Ranking the top 10 game-winners in NCAA Tournament history

Ranking the top 10 game-winners in NCAA Tournament history

You want March Madness? Relive the greatest last-second game-winners in NCAA Tournament history. Bonus: we’ve got video!

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Mar 25, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Mar 25, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Rewinding with John Lucas two decades after he shot Oklahoma State into the Final Four brought up memories of all sorts of other game-winners and buzzer-beaters during March Madness. 

When I went looking for some of those shots, I found myself watching all sorts of videos. Some grainy. Some high-def. 

All fun.

(Side note: you can actually go watch all of OSU’s game against St. Joe’s. Or you can just check out those exciting final seconds.)

So as March Madness kicks into high gear this week, why not look at the 10 best game-winners in NCAA Tournament history? Not all of them were buzzer-beaters, but I decided to only consider shots that came in the final 10 seconds of the game.

That meant a pull-up jumper by then-North Carolina freshman Michael Jordan in the 1982 national title game got left out. 

MJ hit that shot with 15 seconds left.

Otherwise, I judged game winners on the difficulty of the shot and the stakes of the moment. Of course, all March Madness games have high stakes with the win-or-go-home nature of the NCAA Tournament. But the later in the tournament, the higher the stakes.

Let’s go.

10. Donte Ingram, Loyola-Chicago, 2018

The Ramblers and Sister Jean had yet to become a national sensation, and if not for Ingram, they would have never become March Madness darlings. Trailing Miami by a point in the first round, Ingram took a pass with about 2 seconds left and fired from the logo. (Yes, it happened to be a big logo that year, but still.) The long-range 3 won the game, the start of Loyola-Chicago’s Cinderella run to the Final Four.

9. Paul Jesperson, Northern Iowa, 2016

A shot that definitely helped Oklahoma City’s status as Cinderella City. After No. 6 seed Texas tied the game with 2.7 seconds remaining, Northern Iowa opted against taking a timeout. The inbounds pass came to Jesperson just short of midcourt, and after a couple of dribbles toward the middle of the court, he launched a shot from the midcourt line. It banked in for the first-round win. A halfcourt shot for the win? Don’t see that every day.

8. U.S. Reed, Arkansas, 1981

March Madness may well have been born on March 14, 1981. On that day, NBC showed St. Joe’s knocking off No. 1 seed DePaul, Kansas State knocking off Oregon State with a Rolando Blackman jumper and the greatest of them all, a half-court buzzer-beating game winner by Reed. With Arkansas trailing Louisville by one in the second-round game, Reed took an inbounds pass from the opposite end of the court, made a couple dribbles, almost lost the ball but managed to launch a midcourt shot from the right of the mid-court circle. It splashed through the net and eliminated the defending champion Cardinals. 

Bonus: watch the clip, you’ll get a quick glimpse of then-Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton in the aftermath.

Double bonus: Marv Albert is on the call.

7. Bryce Drew, Valparaiso, 1998

The biggest dose of Oklahoma City magic for an underdog. You might not find a more well-executed buzzer beater than the one Valpo pulled off in the first round against Mississippi. Trailing 69-67 with 2.5 seconds remaining, Jamie Sykes threw a three-quarter-court inbounds pass, and Bill Jenkins snagged it and flipped a perfectly timed midair pass to Drew, who stepped into a 3-pointed that splashed through. A high-degree of difficulty for No. 13 seed to score the big upset.

6. Kris Jenkins, Villanova, 2016

A buzzer-beating 3-pointer for a national title? Hard to top that. Villanova and North Carolina were tied with 4.7 seconds left in the national championship game. Jenkins inbounded the ball to Ryan Arcidiacono at the opposite end of the court, then trailed him up court. When Arcidiacono reached the top of the key, he flipped the ball back to Jenkins, who stepped into a three that fell through the net as the buzzer sounded. 

5. Lorenzo Charles, North Carolina State, 1983

NC State went toe-to-toe with mighty Houston. The Phi Slama Jama bunch was a handful with Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, but in the final seconds of the game, NC State was tied with Houston. After Houston nearly came up with a steal, Dereck Whittenberg corralled the ball with 4 seconds left and fired a desperation shot from just inside the mid-court circle. It was an airball. But Charles snagged it like an ally-oop and slammed it home as time expired. Phi Slama Jama beat on a jam? Crazy.

Why don’t Charles or Jenkins rank higher? Because if they’d have missed, it wouldn’t have meant defeat. 

The rest of the shots on this list were the difference between winning and losing — and part of winning a national title.

4. Mario Chalmers, Kansas, 2008

Kansas didn’t win its first national title under Bill Self with Chalmers’ three-pointer, but the shot forced overtime where the Jayhawks won the national championship. Memphis had taken a three-point lead with 10.8 seconds left in regulation. Kansas point guard Sherron Collins brought the ball upcourt, fumbled it and nearly lost it, but somehow, Chalmers grabbed the ball and fired from the top of the key. The shot splashed through with only 2.1 seconds remaining. It was only the third 3-pointer the Jayhawks had made in the game.

3. Christian Laettner, Duke, 1992

The degree of difficulty? Off-the-charts high. The stakes? Big. Trailing Kentucky by a point with 2.1 seconds left in overtime of the regional final, Duke had to go the length of the court. Grant Hill threw a perfect, three-quarter-court baseball pass that Laettner caught darn near at the free-throw line. He took a dribble, spun and shot. It was so pure the ball didn’t even hit the rim. Duke not only went on to the Final Four but also won its second consecutive national title.

2. Mamadi Diakite, Virginia, 2019

Virginia’s run to its first national title wouldn’t have happened without Diakite’s buzzer-beating jumper in the Elite Eight. Trailing Purdue by two with 5.9 seconds remaining, Ty Jerome had to intentionally miss a free throw, and Diakite back tapped the miss. But he sent it all the way into the backcourt. Kihei Clark had to track it down, turn, then fire a one-handed pass from midcourt to Diakite, who was on the right block. He turned and almost without looking sent a floater toward the rim. The ball was barely out of his hands when the buzzer sounded. The shot fell, and Virginia won in overtime.

1. Keith Smart, Indiana, 1987

Trailing to Syracuse by one in the national championship game, Indiana got the ball back with about 30 seconds left. The Hoosiers ran the clock down to the final seconds, then got the ball to Smart on the left wing. He took one dribble toward the baseline, elevated and fired a smooth jumper. His game winner with 3 seconds left gave Indiana its third national title under Bob Knight.

Want to watch more game winners and buzzer beaters from March Madness?

Who doesn’t, right?

Enjoy.

Jerome Whitehead, Marquette, 1977 national semifinal vs. UNC Charlotte: A precursor to Laettner’s shot.

Danny Ainge, BYU, 1981 Sweet 16 vs. Notre Dame: An early version of the Tyus Edney winding full-court drive.

Sean Higgins, Michigan, 1989 national semifinal vs Illinois: Two nights later, Michigan won the title.

Tate George, UConn, 1990 Sweet 16 vs. Clemson: Saved the day for the No. 1 seeded Huskies.

Christian Laettner, Duke, 1990 Elite Eight vs. UConn: Just something about this dude beating the buzzer in March.

Jimmy King, Michigan, 1993 second round vs. UCLA: Five Fab would go on to make the national title game.

Tyus Edney, UCLA, 1995 second round vs. Missouri: The Bruins wouldn’t have won the national title without this.

Gabe Lewullis, Princeton, 1996 first round vs. UCLA: Of course Princeton won with a backdoor cut.

John Wallace, Syracuse, 1996 Sweet 16 vs. Georgia: Georgia 3 with 7.1 seconds bested by Wallace 3 with 2.8 seconds.

Mike Miller, Florida, 2000 first round vs. Butler: Be sure to peep a young Billy Donovan.

John Lucas, Oklahoma State, 2004 Elite Eight vs. St. Joe’s: Bonus: Dave Hunziker’s call is on this clip.

Will Bynum, Georgia Tech, 2004 national semifinal vs. Oklahoma State: A heartbreaker for Cowboy fans.

Kenton Paulino, Texas, 2006 Sweet 16 vs. West Virginia: Second 3-pointer hit in the game’s last 5 seconds

Ronald Lewis, Ohio State, 2007 second round vs. Xavier: Buzzer-beating three forced overtime.

Scottie Reynolds, Villanova, 2009 Elite EIght vs. Pitt: Wildcats avoid overtime with Reynold’s whirling drive to the basket.

Luke Maye, North Carolina, 2017 Elite Eight vs. Kentucky: Cats and Heels trade clutch threes in game’s final 8 seconds.

Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga, 2021 national semifinal vs. UCLA: Overtime buzzer beater in the Final Four.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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