10 Most Riveting College Basketball Games in the Modern Era

College basketball has been filled with magic moments. I was a little too young for the 1957 Final Four and I was still in college for the 1968 UCLA-Houston game at the Astrodome, but I’ve had the privilege of witnessing seven of the games I consider to be among the Top 10 most riveting in modern day history.

For what it’s worth, here’s my personal list. Feel free to add your opinion.

1. North Carolina 54, Kansas 53, in triple overtime, 1957 NCAA championship game.
I chose this game No. 1 because the 32-0 Tar Heels, who defeated the Jayhawks in Kansas City in what was likely the most exciting final ever played, became the first team from the old South to win a title, making college basketball the NCAA tournament a truly national event and replacing the NIT as the sport’s official championship. The rosters of the two teams spoke volumes about the growing diversity in the sport. Carolina, a university in an essentially Protestant state, had a roster that was filled with Irish Catholic players and a Jewish star, Lenny Rosenbluth, all from New York City. Kansas, a rural school in a white state, featured legendary African-American seven-foot center Wilt Chamblerlain from Philadelphia.

By all rights, Frank McGuire’s Tar Heels, who needed triple overtime to get by Michigan State, 74-70, less than 24 hours earlier, should have been exhausted. But they sagged everyone onto Chamberlain in a collapsing zone. Chamberlain scored 23 points, but only had two in the final 10 minutes. Carolina won despite the fact Rosenbluth fouled out with 1:45 to play in regulation. In the first overtime, benches cleared after a hard foul on Chamberlain. Carolina coach Frank McGuire claimed a Kansas assistant punched him in the stomach during the fracas. The pro-Jayhawks crowd (the game was in Kansas City) surged menacingly toward the court. Police had to restore order. Kansas led 53-52 with 20 seconds left in the third overtime when Chamberlain blocked a shot — and then another. But Carolina’s Joe Quigg, who played the final 30 minutes with four personals, scored the deciding points when he made two free throws after being fouled by Maurice King with six seconds to play. Kansas attempted to get the ball to Chamberlain on the final possession, but Quigg batted down a lob pass from Ron Loneski.

2. Duke 104, Kentucky 103 in overtime. 1992 NCAA Regional final.
There is a reason Duke All American forward Christian Laettner built a reputation as Mr. March in NCAA tournament competition. As a sophomore, Laettner hit a game winning jumper to beat Connecticut in the 1990 East Region finals. But nothing topped his performance against Kentucky in the 1992 Region finals at the Philadelphia Spectrum. The perfect player played the perfect game. He shot 10-for-10 from the field and 10 for 10 from the foul line to finish with 31 points in what some regard to be the berst college game ever played. But he saved the best for last. The Blue Devils and Wildcats scored on the final five possessions of the game, trading the lead each time. Kentucky took a 103-102 lead with 2.9 seconds left on Sean Woods’ driving 10-foot bank shot. Then, after a timeout and a decision by Kentucky’s Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino double Laettner and not guard the inbounds pass, Grant Hill threw the ball three quarters of the way down court to Laettner, who turned and hit the winning shot at the buzzer, setting the stage for the Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils to win a second consecutive national championship.

3. NC State 54, Houston 52. 1983 NCAA championship game.
Jim Valvano’s Wolfpack completed their improbable run to ai national championship by pulled off the ultimate upset over the high flying Cougars in a game that will always been memorialized as the biggest upset in tournament history. The Pack had to defeat North Carolina (with Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins) and No. 4 Virginia with its 7-3 center Ralph Sampson in the ACC tournament just to reach the NCAAs. In their first round game, they trailed Pepperdine by six with 24 seconds left on overtime and won. They trailed No. 6 UNLV by 12 in the second half and won. In the regional title game,k they trailed Virginia by 10 and won. Finally, in the championship, they were matched up against top-ranked Houston, with Akeem “The Dream” Olajuwon and Clyde “the Glide” Drexler, a team that had won 26 straight games and had taken basketball into the 21st century with its Phi Slamma Jamma above the rim offense. No one gave the Wolfpack much of a chance. But there they were, tied at 52-52 and with the ball in the final 15 seconds. Guard Dereck Whittenburg launched a 30-foot prayer in the final moments that 6-7 forward Lorenzo Charles, who slipped down the lane uncontested, caught two feet from the basket and dunked at the buzzer for the winning basket.

4. Villanova, 66, Georgetown 64. 1985 NCAA championship game.
The Big East held its own block party in Lexington at the Final Four, with top-ranked Georgetown, second-ranked St. John’s and Villanova making guest appearances. After mighty Georgetown defeated the Johnnies for a third straight time in the semis, no one gave Villanova, which hadn;t been ranked in the Top 20 all year, much of a chance. But no one expected the Cats to play a near perfect game, setting a Final Four record for highest field goal percentage– a sizzling 78.6 on 22 of 28 shooting against a storied rival that played the best half court defense in the country and was being compared to the Bill Russell University of San Francisco teams of the 50’s and the Alcindor-UCLA teams in the late 60’s. Rollie Massimino’s cardiac Cats not only weathered Georgetown’s suffocating pressure defense but they also made nine of 10 shots in the second half. The lead changed handed nine times, but Nova jumped in front with 2:36 left and held on for a startling upset. Nova center Ed Pinckney, who scored 16 points and had six rebounds, limited the Hoyas’ three-time All American Patrick Ewing to just 14 points and 5 rebounds.

5. NC State 103, Maryland 100. 1974 ACC championship.
The top-ranked Wolfpack, riding the crest of a 38 point, 13 rebound performance by 7-3 center Tom Burleson, overcame a 13 point first half deficit to endure in overtime to win the greatest game ever played in ACC history. Rules at the time allowed only one conference team to advance to the NCAA tournament, so the Terps were left on the outside looking in. Maryland, which had lost three straight ACC championship games, will always go down as the best team never to play in the tournament. The Terps were so upset, it declined an invite to the NIT. The Pack went on to win the national title, rallying from a seven point deficit to defeat a Bill Walton-led UCLA team, 78-75, in double overtime during the semi-finals in nearby Greensboro before beating Marquette in the finals. The game featured five players who received All American honors in their careers– David Thompson and Burleson of NC State and Tom McMillen, John Lucas and Len Elmore of Maryland and 11 players who were drafted by the NBA.

6. North Carolina 63, Georgetown 62. 1982 NCAA championship.
This was the country’s first sighting of Michael Jordan, UNC’s freshman prodigy who would go onto to become the greatest player of his generation. Trailing 62-61, UNC called timeout with 32 seconds to play, Dean Smith called timeout to set up the final play. Figuring the Hoyas, with their 6-9 freshman shot blocking machine Patrick Ewing, would try to surround his two stars Sam Perkins and James Worthy, Smith thought the Heels could swing the ball around to Jordan for an open jumpers. “Knock it in, Michael,” Smith said. “Everybody get on board. the play worked to perfection. Jordan knocked down an 18-footer with 17 seconds remaining in front of a massive crowd of 61,612 at the New Orleans Superdome. Georgetown still had time to get off a final shot, but Georgetown guard Fred Brown, perhaps confused by UNC’s scrambling defense, threw the ball directly into the hands of Worthy and Smith had his first title.

7. Houston 71, UCLA 69. Jan. 20, 1968.
UCLA won 10 national championships under the legendary John Wooden, but the Bruins weren’t totally invincible, as second-ranked Houston showed in this stunning upset of the top-ranked Bruins during the first regular-season college basketball game to be televised nationally, syndicated to 120 stations in 40 states. Wooden ,whose team has won 47 consecutive games, had been reluctant to play this regular season game because he felt the personal matchup between and Elvin Hayes could take away from team aspect of the game, but agreed to play after being told by AD J.D. Morgan it would be worth $80,000 to the school. The game was held on an elevated court inside the Astrodome before a crowd of 52,693. The Cougars sealed the victory when Hayes scored the last of his 39 points on a pair of free throws with 28 seconds to play, but the Bruins rationalized the loss victory because Alcindor suffered through double vision in one eye and the worst game of his college career.

Alcindor missed 14 of 18 shots and scored 15 points and Hayes blocked three of his shots. Alcindor was disturbed when he saw the cover of Sports Illustrated the next week that showed Hayes shooting a jumper over him. Alcindor was so galled, he taped the picture on his locker. He and his teammates seethed for two months, then took out their frustrations on the Cougars two months later in the national semi-finals in Los Angeles, rolling to a 44 point lead en route to a 101-69 victory.

8. Notre Dame 71, UCLA 70. Jan. 19, 1974.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since Digger Phelps’ greatest victory. The Bruins, who had won seven consecutive national championships, were in closest thing college basketball had to an unstoppable force when they arrived in South Bend for their annual game against Notre Dame. The Walton Gang had won 88 games.

But the Irish put of the most improbable runs ever, scoring the final 12 points of the game to end the streak. Center John Shumate had 24 points and 11 rebounds and guard Gary Brokaw went for 25 points, but it was Dwight Clay who forever cemented his name in college basketball lore when he made a jumper from the right corner with 29 seconds to give the Irish the lead. The Bruins had five chances to win the game on the final possession, but Tommy Curtis missed. Bill Walton, playing with a bruised back, missed. David Meyers missed a tip. Pete Trgovich missed another tip and Meyers missed another tip before Shumate grabbed the defensive rebound to end the threat at the buzzer, igniting a huge celebration by the students, who stormed the court.

9. Syracuse 127, UConn 117. (six overtimes OT). 2009 Big East Tournament quarterfinals.
The Orange outlasted the Huskies in six overtimes in the longest college basketball game ever played at Madison Square Garden and the greatest game in Big East tournament history. The game took three hours and 46 minutes to to complete and ended Friday morning at 1:22 am . Point guard Jonny Flynn led the ‘Cuse with 34 points and 11 assists, playing 67 of 70 minutes. Paul Harris had 29 points and 22 rebounds. Point guard A.J. Price finished with 33 points and 10 assists for UConn. Six players scored 20 points or more, seven players played at least 50 minutes and eight players fouled out. The Orange finally wore the Huskies out, scoring the first 10 points of the sixth overtime. Syracuse returned later that night to defeat West Virginia in the semi-finals and defeated Pitt in the championship game.

10. Michigan State 75, Indiana State 64, 1979 NCAA championship game.
The NCAA tournament went from a college event to Super Bowl status when Big Ten champion Michigan State played unbeaten 29-0 Indiana State in Salt Lake City and the first of many historic matchups between the Sycamore’s Larry Bird and Michigan State’s Magic Johnson, two iconic figures who would later go on to become rivals in the legendary NBA championship series between Boston and Los Angeles during the 80’s. The game generated the largest basketball game rating (24.1) and share (38) in TV history. Johnson scored 24 points for the Spartans, who dominated the tournament and kept drama to a minimum in the final by limiting the high scoring Bird to just 7 of 21 shooting.

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Dick Weiss

Dick Weiss

Writer/Columnist who has covered college hoops scene for Philly, NY Daily News. He is a member of the College Basketball writers' Hall of Fame.
Dick Weiss

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