March Madness: DeCourcy ranks best games from 30 years of NCAA Tournament coverage | NCAA Basketball
(Editor’s note: This story originally ran in March 2018 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy covering his first NCAA Tournament and Final Four).
SAN ANTONIO — One of the things I remember distinctly about the first Final Four I ever covered was a number of stories in the newspaper about police arresting various parties — including, I believe, a college assistant coach or two — for scalping their tickets. Now, we have StubHub. It is a much different world three decades later.
The building in Kansas City where Arizona, Duke, Kansas and Oklahoma gathered for the 1988 Final Four was built more for basketball. Others lament the change in recent years to playing these games in football stadiums. I believe the Final Four is right where it needs to be now. Why? See above. If the games were in arenas, tickets to Hamilton would seem cheap by comparison.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first NCAA Tournament and first Final Four I covered. I actually had a conversation about that very subject with a sportswriter on press row, expressing my belief that “domes” were the future. The other fellow is now a priest; no kidding. I’m still blessed to be at this, and I’m sure Father Kevin would be pleased to know I say a little thank-you prayer each year upon entering the court for the opportunity to continue covering the biggest college basketball games.
So, what exactly were the biggest college basketball games in those 30 years of tournaments?
I have a list right here. So many classics:
30. Villanova vs. Kentucky, Sweet 16, 1988
After spending the weekend in Birmingham covering the NCAA Southeast Region, I understood how Villanova, a team with two first-round picks — one of them top-10 — could be considered such a massive underdog its championship victory later would be included in discussions about whether No. 16 seed UMBC over No. 1 seed Virginia was, indeed, the biggest upset in tournament history. Rollie Massimino was a heck of a salesman.
I wrote for The Pittsburgh Press about how, even with star shooting guard Doug West, Massimino still was pitching the idea that Nova was outmanned. Surely not. West scored 20 points, Villanova shot 57 percent from the floor and the team held off a second-half Kentucky rally to advance to the Elite Eight. Villanova 80, Kentucky 74.
29. Arkansas vs. Texas, Elite Eight, 1990
I loved that Texas’ star players were nicknamed BMW: Lance Blanks, Travis Mays, Joey Wright. They combined for 57 points, and the Longhorns held Arkansas star Todd Day to 12, but point guard Lee Mayberry dominated for the Razorbacks with 18 points, seven assists and four steals in the Hogs’ “40 Minutes of Hell” scheme. Arkansas 88, Texas 85.
28. Marquette vs. Pitt, Sweet 16, 2003
What I remember best about this game, which preceded by one round the sizzling show Marquette’s Dwyane Wade put on against Kentucky in the regional final, was Panthers forward Donatas Zavackas getting angry with coach Ben Howland at a key point in the second half and then walking down to the end of the bench, sitting on the baseline and taking off his sneakers.
Pitt had won 11 consecutive games, but Wade’s 20-point second half surge helped the Golden Eagles build a double-digit lead. The Panthers ran off nine consecutive points and cut their deficit to a point, but that was as close as it came. Marquette 77, Pitt 74.
27. Ohio State vs. Tennessee, Sweet 16, 2007
With star freshman Greg Oden struggling with foul trouble, the Buckeyes’ massive advantage inside was mitigated. They needed an extraordinary performance from senior guard Ron Lewis; after converting the season-saving, buzzer-beating 3-pointer that helped OSU defeat Xavier in the second round, he scored 25 against the Vols and helped rally them from 20 points down. Mike Conley made the first of two free throws to break a tie with 6.5 seconds left, but missed the second, giving UT a chance at a game-winner. Oden was around to block it.
Memphis survived Texas A&M by a point in the other game in San Antonio. It was the single best set of Sweet 16 games I ever covered. Ohio State 85, Tennessee 84.
26. Michigan vs. North Carolina, 1989
Other than at funerals, I’d never seen a grown man cry. So when Dean Smith began to weep during the news conference at the close of another season, that became my story. Honestly, it caused me to understate that Glen Rice was starting to happen. He scored 34 points on 13-of-19 shooting from the field. It was impressive, and it helped UM survive 26 from J.R. Reid. But I’d seen impressive before. Michigan 92, North Carolina 87.
25. Memphis vs. Purdue, second round, 1995
I was in my second season covering the Tigers for the Commercial Appeal in Memphis. With Glenn Robinson gone, the Boilermakers were a balanced team led by forward Cuonzo Martin. They were the No. 3 seed, Memphis the 6. Their close game was tied with a half-minute left when Boilers guard Porter Roberts made one of two free throws. Memphis killed all but the final seconds, and point guard Chris Garner initiated a move to the lane, nearly lost the ball, recovered and then shot an 8-footer.
It rolled off the rim but was rebounded and put back on the opposite side by power forward David Vaughn — his path cleared by center Lorenzen Wright’s surreptitious tug of Roy Hairston’s jersey. OK, it wasn’t that well disguised; Hairston’s jersey still was disfigured when the final buzzer sounded. The refs didn’t call it. Memphis 77, Purdue 75.
24. Michigan vs. Cincinnati, national semifinals, 1992
This was my first in-person look at the Fab Five, and they weren’t fabulous. Well, Chris Webber was, with 16 points and 11 rebounds, but Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard shot a combined 7 of 22. It was up to forward James Voskuil, one of the players supplanted by Steve Fisher’s decision to start his five frosh, to save the game with nine points in 14 minutes, including a 3-point play that pushed UM into the lead for good and a 3-pointer with three minutes left that stretched out a two-point lead.
It was interesting that after all he’d done to win to put the Wolverines into the title game, the Fab Fivers ignored Voskuil at the buzzer and celebrated among themselves. Michigan 76, Cincinnati 72.
23. Ohio State vs. Iowa State, second round, 2013
The Buckeyes were the No. 2 seed in the West Region but had a terrible time guarding the Cyclones’ 3-point-heavy attack. Korie Lucious made five 3-pointers and the team shot 12 of 25 from deep, which led to a tie game inside the final half-minute, with OSU veteran point guard Aaron Craft holding the ball for a final shot.
Craft dribbled away all but the final 5 seconds, and then teammate LaQuinton Ross smartly crossed in front of him. That forced a defensive switch that left power forward George Niang on Craft, and he gave Craft too much room. Craft was only a .300 deep shooter that season, but he hit that one. Ohio State 78, Iowa State 75.
22. Oklahoma State vs. Saint Joseph’s, Elite Eight, 2004
I don’t think I’ve ever felt worse for a losing coach after a game than for Phil Martelli, who’d built a sensational Hawks team that won every regular-season game it played, had the unbeaten streak broken in the conference tournament but stood just seconds from advancing to the Final Four when State’s Joey Graham began a drive, stumbled and seemed to lose control of the ball. John Lucas III was open on the left wing when Hawks guard Pat Carroll lunged at what appeared to be a game-clinching steal. But Graham recovered more quickly than anticipated, and he tossed the ball. Immediately to Lucas for a game-winning 3-pointer. Oklahoma State 64, Saint Joseph’s 62.
21. Kentucky vs. Michigan, Elite Eight, 2014
With center Willie Cauley-Stein injured and unavailable following UK’s win in the Sweet 16, the Wildcats had to get 15 minutes out of little-used freshman Marcus Lee — and he shot 5 of 7 from the field, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked a couple of shots. Classmate Aaron Harrison completed the middle opus of his buzzer-beating 2014 trilogy — he also won games against Louisville in the Sweet 16 and Wisconsin at the Final Four — by stepping back into a 22-footer with 2.3 seconds left. Kentucky 75, Michigan 72.
20. Illinois vs. Arizona, Elite Eight, 2005
A lot of people are going to wonder why this isn’t higher on the list. Here’s why: It was great for eight minutes. No doubt Arizona’s Channing Frye (24 points, 12 rebounds) and Hassan Adams (21 points, 8 rebounds) were sensational all night. But Illinois’ three-guard attack was going nowhere.
Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head and their teammates trailed by 14 points with 3:20 left. Then Head made a 3-pointer, and the comeback was on. The Illini caught Arizona in the final seconds and tied it, then prevailed in overtime. But only by a point. The end was amazing, and it deserves a spot on this list, just not as prominent as some might expect. Illinois 90, Arizona 89.
19. Texas A&M vs. UNI, second round, 2016
This was less consequential than Illinois’ comeback, but more amazing. The Aggies trailed Northern Iowa by 12 with 35 seconds remaining. That game is over. Just ask Leonard Hamilton. Except it wasn’t. Texas A&M desperately pressured in the backcourt, and UNI committed four turnovers that allowed the Aggies to run off 14 points to just two for the Panthers. Had any one of UNI’s blunders been avoided, it would have won the game instead of winding up in overtime. And no one was surprised that the team losing the massive late lead had little stomach for the extra period. Texas A&M 92, UNI 88.
18. Kentucky vs. Notre Dame, Elite Eight, 2015
Kentucky’s unbeaten season reached 38-0 that night in Cleveland, but only after a mesmerizing game that was tied at half and in which the Irish led by 5 with 5:22 remaining. But UK got a huge 3-point play from center Karl-Anthony Towns, a 3-pointer from guard Aaron Harrison to get back into the lead, and two made free throws from Andrew Harrison with 6 seconds left to put UK in front. The Irish still had time, and they went for the win with guard Jerian Grant rushing the ball upcourt. But he had to shoot over two defenders and did not connect. Kentucky 68, Notre Dame 66.
17. Kentucky vs. Stanford, national semifinals, 1998
Jeff Sheppard’s performance for Kentucky — 5 of 7 on 3s, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 26 points — was among the best I’ve seen at the Final Four and pushed UK past the Cardinal in overtime. Kentucky 86, Stanford 85.
16. UTEP vs. Kansas, second round, 1992
We know Don “The Bear” Haskins as coach of the 1966 Texas Western team that made history in the NCAA Tournament by starting five African-American players in the championship game. But he also was one of the game’s greats, and he decided he could take down the top-seeded Jayhawks with a spread offense he installed the day before the game. It worked. KU struggled to defend against the Miners’ quickness and allowed 18 points to Johnny Melvin and 14 to Marlon Maxey. They gave The Bear one last big tournament moment. UTEP 68, Kansas 60.
15. Kentucky vs. Massachusetts, national semifinals, 1996
Here’s how you know if someone has been paying attention to college basketball in the past three decades. Ask them which team was the greatest NCAA champion of the expanded bracket era. If they say someone other than UK in ’96, they’re either a Duke fan (which is fine) or someone who failed to understand how brilliant this team was. Defeating this great UMass team, which beat UK earlier in the season and lost only one other game, was a perfect example. Nine different players scored for the Wildcats, and it seemed like nine of them ganged up on Marcus Camby to “hold” him to 25 points. Kentucky 81, UMass 74.
14. Michigan vs. Oklahoma State, first round, 2017
When the bracket showed the Wolverines and Cowboys would be meeting in the first round in Indianapolis, it seemed so perfectly set up to produce a classic it figured the game couldn’t possibly live up to expectations. Oklahoma State had the No. 1 offense in college basketball; Michigan had No. 2. Could they possibly produce a game worthy of that? It was an incredible display. The Cowboys’ Jawun Evans scored 21 points and passed for 12 assists; the Wolverines’ Derrick Walton went for 26 points and 11 assists. It was the kind of basketball game that had all but disappeared during the early 2000s, when physicality and defense ruled. Michigan 92, Oklahoma State 91.
13. Arkansas vs. Memphis, Sweet 16, 1995
The game that was produced by the Tigers’ last-second victory over Purdue — and a tight battle between the Razorbacks and Syracuse — was this classic in which Memphis guard Mingo Johnson stung Arkansas with an unexpected 32 points and the Tigers led by as many as 12 in the second half. Arkansas rallied behind Corliss Williamson’s low-block dominance to cut that to a point inside the final 15 seconds. Then, point guard Corey Beck began a drive that led Memphis’ Chris Garner to react by reaching out his hand toward Beck’s chest. Official David Hall called it a handchecking foul. “That doesn’t make an ounce of sense,” Tigers coach Larry Finch said. Beck made one free throw to force overtime, and Arkansas controlled the extra period. Arkansas 96, Memphis 91.
12. Indiana vs. Duke, Sweet 16, 2002
At some point in the second half, with Indiana controlling the game against the defending NCAA champions and heavy favorites to repeat, coach Mike Davis turned to Andy Katz and me on press row and said, “We’re going to win this game!” It felt a little like Babe Ruth calling his shot, except Mike would be Babe Ruth in that analogy, which doesn’t really work. Hoosiers defensive ace Dane Fife held SN player of the year Jay Williams to 6-of-19 shooting, and IU’s Jared Jeffries punished the Devils with 24 points and 15 rebounds. Indiana 74, Duke 73.
This was the game Scotty Thurman won with what Razorbacks fans call “The Shot”, not to be confused with Michael Jordan’s “The Shot” or any number of other last-second baskets that surely could use a better descriptor.
Duke’s Grant Hill finally had unleashed all of his powers after a halftime harangue from Mike Krzyzewski during a Sweet 16 game against Marquette, and he’d begun carrying the Devils through the tournament. He delivered 12 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists. But thanks to Arkansas’ ability to squeeze loose the basketball — Corey Beck and Clint McDaniel were wizards — there also were nine turnovers.
It was a tie game with 50 seconds left when Arkansas ran the shot clock down and center Dwight Stewart passed to Thurman with the buzzer just a couple seconds away. Thurman tossed in a 3-pointer over Tony Lang’s defense that proved to be the game-winner. Arkansas 76, Duke 72.
10. Kansas vs. Memphis, championship, 2008
The greatest Final Four ever assembled was not the greatest Final Four ever contested. No. 1 Memphis blew out No. 1 UCLA in the first semi, and No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 1 North Carolina was an absolute rout. The two games were decided by a total of 33 points. The title game was a curious affair, including Bill Self’s near-calamitous decision to play a box-and-one against Memphis’ Chris Douglas-Roberts — which gave Derrick Rose the freedom to tear through the KU defense and help the Tigers build a 9-point lead.
Then the collapse began, including a huge turnover and five missed free throws and ending when Mario Chalmers hit a 3-pointer against a defense in utter disarray that tied the game the game and forced overtime. There was little doubt what would happen in those five extra minutes. Kansas 75, Memphis 68.
9. Arizona vs. Kentucky, championship, 1997
Arizona had begun that NCAA Tournament fortunate to have earned a No. 4 seed after finishing with a 19-9 record, but then came the Wildcats’ Sweet 16 upset over No. 1 Kansas — which entered the game 34-1 — and everything seemed to change. They became a great team that night.
Looking back, why not? They had four future NBA players in their backcourt rotation. Kentucky managed to remain a terrific team even after a season-ending injury to star guard Derek Anderson, with four pros in their lineup and another, freshman Jamaal Magloire, coming off the bench. The duel between Wildcats never was beautiful; with what felt like a constant breeze blowing through Indy’s RCA Dome, the teams shot a combined 40 percent. But Miles Simon was a work of art that night, scoring 30 points — including 14 of 17 free throws. Anthony Epps’ 3-point forced overtime for Kentucky, but only delayed the result. Arizona 84, Kentucky 79.
8. Kansas vs. Duke, Elite Eight, 2018
One can’t claim recency bias here, because if it were a factor KU-Duke would have been top-3. It was that good. Always tense, always in doubt, the Devils and Jayhawks entered the game as championship-quality teams aware only one could play for the title the following weekend. This weekend.
Duke had multiple chances in the final minute of regulation to secure another Final Four berth, but the Devils failed to defend the 3-point line against Svi Mykhailiuk’s game-tying jumpshot and senior Grayson Allen’s pull-up at the buzzer rolled off the rim to force OT. Does Kansas win every big overtime game? Feels that way. Kansas 85, Duke 81.
7. UConn vs. Duke, national semifinals, 2004
This was Duke’s game. The Devils had it. They got Huskies All-American Emeka Okafor into foul trouble, and he played only 22 minutes. They held an 8-point lead with 3:28 left. Then Duke’s bigs started to foul out trying to contain Okafor: Shelden Williams, Shavlik Randolph and eventually Nick Horvath.
The Devils could not prevent a 12-0 UConn run, four of those points from Okafor in the final 80 seconds. There was no one left to stop him. UConn 79, Duke 78.
6. North Carolina vs. Kentucky, Elite Eight, 2017
Either one of these teams was good enough to win the championship, but it was UK’s misfortune that a mid-season injury to star point guard De’Aaron Fox led to a brief swoon that dropped the Wildcats onto the No. 2 seed line. That meant playing Carolina in the South Region final.
Fox’s first-half foul trouble helped UNC establish control, with All-American Justin Jackson scoring 19 points. But the Wildcats rallied from a seven-point deficit in the final minute and tied it on an acrobatic 3-pointer by Malik Monk with 10 seconds.
That left enough time, though, for Carolina to set up Luke Maye to become a Tar Heels legend with his game-winning jumper from the right wing. North Carolina 75, Kentucky 73.
5. Connecticut vs. Duke, championship, 1999
Duke entered the game with a single loss and was an overwhelming favorite — but too many failed to notice the Huskies only lost twice that season and were no one’s underdog.
The Huskies’ Jake Voskuhl and Kevin Freeman did a great defensive job on Devils All-American Elton Brand, holding him just eight shots. UConn guard Khalid El-Amin made the biggest basket with a sweeping drive down the left side, then stretched the lead to three points with two free throws inside the final six seconds. Duke shooter Trajan Langdon tried to get off a 3-pointer to tie, but fumbled the ball and handed UConn its first title under coach Jim Calhoun. UConn 77, Duke 74.
4. Villanova vs. North Carolina, championship, 2016
The most thrilling ending in modern tournament history capped a terrific game that saw each team prove itself as championship material — right down to the fact each ended the game with a heroic shot.
The off-balance 3-pointer by North Carolina’s Marcus Paige was more incredible, his leg-kick to keep himself airborne before launching his shot an absolute marvel of aerodynamics. But the right-wing 3 by Kris Jenkins came after Paige’s shot had tied the game with 4.7 seconds left, so that is the one we’ll remember best. Villanova 77, North Carolina 74.
3. Kansas vs. Oklahoma, championship, 1988
This was the first Final Four I covered, and honestly what I saw in the first 20 minutes of the championship game was hard to capture in words. It was the best 20 minutes of basketball I’ve seen covering college hoops. The halftime score was 50-50. I was dizzy after watching all that.
The second half couldn’t possibly live up to it, but Danny Manning continued his dominance right up until he made the clinching free throws. The final tally: 31 points 18 rebounds, 5 steals, 2 blocks. It was so memorable I can recall the 31/18 line without looking it up. The team is remembered as “Danny and the Miracles,” and certainly he carried the Jayhawks to the title, but Milt Newton and Kevin Pritchard were a combined 12 of 13 from the field that night. Danny didn’t do it alone. Kansas 83, Oklahoma 79.
2. Duke vs. UNLV, national semifinals, 1991
I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating. I saw less of this game than I would have wanted. I wanted to see every second. I’d planned to write the semifinal game between Kansas and North Carolina quickly so I could devote full attention to the main attraction. Then Dean Smith got himself thrown out of the KU-UNC game, and it became a story. I think they brought official Pete Pavia in to talk to the media; that could be a false recollection. But Smith said this: “I simply said, ‘Pete, how much time do I have?’ I asked him that three times, and he answered with a technical.”
Once that all was squared away, there was enough time to see enough of Duke-Vegas to know there were few games ever like it, and to recognize that Bobby Hurley’s 3-pointer with the Devils down 5 points late in the game was an incredible moment that gets overlooked because it didn’t end the game. It just decided it. Duke 79, UNLV 77.
1. Duke vs. Kentucky, regional final, 1992
It was everything one could want a sporting event to be, and those who were there get to say they were there for the rest of their lives. I was there. I saw Sean Wood’s ridiculous banked half-hook over Christian Laettner. I knew the game was over at that point, with 2.2 seconds left. I nonetheless saw Hill pass the ball downcourt to Laettner, who caught it, made a move to get himself in rhythm shoot, and made the 17-foot jumpshot that is the most famous of any shot in college basketball history.
I have seen that play hundreds of times, but always from the television replay angle, sometimes in slow motion. I wish I could remember it as I saw it that night. I was seated in a press seat near to the Kentucky bench, so I was close the opposite foul line. I can picture many of the great plays I’ve seen from the angle I originally watched: Jenkins shot from right above me on the raised court in Houston, David Reid’s stunning knockout in a 1996 gold medal Olympic boxing match, Steven Gerrard’s mistaken backward header setting up Luis Suarez’ clinching goal for Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup.
I can’t see Laettner’s shot from my press seat, though.
Maybe it was too perfect, something one is only allowed to experience once. Duke 104, Kentucky 103.