Why you should care
Because even if they didn’t include a winning shot, these games made people champions.
The NCAA Tournament is one of the most exciting sporting events because, as fans, we know we’re one big shot or clutch block away from witnessing history. Just last season, Villanova and North Carolina faced off in one of the all-time greatest championship games, culminating in a buzzer beater that’s still being rehashed in sports bars nationwide. Writer Paul Shirley, who played college ball at Iowa State, says it’s these big plays that make the games seem larger than life. “If there’s an iconic moment, it increases the chances that people think they remember it even if they weren’t actually watching it,” he says. “They’ve just had it replayed day after day.”
Sadly, not every championship game ends with a shining moment. For whatever reason, some don’t stand the test of time and seem to be forgotten in the annals of NCAA Tournament Championship history, which is a shame, because the following games were still really good.
1986: Louisville 72, Duke 69; 1987: Indiana 74, Syracuse 73;
1988: Kansas 83, Oklahoma 79; 1989: Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79
What happened: Four years and four games decided by four or fewer points. It’s hard to pick one of these games that stands out more than the rest; they were all gems. We’re lumping them together because they’re sandwiched in between some of the biggest moments and greatest teams the NCAA has ever seen.
“From ’79 to ’85, you had something amazing almost every single year,” says Eric Mirlis, sportswriter and author of I Was There! Starting in the 1990s, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Duke plowed through everyone. “Those championships have taken on a life of their own, so it’s easy to forget the ones around them that were also outstanding games.”
Why they’re worth remembering: All these games have some cool element to them. Louisville’s 1986 victory over Duke was the first tournament to use the shot clock — it debuted at 45 seconds — and it was also the last NCAA tournament game to not feature the three-point shot. In ’87, Indiana’s Keith Smart hit a jumper in the closing seconds to give Indiana a one-point win. Danny Manning led his “Danny and the Miracles” Jayhawks in 1988 with 31 points and 18 rebounds in the third-largest upset in NCAA Championship–game history. That was the most recent championship to feature two teams from the same conference. Finally, 1989 was the first overtime game in 26 years, with heavy underdog Seton Hall committing a foul in the final three seconds that ultimately led to a title for Michigan.
1997: Arizona 84, Kentucky 79
What happened: This Wildcats-versus-Wildcats battle saw underdog Arizona topple Kentucky in an overtime clash. Miles Simon led the way with 30 points, and Mike Bibby chipped in 19. Kentucky featured a handful of NBA players you may remember, including Ron Mercer, Jamaal Magloire and Nazr Mohammed.
Why it’s worth remembering: This is the lone championship in Arizona history and the only time a No. 4 seed has won the whole thing. Arizona also knocked off three No. 1 seeds en route to the title, which hasn’t happened since. And it featured two of the most entertaining guards of that era — Bibby and Jason Terry, both of whom chiseled out productive NBA careers.
2007: Florida 84, Ohio State 75
What happened: Three months earlier, Florida demolished Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game. This one was a bit closer, but the Gators still emerged victorious. Florida used a balanced attack — six players scored at least eight points — with Al Horford contributing 18 points and 12 rebounds. Ohio State got a combined 45 points from Greg Oden and Mike Conley, but it wasn’t enough as Florida won their second straight championship.
Why it’s worth remembering: Florida did something that had never been done: win back-to-back championships with the same starting five. The tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, Corey Brewer, along with Joakim Noah, Lee Humphrey, Taurean Green and Horford, returned to win a second title with ease. Humphrey set a record for most three-pointers made during a tournament with 47, and the game had a bevy of future NBA veterans: Oden was the No. 1 draft pick that summer, and Horford, Noah, Brewer, Conley and Marreese Speights are all still playing in the NBA.
2013: Louisville 82, Michigan 76
What happened: The Cardinals trailed by 12 in the first half before Luke Hancock came off the bench and drilled four threes in a row to trim the Michigan lead to one by halftime. In the second half, the Cardinals took control and never looked back, though Michigan kept things close, staying within 10 points before their furious rally came up just short.
Why it’s worth remembering: Louisville was playing for injured teammate Kevin Ware, who suffered a gruesome leg injury in the Elite Eight. With his leg propped up on the sidelines, Ware was the loudest cheerleader. Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino became the first coach to win championships at two different schools.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines roster featured several current NBA players, including reigning dunk champion Glenn Robinson III, but the most notable performance came from former deep sub Spike Albrecht. Albrecht scored a career-high 17 points in the first half, then spit some game at Kate Upton on Twitter. It didn’t get him a date, but it was worth a shot.