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March Madness: Ranking the top-11 men's NCAA Tournament buzzer-beaters

March Madness: Ranking the top-11 men's NCAA Tournament buzzer-beaters

The madness of March: It’s as exhilarating as it is exhausting, as mesmerizing as it is memorable. The abrupt ending of an entire career, a legacy defined in two to three seconds. It almost seems unfair, but that’s the beauty of the win-or-go-home tournament. 

Every game is a Game 7. The unpredictability, the passion, the tears, the celebration. The NCAA Tournament is one of the few sporting events that’s more defined by the incomparable upsets than the eventual champion.

Even non-basketball fans get in on the fun each year, with office pools and bracket challenges. While college sports and amateurism are under a drastic transformation, “The Tournament” still has a nostalgic feel to it. The incredible buzzer-beaters are one of the many reasons why.

Narrowing this list down was a tall task, so before we get started, it’s important that we establish the criteria:

  • It has to be a game-winning or game-tying shot in the final seconds. 
  • It has to be in the “modern era” (i.e. since the three-point line and shot clock). 
  • The later in the tournament, the higher the stakes, the more the shot means.

With that being said, here are the 11 most memorable buzzer-beaters in modern men's NCAA Tournament history.

11. Michigan State vs. Maryland, Korie Lucious (2010 Second Round)

In one of the rare times Tom Izzo didn’t call timeout in the waning seconds of a game, it paid off for him big time. You might recognize that big fella bringing the ball up the court; that’s a slightly heavier Draymond Green, doing what he’s been doing for the last decade in the Bay, pushing the tempo, drawing attention and then getting the ball to a knockdown shooter. 

Maryland never properly matched up, and Korie Lucious only needed one rhythm dribble to send the Spartans to the Sweet Sixteen.

10. Wisconsin vs. Xavier, Bronson Koenig (2016 Second Round)

The Musketeers had the ball in a tie game but turned it over, which led to one of the smoothest walk-off game-winners you will ever see. 

Looking like he was in the gym shooting all by himself, All-Big-Ten guard Bronson Koenig caught the ball on the sideline, smartly took an escape dribble and hit the corner three that sent the Badgers to the Sweet Sixteen.

9. Connecticut vs. Washington, Richard Hamilton (1998 Sweet Sixteen)

This entire sequence was amazing. I love how the refs swallowed their whistle on the first two attempts. Those may have been foul calls earlier in the game, but not with the championship on the line. Washington had a huge frontline that year, but ultimately ended up one rebound short. 

Also, this is good coaching by Hall-of-Famer Jim Calhoun. In college, you have to go early because the opposing team cannot advance the ball to halfcourt with a timeout, so there’s no point in waiting too long and eliminating the chance of getting an offensive rebound. 

Rip Hamilton would go on to win both an NCAA championship and NBA championship with the Detroit Pistons. 

 8.Valparaiso vs. Ole Miss, Bryce Drew (1998 First Round)

This is definitely the most schematic of any buzzer-beaters on this list. The son of the coach coming through in the clutch seems perfectly scripted for a Disney movie.

As with most of these incredible shots, it involves missed free throws and an underrated pass. The defense on this play was phenomenal (which can’t be said for another historic shot that we’ll get to in a bit).

7. Michigan vs. Houston, Jordan Poole (2018 Second Round)

Long before he was a spark plug off the bench for the world-champion Golden State Warriors, Jordan Poole was hitting big shots in Ann Arbor. He drove Coach John Beilein crazy with his shot selection, but one of the reasons he earned such a long leash was his uncanny ability to hit shots from anywhere and at any angle. 

6. UCLA vs. Mizzou, Tyus Edney (1995 Second Round)

Every national champion has one of “those” games where despite having the superior roster, they probably should have lost. The Bruins were loaded! This roster featured eight guys who eventually played in the NBA. But the longer the game stays close, the more the pressure shifts to the No. 1 seed.  

5. Michigan vs. Kansas, Trey Burke (2013 Sweet Sixteen)

In 2013, Trey Burke was named the National Player of the Year and he carried the Wolverines all season long. The debate of whether to foul when up three points is for another column, but this was a Damian-Lillard-range three, and no one wants to risk a foul that far from the basket. 

4. Kansas vs. Memphis, Mario Chalmers (2008 NCAA Championship Game)

Mario Chalmers is a legend in Lawrence for as long as he lives. The Memphis Tigers were led by soon-to-be-first-overall-pick Derrick Rose and the silky smooth Chris Douglas-Roberts, and they had the game won until – and stop me if you have read this before – crucial free-throw misses opened the door for Kansas. This allowed Chalmers to force overtime, and the rest is history. 

Coach Cal has gone on to win a national championship at Kentucky, but I bet if you caught him in a hotel bar on a recruiting trip, he would admit that he should have fouled Kansas before Chalmers even had the opportunity to hoist up this miracle three-point attempt. 

3. Gonzaga vs. UCLA, Jalen Suggs (2021 Final Four)

Gonzaga truly seemed like a team of destiny after Jalen Suggs hit the running bank shot against UCLA to remain undefeated and advance to the national championship game. While they would ultimately fall to Baylor two days later, the shot was ridiculous. 

And unlike many of the plays on this list, UCLA didn’t really do anything wrong. They didn’t miss a free throw or look confused on defense. They lost on a straight-in bank from half-court, which even seemed to cause Gonzaga head coach Mark Few to feel a bit guilty.

2. Duke vs. Kentucky, Christian Laettner (1992 Elite Eight)

Kentucky fans, look away. Hate him or really hate him, Christian Laettner was one of the greatest college players of all-time. 

This game was one for the ages. Duke was the defending national champion. They were led by the aforementioned Laettner, All-American pest/point guard Bobby Hurley and budding superstar/future Hall-of-Famer Grant HIll. 

Somewhat lost in the dramatic ending is the fact that Laettner was literally perfect on the night. He shot 10-of-10 from the field and 10-of-10 from the free-throw line, and he finished with a state line of 31 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals.

1. Villanova vs. UNC, Kris Jenkins (2016 NCAA Championship Game)

The dream of all dreams. This is the scenario that every boy or girl who has ever played basketball at any level has imagined hundreds of times. A few seconds left. The ball in your hands. A title on the line. Three, two, one… You drill the game-winner and become a champion. 

On April 4, 2016, Kris Jenkins turned this dream into reality. The timing is an underrated aspect of this play. The pass was right on time, and right on target – soft and chest-high. This let Jenkins shoot in rhythm – a shot that he had made thousands of times before. You gotta love how Jay Wright showed the emotion of John Wick as he walked to shake Roy Williams’ hand. 

HONORABLE MENTION

Connecticut vs. Clemson, Tate George (1990 Sweet Sixteen)

Duke vs. Connecticut, Christian Laettner (1990 Elite Eight)

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