Looking Back at the 10 Best College Basketball Games of the Decade

Ten years' worth of the best buzzer beaters, thrillers and memorable performances.
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Villanova vs UNC 2016 national championship Kris Jenkins

The 2010s decade comes to a close on Tuesday, ending a memorable 10-year span in college basketball. Seven different men's programs won a national championship, while four different women's programs cut down the nets—including UConn five times. Incredibly, we even saw a national title game end on a buzzer beater on both the men's and women's sides.

To celebrate the end of the decade, SI has ranked the 10 best games of the 2010s, based on drama, stakes and individual efforts (and if you're looking for best upsets—featuring a certain UMBC team, we did a ranking in 2018). Here's to a great 10 years—and to the hope that the next 10 in the sport are just as good.

10. Big-Shot Magic in the Sweet 16 (March 24, 2017) 

When Wisconsin and Florida met at Madison Square Garden in the Sweet 16 in 2017, there seemed to be some extra late-game magic in the air in NYC. The result was a classic March thriller that featured not one, but two legendary clutch shots.

Up by 12 with less than five minutes left in regulation, the Gators looked like they were on their way to the Elite Eight—until Zak Showalter took over. He scored nine of the Badgers’ 16 points during a furious run to send the game to overtime, draining a running three between two Florida defenders in the final seconds in front of Aaron Rodgers, then breaking out the Packers quarterback’s famous "discount double-check" celebration.

But for Showalter’s efforts to not be in vain, Wisconsin had to finish the job. It took a five-point lead into the final minute of overtime, but a quick Florida rally tied the game at 81 with 24 seconds remaining. Nigel Hayes then converted a pair of free throws with four seconds remaining to put the Badgers up two, and after a timeout, Gators senior point guard Chris Chiozza took the ball the length of the court. Chiozza came to a jump-stop right outside the three-point line, hoisted the ball before his momentum carried him over the line and watched it swish through for a wild, buzzer-beating March win.

9. Christian Watford Stuns No. 1 Kentucky (Dec. 10, 2011)

This was the last men’s regular-season game of the Indiana-Kentucky rivalry, though the schools have met twice in the NCAA tournament since. The Anthony Davis-led Wildcats came to Bloomington in 2011 on a three-game winning streak in the series and as the No. 1 team in the land (and, it turned out, were on their way to a national championship in April). The Hoosiers, with the likes of Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo on the roster, were off to an 8-0 start after three losing seasons under Tom Crean, who was trying to rebuild the historic program after the tumult of the Kelvin Sampson era.

After a tight first half, which saw Indiana take a one-point lead into the locker room, the Hoosiers built up a 10-point cushion with nine minutes to go. But the Wildcats struck back to take a lead in the final minute, leaving the door open for IU thanks to two missed free throws. Kentucky–despite having two fouls to give—let the final possession play out, with Christian Watford getting free for a wide-open look on the left wing. The rest is history, as Assembly Hall exploded into a state of euphoria, Dick Vitale shouted “Unbelievable!” on the broadcast and a starving fanbase got a deeply meaningful rivalry win.

8. Butler Comes Up Inches Short vs. Duke (April 5, 2010)

This was a true David vs. Goliath, only it wasn’t in the first or second round of the NCAA tournament, where you usually see such matchups. It was for the national championship.

Yes, Butler was a No. 5 seed, which would be viewed as a sizable-but-ordinary underdog in most title games, but Butler was no ordinary five-seed. The Bulldogs were out of the Horizon League, only the third mid-major to reach the Final Four in the modern era (since 1985). They hadn’t lost since Dec. 22 and slayed powers like Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State on the way to the showdown with No. 1 seed Duke, a blueblood that already had three national titles to its name.

Butler had even started the tournament as a popular upset pick to lose to 12-seeded UTEP, and beat No. 13 seed Murray State by just two points in the second round. But that was water under the bridge by the time Brad Stevens’s crew, led by a 20-year-old Gordon Hayward, played for the title, hanging with the Blue Devils every step of the way as the game progressed down to the wire.

Like most of Butler’s March run, it was a low-scoring affair, and the night didn’t feature a single dunk. It may not have been the most glamorous game of basketball, but the gutsy final 124 seconds more than made up for any lack of style points. It all led up to one of the greatest “What If?” moments in sports history, when Hayward’s half-court, game-winning attempt at the buzzer clanged off the backboard, then the rim, then fell harmlessly to the floor as the crowd—and everyone watching at home—gasped as one as Duke celebrated its fourth national title.

7. A Comeback for the Ages (March 20, 2016)

Take a look at this screenshot.

northern-iowa-texas-am-screenshot

This is from right before Texas A&M's Admon Gilder grabbed a missed teammate’s shot and successfully put it back up, making the score Northern Iowa 69, A&M 59 with 33 seconds remaining. The Aggies’ win probability at this point, per kenpom.com, was 0.1%. The Panthers had the ball, and there was absolutely no reason to think the No. 11 seed wouldn’t be advancing on to the Sweet 16.

But then something incredible happened. Gilder stole the ball out of a timeout, and Danuel House made it an eight-point game with 26 seconds remaining. After another timeout, the Aggies put full-court pressure on the inbounder, then swarmed Paul Jesperson (the half-court hero of the Panthers’ first-round game) until his ill-advised pass turned into a Jalen Jones dunk. Twenty-two seconds to go, UNI by six.

After another turnover under its own basket, the cost for Northern Iowa was a cold-blooded three-pointer by House. Now up 69–66 with 19.7 seconds left, the Panthers were smart on the next inbounds, finding a wide open Klint Carlson down the floor to push their lead back to five. So Alex Caruso went to work on the other end, drawing a three-point play and converting at the line. With 12 seconds left, a lead that was 10 just 20 seconds ago had been whittled to two.

Still, Northern Iowa had a clear path to the win. It had the ball and a two-point lead, a scenario we see every day in college basketball, and more often than not the team with the lead survives. But with no timeouts remaining, the Aggies’ relentless pressure trapped Wes Washpun in the corner, and Gilder, realizing Washpun wanted to ping the ball off his leg, stepped out of the way, collected the ball and sent the game to overtime. Is it any wonder that just one OT wasn’t enough? After rallying again, Texas A&M pushed it to double overtime, where it ensured its improbable comeback would live on in legend with a 92–88 win.

6. The Trey Burke Shot (March 29, 2013)

Trailing by 10 with two-and-a-half minutes to go in its Sweet 16 matchup with No. 1 seed Kansas, Michigan needed the National Player of the Year to make his move. And so Trey Burke did, helping force a turnover before dishing an assist and hitting his own step-back three to cut it to five with 1:15 to go. But the shot that would have everyone talking came with five seconds left in regulation, when Burke pulled up from roughly 30 feet out, rose up over a leaping Kansas defender and tied the game at 76-all.

After the Jayhawks’ game-winning attempt was short on the other end, the Wolverines completed their comeback behind Burke and Mitch McGary in overtime, holding off Kansas in an 87-85 win. Michigan would advance all the way to the national championship game, where it fell to Louisville.

5. Virginia's Miracle (March 30, 2019)

For 40 minutes, Carsen Edwards did everything he could. He hit step-backs, spot-ups and pull-ups. He shot over Virginia defenders, showed off limitless range and even banked-in a go-ahead three with just over a minute to go in regulation. Every time the No. 1 Cavaliers tried to pull away in the second half, there was Purdue’s 6’1” point guard with an answer, usually from behind the arc. The crowd—at least those not in blue and orange—at the KFC Yum! Center loved every second of it, with each made Edwards trey making it increasingly clear: something special was happening.

But it was Virginia that would ultimately pull off the most improbable feat of the night. With 5.9 seconds to go, Ty Jerome stepped to the free-throw line with the Hoos down three. He made the first, then short-armed the second off the rim. Mamadi Diakite managed to get his arm above a clogged lane going for the rebound and tipped it all the way back beyond half court. The seconds were ticking down, and Virginia looked cooked…until true freshman Kihei Clark tracked it down, got his head up and saw Diakite open inside the arc. The Cavaliers forward collected the pass and had just enough time to shoot over 7’3” Matt Haarms, nailing the jumper and sending the game to an unlikely overtime. Virginia asserted itself from there, holding Edwards to two OT points and keeping intact a run that would result in its first-ever national championship. And it all goes back to Clark’s vision and Diakite’s shot.

4. "38-and-Done" (April 4, 2015)

When Wisconsin met Kentucky in the 2015 Final Four, the Wildcats were 38–0 and two wins away from the first perfect season since the 1975–76 Indiana Hoosiers. The game was a fascinating rematch of a Final Four matchup from just a season prior, when a UK team that started five freshmen edged a veteran Wisconsin team by one. Many of the same players were back, though Kentucky now had a healthy Willie Cauley-Stein and had added the nation’s No. 2 freshmen class, led by Karl-Anthony Towns. The Badgers were led by National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and boasted the country’s No. 1 efficient offense, facing off against the Wildcats’ No. 1 efficient defense.

A loaded Kentucky squad that had won its Sweet 16 game over West Virginia by 39 points and would have seven players declare for the NBA draft just days later was figured to have the upper hand (the ‘Cats were favored by five points in Vegas), but its five-point lead in the first 49 seconds would prove to be its largest of the night. The teams fought to a deadlock at halftime, then took turns leading in the second half before a pivotal final two minutes. Sam Dekker’s three-pointer with 1:44 to go gave Wisconsin a 63–60 lead, and while Aaron Harrison’s three-point play with 56 seconds left brought UK within one, the Badgers would ice the game from the free-throw line via Kaminsky and Bronson Koenig. Kentucky, which attempted just five threes all game, missed two in the final 10 seconds to see its season—and dreams of 40–0—end in Indianapolis.

3. Arike Ogunbowale Slays UConn (March 30, 2018)

Even those who don’t follow women’s college basketball can likely tell you one big thing about it: UConn is real good. Under Geno Auriemma, the Huskies dominated the years from 2009 to 2016, winning six of eight titles and pulling off a four-peat from 2013–2016. It took a buzzer beater from Mississippi State’s Morgan William to finally stop the Huskies in the 2017 Final Four, and they came back with a vengeance looking to get back in the championship column a season later. In UConn’s way at the Final Four was Notre Dame, a team that lost four players to ACL tears throughout the year but still earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. 

The Irish were led by Arike Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepherd and Jackie Young, the last of whom scored 32 points against the Huskies that night. But even when Notre Dame had Auriemma’s team on the ropes, up five with 20 seconds left, UConn fought back to force overtime. It was there that Ogunbowale entered March lore, stepping back and draining the game-winner from just inside the arc with one second left. Two nights later, she did it again, beating the buzzer with an off-balance three to win the national championship over Mississippi State and cap one of the most thrilling Final Fours ever—on either the men’s or women’s side.

2. Kansas vs. Buddy Hield (Jan. 4, 2016)

For a regular-season game to be high on this list, you know it had to be special. A rare meeting of the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams (it was only the 40th such all-time, and 22nd in the regular season) was made even rarer by the fact that it was a January conference game, but this was the Year of the Big 12.

And so Allen Fieldhouse was treated to a triple-overtime thriller and a performance for the ages by Sooners senior guard Buddy Hield, who racked up 46 points in 54 minutes, making eight of his 15 three-point attempts and dishing out seven assists as well. The Jayhawks, though, withstood it all to outlast Oklahoma in the back-and-forth affair, with Perry Ellis coming through with a 27-point, 13-rebound night. Even the opposing fans respected Hield’s effort, with a contingent of Jayhawk faithful giving him an ovation as he was interviewed by the ESPN broadcast after the game. The AP poll voters respected it as well, choosing not to drop the No. 2 Sooners even one spot after an incredible effort on the road.

1. "Gives It to Jenkins...for the Championship!" (April 4, 2016)

The 2016 national championship game between North Carolina and Villanova already had legendary status among national title games when UNC senior Marcus Paige somehow drained a double-clutch, off-balance three to tie the score at 74 with 4.7 seconds left, capping a 90-second run by the Tar Heels that erased a six-point deficit. Paige’s gutsy shot was the kind that defines championships, a mix of skill, fortune and timing that forms the exact ingredients needed for a moment that lives forever in tournament lore.

Except there was still those 4.7 seconds. Inbounding from under its own basket after a timeout, that’s all Villanova needed to get the ball to Ryan Arcidiacano, dribble up the court and shovel a pass to the trailing Kris Jenkins, who calmly answered the biggest moment of his life with a swish that beat the buzzer and set off pandemonium in NRG Stadium. The Wildcats had their first national title since 1985.