs. MICHIGAN STATE (1957)
The North Carolina Tar Heels came into the 1957 Final Four with an unblemished 30-0 record. Their opponent was the 16-8 Michigan State Spartans. Though the records didn’t seem like it, these two teams would battle in one of the most epic games in all of NCAA Tournament history. The Spartans and Tar Heels would continue to go at each other for a record three overtimes, the longest game in Final Four history.
The Spartans gave UNC all it could handle during regulation, even making a 50-foot shot tossed in by Jack Quiggle after the final buzzer had sounded. If Quiggle’s shot had counted, this game may have jumped up a spot on the rankings. Michigan State seemed to be on the verge of sealing a victory during the first overtime — with 11 seconds left, the Spartans star player, Jack Green, headed to the free throw line with a two-point lead. There was no three-point line at the time, either. But Green couldn’t sink the shots and North Carolina’s Pete Brennan took the ball the length of the floor to score and send the game into double-overtime. At the end of the third overtime, UNC was able to pull out a 74-70 victory led by 29 points from All-American Lonnie Rosenbluth.
1. DUKE vs. UNLV (1991)
Though UNLV’s 1977 team was dominant, their 1991 team was almost unbeatable. Before facing off against Duke in Indianapolis, the Runnin’ Rebels had won 45 consecutive games and were 34-0 for the season. Nobody could beat Jerry Tarkanian’s team. They had dominated the Blue Devils in the previous season’s NCAA National Championship game, winning 103-73 and had their big guns returning from that team’s starting lineup. Everything was set up for UNLV to repeat as champions.
Somehow Duke stayed with UNLV in the second half of the 1991 semifinals. Rebels point guard Greg Anthony fouled out with 3:51 left, but UNLV had a lead of five points before Duke’s Bobby Hurley made a three-pointer with 2:14 to play. UNLV star Larry Johnson missed two free throws with 49.9 seconds to go before Duke’s Thomas Hill was called for a lane violation on the second attempt. Johnson made the additional free throw to tie the game. Christian Laettner — arguably the most clutch player in Blue Devil history — was fouled with 12.7 seconds left after grabbing an offensive rebound on Hill’s missed shot. Laettner hit both free throws to put the Blue Devils ahead and clinch the 79-77 victory and revenge for Duke.
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