Ranking the five best title games of the 64-team era
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The four days that have elapsed since Monday’s thrilling national championship game between Villanova and North Carolina is barely enough time to let the magnitude of the game’s final sequence sink in, much less give it the complete historic analysis it will one day deserve. That said, it didn’t take long after Kris Jenkins’s 26-foot, three-point buzzer-beater fell through the net at Houston’s NRG Stadium to propel the Wildcats to a 77–74 win—a shot that itself came one play after the Tar Heels’ Marcus Paige tied the score with 4.7 seconds remaining on an off-balance, double-clutch three of his own—before it was already being called the best title game of all time.
Does it deserve that lofty distinction? In an event that dates to 1939 and has featured six games decided in overtime and 17 by three points or fewer, there are plenty of worthy candidates. In an effort to narrow it down, below is an examination of the five best championship games of the 64-team era, which dates to 1985. That means that the highest-rated title game (Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team beating Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in 1979), the most significant (Texas Western’s upset of Kentucky in 1966) and the longest (1957’s triple overtime affair between No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 Kansas) are ineligible for this discussion. So are games featuring legendary teams (none of John Wooden’s 10 champions at UCLA are represented), historic players (Michael Jordan’s shot to give the Tar Heels the title over Georgetown in 1982) and ones that had both famous endings and unforgettable upsets (NC State’s stunning win over Houston in 1983; Loyola’s buzzer-beating victory to upset two-time defending champion Cincinnati 20 years earlier).
To qualify for this list the game must meet a few criteria: 1) a memorable storyline or storylines coming into the game; 2) quality play; 3) a dramatic finish. Having future NBA stars is not necessary, but it can't hurt. With that in mind, here is one man’s list of the five best championship games of the last three decades.
5. April 3, 1989: Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79
The Wolverines entered the 1989 NCAA tournament as a team with a mission but without a coach. Bill Frieder had accepted the job at Arizona State before the tournament, so athletic director Bo Schembechler, the school’s famed football coach, effectively fired him. Interim coach Steve Fisher took over and guided Michigan, the No. 3 seed in the Southeast Regional, to wins over Xavier, South Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia to reach the Final Four. Once there, the Wolverines got a put-back with one second left from Sean Higgins to top Big Ten rival Illinois in the national semifinals and set up a meeting with Seton Hall.
The Pirates were the sixth Big East team to reach the Final Four in that conference’s first decade, but they were easily the most surprising. Just the year before they had made their first ever NCAA tournament appearance, but in ’89, as a No. 3 seed, they upset Indiana and UNLV to win the West Regional, then routed Duke to reach the title game.
Michigan star Glen Rice, en route to becoming the most prolific scorer in NCAA tournament history with 189 points in six games, scored 31 against Seton Hall, but that wasn’t even a game high. That’s because the Pirates' unheralded guard, John Morton, scored 35, including a bucket that gave them a 67–66 lead with two minutes left. Rice answered with a three for a one-point advantage with one minute to go, Morton then countered with his own three to tie the score at 71 with 25 seconds left. Rice missed a jumper that would have won it at the end of regulation.
Morton’s final points—and, it turned out, the last of the game for Seton Hall—came on a three-pointer with 2:40 remaining that put the Pirates ahead 79–76. After getting a basket, Michigan finally stopped Morton. Rice rebounded his miss with 10 seconds left and got the ball to point guard Rumeal Robinson, who rushed up court as the clock ticked down. Referee John Clougherty called what remains one of the most controversial foul's in tournament history, on the Hall’s Gerald Greene, with three seconds left. Robinson hit both free throws for an 80–79 advantage, the last of the game’s 13 lead changes. The Pirates couldn’t get the ball to Morton and Daryll Walker missed a desperation three-pointer at the buzzer, giving the Wolverines the first and only title in school history.
Fisher was, of course, named the permanent head coach. Three years later he brought in a class of players that would quickly be dubbed the Fab Five: Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, Jimmy King, Jalen Rose and Chris Webber. Those players led Michigan to two consecutive title games, and though the Wolverines lost both, to Duke in 1992 and North Carolina in '93, those players are still remembered today for changing the sport of college basketball.
4. April 7, 2008: Kansas 75, Memphis 68 (OT)
The only Final Four ever to feature four No. 1 seeds, appropriately, needed an extra five minutes to decide a champion, making it the most recent title game to end in overtime. It almost didn’t get there. After leading by five points at halftime, Kansas fell behind by seven with just over four minutes left when Memphis freshman Derrick Rose, who would be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft two months later, banked in a twisting, fade-away shot with his foot on the three-point line as the 35-second clock expired. That capped a stellar stretch for the Tigers guard, who scored 14 points in eight minutes to put his team in front. Memphis still led by nine with 2:12 remaining, but a basket by Darrell Arthur, a steal and a three-pointer by Sherron Collins brought the Jayhawks within four with 1:49 left.
The Tigers, which had shot just 61.4% at the free-throw line all season, the 11th-worst rate in the country, then missed four straight down the stretch. Rose finally hit one to make the score 63–60 with 10 seconds to go. Kansas guard Mario Chalmers took a pass from Collins, curled to the top of the key and swished a fading three-pointer that tied the game. It would come to be known as Mario’s Miracle.
The Jayhawks scored the first six points of overtime and then hit all four of their free throws down the stretch to secure the third national championship in school history.
Memphis’s Final Four visit would later be vacated by the NCAA over the matter of Rose’s eligibility, but in 2012 coach John Calipari got a measure of revenge when he led his new team, Kentucky, to the national championship with a title-game victory over Kansas.
3. April 1, 1985: Villanova 66, Georgetown 64
The Wildcats beating the defending national champion Hoyas? That, it seemed, would have been the greatest April Fool’s prank of all-time. Yet Villanova was hardly intimidated by facing Georgetown, especially after playing their Big East brethren close two times earlier that season, losing 52–50 and 57–50.
The top-ranked Hoyas were a polarizing team for what critics perceived as rough play, but that too often overshadowed their brilliance. And when Patrick Ewing delivered dunks on three straight possessions late in the first half it seemed Georgetown would indeed be able to overpower Villanova. But the Wildcats, taking advantage of the last game in Division I history without a shot clock, were exceedingly careful with each possession, and they took a one-point lead into halftime on a jumper by Harold Pressley.
After making 13-of-18 shots from the field in the first half (72.2%), Villanova was even better—and more deliberate—in the second half. In what would come to be known as the Perfect Game, the Wildcats shot 78.6% overall—which is still a tournament record—and an amazing 9-of-10 in the second half. The biggest basket came from sophomore guard Harold Jensen, who drilled a jumper from the left wing with 2:40 remaining that put Villanova in front 55–54 and stopped a 6–0 run by Georgetown. The Hoyas turned it over on their next possession and the Wildcats closed out their first national championship at the free throw line. College basketball would have to wait seven more years for a repeat champion, while Villanova, a No. 8 seed, is still the lowest seeded team ever to win the national championship.
2. March 29, 1999: UConn 77, Duke 74
The last time the title game was played in March, it produced an outcome that would have seemed to be sheer madness if anyone tried to predict it. The top-ranked Blue Devils steamrolled opponents all season long, winning by an average of 25 points per game, and entered the championship game at 37–1 and riding a 32-game winning streak. The Huskies were overlooked, despite being 33–2, winning the Big East regular season and tournament titles and ranking third in the country.
UConn quickly proved it belonged, trailing by just two points at halftime and never letting Duke pull away. After falling behind by five early in the second half, the Huskies rallied behind junior star Richard Hamilton to take a five-point lead of their own. The Blue Devils were behind by one with under 10 seconds to go when senior Trajan Langdon was forced into a travel by defender Ricky Moore. After two UConn free throws, Langdon rushed upcourt only to turn the ball over again as the clock expired. The Huskies had been nine-point underdogs, making it by that measure the biggest upset in title game history, and justifying point guard Khalid El-Amin’s immediate postgame proclamation, caught by TV cameras, that his team had “shocked the world.”
1. April 4, 2016: Villanova 77, North Carolina 74
The Wildcats were playing in the title game for the first time in 31 years and coming off two of the most impressive performances in this, or any, tournament. After rolling to three early wins, Villanova stunned No. 1 overall seed Kansas to win the South Regional, then handed Oklahoma and national player of the year Buddy Hield the biggest beatdown in Final Four history with a 95–51 blowout in Houston.
The powerful Tar Heels, meanwhile, won the ACC regular season and tournament and then rolled to their NCAA record 19th Final Four and their 10th title game with five wins by an average of 14 points.
Though they couldn’t quite match the remarkable 71% shooting they displayed in the win over the Sooners, the Wildcats nevertheless controlled the first 10 minutes. A late burst by North Carolina sent the Tar Heels to the locker room with a five-point lead, but the Wildcats pulled in front early in the second half and led by as many as 10 with less than six minutes remaining. But Carolina senior guard Marcus Paige willed his team back, making a corner three-pointer to cut the deficit to three with 1:30 to go, ripping away a rebound for a putback that got UNC within one, and then hitting the miraculous three that tied the game.
That set the stage for Jenkins, a 240-pound junior forward, who trailed teammate Ryan Arcidiacono up the court and took a shovel pass before releasing his jumper with 0.6 seconds left. It swished, marking the first time a championship game had ever ended on a three-pointer at the buzzer. It provided not just a perfect ending, but perfect symmetry. Villanova shot exactly 14-for-24 (58.3%) from the field in each half and ended the tournament with the highest shooting percentage (58%) of any team in the last 20 years.
Honorable mentions: 1987: Indiana 74, Syracuse 73; 1993: North Carolina 77, Michigan 71, 1997: Arizona 84, Kentucky 79, OT; 2003: Syracuse 81, Kansas 78; 205: North Carolina 75, Illinois 70; 2010: Duke 61, Butler 59.