The climactic series of March Madness has officially come to a close. While another successful chapter was added to Head Coach Roy Williams and the legacy of one of the ACC’s most prestigious programs in North Carolina, the Tar Heels championship game falter to buzzer-beating hero Kris Jenkins and Villanova showcased what many refused to swallow: an undeniable upset.
This knocking off of top-tier teams has been a prevalent factor in this year’s tournament with Michigan State’s first round fall to Middle Tennessee, Wisconsin’s last-second dagger over Xavier, even an on the bubble Syracuse team dancing past Virginia to the Final Four.
While these upsets infringe on the inception of a “perfect bracket”, they ironically provide the same breathtaking action that college fans thrive on.
Proving the ascension of the underdog is an attainable goal, these “Cinderella” teams have rose to the occasion and made their improbable run of turning dreams into reality.
In light of an upset-heavy NCAA Tournament, here is a Top-10 list of some of the most dramatic victories in March Madness history.
- No. 11 Northern Iowa vs. No. 6 Texas (2016) Final Score: 75-72
Miracles are a rarity to the average human being. Used as a reference for the 1980 USA hockey team’s miracle on ice or Doug Flutie’s hail-mary miracle in 1984, these events refer to favorable situations that competitors themselves did not even fathom. Northern Iowa’s game winner against Texas serves as a prime example of this.
One of many upsets that occurred this year, the Cinderella sleeper of Northern Iowa took on sixth seeded University of Texas in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The Panthers, winners of the Missouri Valley Conference and hosting an overall record of 23-12, had been in this position before.
Growing accustomed to the role of a season spoiler as a testament to their postseason knockoff in 2010 of 1st ranked Kansas Jayhawks, this griddy squad saw the challenge of containing All-Big 12 players Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix, and Prince Ibeh as an nonchalant task.
Jeremy Morgan helped the Panthers get out to a 44-36 advantage at the break scoring 12 points and going 4-5 from the field. Rising up for a crucial block in at the 18th minute on the 6-11 Ibeh, this statement play let their opponents know they were ready to play.
Clawing back from as any as 16, however, Texas guard Isaiah Taylor stopped on the right block and floated in a teardrop that knotted up the score, 72-72 in the final minute.
With 2.7 seconds to go, a miracle shot was wishful thinking for Northern Iowa Head Coach Ben Jacobson and his team.
Panther forward Paul Jespersen meets the ball at half court. Pivoting towards the middle of the floor, the senior took two dribbles to maneuver past his Longhorn defender and chucked up a half court prayer. With the orange ball suspended in the air, Jespersen banks the shot in. Madness erupts in the Chesapeake Arena. An upset has just been added to this year’s bracket on a remarkable play.
- No. 10 Gonzaga vs. No. 2 Stanford (1999) Final Score: 82-74
A West coast rivalry emerged in the second round of 1999 NCAA Tournament. Tenth-seeded Gonzaga University took on the Pac-10 elite Stanford Cardinal.
A team stacked with tournament experience from the previous year and led by All-American forward Mark Madsen, grinding past a younger inexperienced Bulldog crew was the last thing on Stanford’s mind. Second-year coach Head Coach Dan Monson and his young Spokane team quickly grabbed the Cardinal’s attention however.
Playing in their own backyard, Gonzaga utilized this home-court advantage at the Seattle Center Coliseum to crush Stanford’s hopes of a tournament title.
Matt Santangelo, the protégé to former Bulldog John Stockon, led by example for his team. Scoring 22 points, 14 of which were in the second half, the All-WCC point guard took control in all facets racking up six rebounds and six assists.
The Bulldog’s hustle and drive proved to be the decisive factor in propelling them to victory. Gonzaga outrebounded Stanford 47-33 on the glass and used a late 20-10 swing in the second half to seal their fate with a 74-82 upset. Monson and his team continued their Cinderella run that year clinching its first ever Elite Eight appearance with a 73-72 win in the Sweet Sixteen against No. 6 Florida.
While falling to the winners of the tournament, the Uconn Huskies, this historic run by Gonzaga put their school on the map and proved to the world they were a scrappy West Coast Conference program could compete against the best.
- No. 14 Georgia State vs. No. 3 Baylor (2015) Final Score: 57-56
Nothing can replicate the bond of a father and son, just ask Georgia State Head Coach Ron Hunter and R.J Hunter. As a three-year point guard under the Panthers, this similar passion is what kept the two connected. In what could have been his final game under his father’s wing, R.J. Hunter gave his dad the most prized gift he could ask for: a first round victory in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
Trailing by 12 against third seed Baylor, this opening round match was shaping up to be an early exit for the team from Georgia. But the struggling Hunter never gave up.
After a dismal 3-point performance in the first half, the Sun Belt Player of the Year commanded one of the most memorable last minute drives in tournament history. Scoring nine points in the final two minutes, Hunter sliced the lead and pulled his Panthers within two, 56-54.
After a series of defensive stops and a missed one-and-one from Baylor’s Kenny Cherry, the Panthers handed the ball back to the player that got them to this moment. With just under ten seconds on the game clock and his father watching afar, Hunter called for the ball. The guard created some separation off a dribble exchange and pulled up from 35 feet.
Hitting nothing but net, Ron Hunter fell to the floor in disbelief. As his head coach and father, a feeling of admiration filled Hunter for his son’s gusty shot.
To the Georgia State duo and the rest of viewers that were watching, this last second upset stood as a sentimental moment between father and son.
This was an emotional win for Georgia State’s Kevin Ware as well. The same tournament that halted his career with a gruesome leg injury, the former Louisville Cardinal worked his way back to recovery and made his return back on the hardwood this time in a Panther uniform. The moment couldn’t have been any sweeter.
- No. 15 Lehigh vs. No. 2 Duke (2012) Final Score: 75-70
While C.J. McCollum has rightfully earned his starting role for the Portland Trailblazers, the Canton, Ohio native does not forget the path that brought him there. An undersized shooting guard out of Lehigh University, McCollum understood that advancing to the next level meant earning your stripes. Guiding the Mountain Hawks in 2012 to an opening round match against No. 2 Duke in the NCAA Tournament, McCollum would not allow the Blue Devils’ prestige to halt him from chasing his dream.
Entering the tourney on an eight-game win streak, No. 15 Lehigh had an undeniable chip on it shoulder. The Mountain Hawks were ready to take on an ACC heavyweight in Duke and it started in the backcourt with McCollum. Matched up against All-ACC freshman Austin Rivers and junior guard Seth Curry, McCollum made sure his name was known by the end of the game. Outshooting the Blue Devil pair with a game-high 30 points to their 26, the no-name guard meant business.
Building on McCollum’s crucial three at the 2:26 mark, the junior dished an assist to teammate Jordan Hamilton in the final minute for a go-ahead slam. With 23 seconds to spare and a 69-64 Mountain Hawk advantage, it was at that point McCollum and his team could taste victory.
The Mountain Hawks clinched two milestones that day being the first time in program history they defeated Duke and advanced to the round of 32.
- No. 15 Middle Tennessee vs. No. 2 Michigan State (2016) Final Score: 90-81
The round of 64 is always one that is prominent with upsets, but in the case of second seed Michigan State, only the unwise would have been foolish enough to predict a first round exit for Hall of Fame Head Coach Tom Izzo and his Spartans.
On paper, the East Lansing team was all you could ask for in March. Heading into the tournament on a nine-game win streak, a Final Four finalist in last year’s tournament, and equipped with presumably the player of the year in forward Denzel Valentine, this Big-10 powerhouse was not a team to be tampered with. But then emerged a team with nothing to lose in Middle Tennessee State.
The Blue Raiders shocked the world in their 90-81 defeat of Michigan State. A match which the Conference USA team led the entire time, brackets were busted, seniors were devastated, and most importantly expectations had been crushed in this unimaginable victory.
ESPN reported that out of 13.02 million brackets, 22.3 percent had the East Lansing team winning it all. This was an honorary stat Reggie Upshaw and his Blue Raiders hoped to annihilate. The forward kept his team on pace leading Middle Tennessee with 21 points.
A strong outing defensively against Valentine also propelled Middle Tennessee to victory. A triple-double threat with an average of 19.2 points per game, Valentine was held to 5-13 shooting night for 13 points. Middle Tennessee’s defense proved to be too much for the Naismith candidate committing six turnovers in the game.
What started as a promising season evolved into a bitter upset. Victims of last year’s final four defeat to Duke, the Spartans were ready to make another run in the tournament but came short. Ending arguably one of Izzo’s best year as a head coach at 29-6, this moment will go down in history as one of the most heartbreaking upsets.
- No. 15 Norfolk State vs. No. 2 Missouri (2012) Final Score: 86-84
The sky was the limit for the Big-12 champion Missouri Tigers. Boasting an overall record of 30-5, furnished with the best starting five in conference, and finishing at the 3rd ranking in the AP Polls that year, there was no doubt that this well-crafted crew would give regular appearing squads such as Duke, UNC, and Kansas a run for their money.
Earning a March Madness bid, this Midwest team had sure goals of their sixth ever Elite Eight appearance but underestimated the heart of hungry team and a relentless senior.
Winners of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Norfolk had never clinched a bid to the big dance. But just like many no-name teams, the Spartans did not take this opportunity for granted. Led by the 6-10 center Kyle O’Quinn, the two-time MEAC Player of the Year assembled one of his finest games on both ends of the floor.
O’ Quinn led all players with 26 points and 14 rebounds. One of the most pivotal plays the current Knicks’ forward made was with 34 seconds remaining in the game.
With the score tied at 81, the center fielded an air ball shot from teammate Chris McEahin. Soaring high, O’Quinn drew contact and converted the tip in giving his team some crucial momentum.
Briskly turning towards his bench in an energized Omaha center, O’ Quinn and his Spartans knew this moment was theirs for the taking.
The Tigers set up a play for senior leader Phil Pressey. Moving down the left wing, the guard put up a last second three that clanked off the iron. From there, another Cinderella story was birthed.
Nobody believed that the Spartans would be able to win, nobody but themselves. Now they had to put doubters to rest with their triumph over Mizzou.
- No. 10 Davidson vs. No. 6 Wisconsin (2008) Final Score: 73-56
Backtrack eight years ago and the phrase “Steph Curry” would not be a figment of anyone’s imagination. While the Golden State superstar continues to dazzle NBA fans with his majestic-like play, 2008 was a year overcoming odds and fighting for recognition.
At 25.9 points per game, Davidson point guard Stephen Curry showed high promise to a handful of NBA scouts. Single-handedly leading his Wildcats to its third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, an opportunity emerged for the Charlotte native to splurge his talents on national television. The sophomore did not fail to impress.
With two 30-point games in his first ever NCAA appearance and exterminating 24th ranked Gonzaga and eighth ranked Georgetown, critics were amazed by the ability this 6-3 sharpshooter possessed.
Looking to extend the Wildcat’s win streak to 25 games that year, Davidson paired up against another heavyweight in sixth ranked Wisconsin. A disciplined team credited for their hardnosed guard play in Michael Flowers and Trevon Hughes, the Badgers’ defense could not dismantle Curry’s streaky and confident shooting from the floor.
The third year player outscored Wisconsin by himself, 22-20, in the second half, assisting his team to its first Elite Eight in 39 years. This marked one of the best Cinderella runs by a Southern Conference team and player in March Madness history.
With stars like Lebron James in attendance during this playoff intensified match, Curry’s March performance stood as a sure foreshadowing of what the NBA should expect.
- No. 13 NIU vs. No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks (2010): Final Score 69-67
It’s a rare occasion to see the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team down. Coached by one of the best in Bill Self and one of the most attractive programs for recruits in the nation, the coaching and program prestige should be a valid indicator of a strong tournament run in March. Thirteenth seeded Northern Iowa had other plans in store however.
Outscoring the Jayhawks 36-28 at the half, the Panthers chances of an upset were heavy. Point guard Ali Farokmanesh was not afraid of the big moment. With a three-point advantage and 40 seconds left in the game, the Northern Iowa point guard crossed half court on the right wing of the court.
Any sane player would take this opportunity to hold the ball out and milk the clock against a powerhouse like Kansas; any player but Farokmanesh. Farokmanesh gathered himself and let the ball fly for a deep ball splash. Just like that, Kansas’ March dreams had been stripped by a nonconference team.
- No. 12 Santa Clara vs. No. 2 Arizona (1993) Final Score: 64-61
While the infamous Fab Five starters of Michigan were breaking headlines for the best freshman-knit crew to be assembled, another West coast powerhouse was also turning heads. With only four losses on the year and a conference record of 17-1, there was no doubt the 1993 Arizona Wildcats had plans of hoisting the coveted NCAA championship trophy. Yet even the greatest teams have their fair share of defeats.
For the second consecutive year, an first round loss concluded Head Coach Lute Olson and his Wildcats’ season.
Santa Clara University, an inexperienced squad featuring first year Head Coach Dick Davey and dynamic freshman Steve Nash proved to be the root of this.
A first year guard hailing from British Columbia, Nash held his own against noted NBA prospect and Arizona weapon Damon Stoudamire. Starting only his fourth game, Nash held the lefty floor general to one of his worst shooting performances ever with an 0-7 shooting night and a total of six points.
The scrappy freshman did all the little things to keep the Wildcats at bay and put his Broncos in position to win.Nash scored eight of his ten points from behind the line, including six straight free throws in the last 30 seconds to ice the game.
Pete Eisenrich’s game-high 19 points proved to be huge for Santa Clara . A baseline jumper gave Santa Clara the lead back with 2:49 remaining in the game. For the first team this season, the Wildcats were on their heels.
With two defenders clinched on him, Stoudamire put up a Hail Mary heave from three to have his shot hit the back rim. Thus, the Cinderella of Santa Clara was born. This was the second time in NCAA history that a No. 15 seed knocked off a No. 2 seed.
- No. 11 VCU vs. No. 1 Kansas (2011) Final Score: 71-61
The shot clock reads 56.3 seconds and the score is 63-57. If you’re Head Coach Bill Self you’d suspect your No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks would be leading over a small A-10 conference team like Virginia Commonwealth University. The Big-12 Tournament champion that year and hoisting a record of 35 wins and 3 losses, it was clear this first-seed team had larger things in store after this game.
But instead you’re on the losing end. Clinging onto a six point lead Head Coach Shaka Smart is wary of the special situation he has and calls a timeout. He draws up a play to milk the clock. Senior guard Joey Rodriguez finds his way out of defensive trap and makes the biggest play of the night to Bradford Burgess for the backdoor lob. The Rams now have an eight-point cushion with 1:51 to go.
A missed jumper from Kansas guard Brady Morningstar on the other end sends VCU fans to their feet. The Alamodome erupts. Could this really be? An upset against the number one team in the nation? A team who for sure should have taken the crown with NBA-bound stars like the Marcus and Markief Morris and Thomas Robinson?
In this David versus Goliath matchup the VCU Rams prevailed, becoming just the third No. 11 seed in NCAA history to advance to the Final Four. A journey that featured wins over USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State, and now Kansas, VCU proved to the world that their bid to the Final Four was well deserved.
- No. 11 George Mason vs. No. 1 UConn (2006) Final Score: 86-84
Rudy Gay was a force to be reckoned with during his sophomore year of college. Averaging 15.2 points per game, a finalist for the Naismith Award, and the UConn Huskies’ stronghold at the forward position, the 6-8” Maryland product would undoubtedly be a central figure in his team’s journey toward the NCAA Tournament.
Clinching the number one seed with an overall record of 30-4, the Huskies cruised past teams such as Albany, Kentucky, and Washington on their way to the Elite Eight. Despite a dominant regular season hosting eight weeks at the number one ranking, it was quickly overshadowed by one the most notable Cinderella teams in tournament history, the George Mason Patriots.
A small Virginia team out of the Atlantic-10 conference, had fought all year for this moment. Overshadowed in previous years by other prominent programs in the area such as West Virginia, UVA, and Virginia Tech, the Patriots showed everyone it was their year to shine.
Heading into the big dance with a 27-8 record, a major step from last years 16-13 season and grabbing key wins against Wichita State and 25th ranked James Madison George Mason found its mark as the 11 seed in the East. Defeating Michigan State, North Carolina, and Wichita State, first year Head Coach Jim Larranaga knew this matchup against UConn would be deemed as championship game for his team. So they played as if it was the championship.
Sending this game into overtime, the Patriots performed with poise knocking down five of six shots in the additional five minutes, including a baseline fade away from Folarin Campbell to give the Patriots a hard fought 86-84 victory. For George Mason, this moment couldn’t have felt more surreal: its first ever trip to the Final Four and a knockoff of the team who was predicted to win it all.
Despite a 20-point outing from the All-American Gay, a feeling of emptiness pierced through the forward capping off a 30-win season empty-handed. The game concluded with the George Mason band mash up of “Livin’ on a Prayer”. For coach Larranaga and his team, their prayer was surely answered that night.