NCAAB
May 14, 2020
BY Bryan Zarpentine

The Greatest Games in College Basketball History, Ranked

Whether it’s March or November or somewhere in between, college basketball tends to give fans great games every year. But every now and then, the sport also goes above and beyond with something truly astounding.

Sometimes it’s a buzzer-beater in the NCAA Tournament. Other times, it’s a tilt that lasts multiple overtimes. Then there are those clashes between two powerhouse programs that somehow lives up to the hype — and then some. The point is, that college basketball often leaves fans spoiled with entertaining and memorable finishes.

Admittedly, it’s difficult to pick which games were better than the others. However, we’ve managed to select the best of the best and created a list of the greatest games in college basketball history.

10. 1974: Notre Dame Snaps UCLA's 88-Game Winning Streak

This was just a regular-season game in the middle of January, but any time an 88-game winning streak is snapped is a big deal.

Not only had UCLA won 88 in a row at that point, but the Bruins were a dynasty that had won the last seven NCAA National Championships. But a trip to the Joyce Center ended all of that.

John Shumate and Gary Brokaw led the Fighting Irish with 24 and 25 points, respectively, to give Notre Dame a chance. However, it was Dwight Clay who hit the game-winner with just 29 seconds left.

After falling behind, the Bruins missed five shots on their final possession. Shumate finally grabbed a rebound as the buzzer sounded, giving Notre Dame a historic 71-70 win that ended the longest winning streak in college basketball history.

9. 2016: Kansas Wins a Triple-Overtime Thriller Over Oklahoma

This was just a regular-season game, although it brought together the top two teams in the country and a pair of longtime Big 12 rivals. Oddly enough, Kansas was the No. 1 seed in the AP Poll with Oklahoma sitting at No. 2 while the Sooners were the top-ranked program and the Jayhawks ranked second in the Coaches Poll.

On the court, the two were as close as those rankings would suggest, as the Jayhawks and Sooners ended up playing three overtimes. During those 55 minutes of action, five players logged at least 50 minutes, including Buddy Hield, who stole the show.

The Oklahoma sharpshooter tallied 33 points at the end of regulation and added another 13 in overtime for a game-high 46 points. However, Kansas had the home-court advantage and a more balanced attack, allowing the Jayhawks to prevail 109-106.

The game was so close that Oklahoma remained No. 2 in the polls despite the loss. 

8. 2016: Villanova Hits Buzzer-Beater to Win the National Championship

This clash between the Wildcats and Tar Heels was everything that a National Championship Game should be. Both teams played at an extremely high level throughout the tilt, with the lead rarely extending beyond five points either way.

The ending was also incredible with North Carolina's Marcus Paige twisting, turning and double-clutching to knockdown a game-tying shot with 4.6 seconds left.

It looked like we’d get five more minutes of such a great game, only to have Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer-beater to give the Wildcats a 77-74 win.

7. 1974: NC State Advances to NCAA Tournament in Overtime Win Over Maryland

The 1974 ACC Championship Game — played between the 25-1 Wolfpack and the 23-4 Terrapins — is still considered the best game in conference history. The catch was that only the winner would advance to the NCAA Tournament, so the stakes were incredibly high for two teams with National Championship aspirations.

It’s also worth mentioning that there were 11 future NBA draft picks on the two rosters, so both teams had a wealth of talent. NC State fell behind by 13 points in the first half, only to work their way back behind 38 points from 7-foot-2’ center Tommy Burleson, who was the third overall pick in that year’s draft.

After NC State forced overtime, the Wolfpack slipped past Maryland 103-100 in the extra frame. The Terrapins were so distraught that they declined an invitation to the NIT. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack advanced to the NCAA Tournament and eventually won the National Championship at the Greensboro Coliseum, the same place where they beat Maryland in the best ACC game of all-time.

6. 1985: Villanova Shocks Georgetown to Win Championship

The old Big East gave fans some incredible games over the years, but not many were better than a meeting between rivals in the National Championship Game. Behind Patrick Ewing, the defending champion Hoyas (35-2) comfortably beat a talented St. John’s team in the semifinals.

Meanwhile, Villanova was a lowly 8-seed that won its first three tournament games by a combined nine points. But the Wildcats were nearly flawless, shooting 78.6% from the field against one of the best defensive teams in college basketball history.

Villanova ended up making nine of its 10 field goal attempts in the second half while also holding Ewing to a quiet 14 points. Georgetown had beaten Villanova twice during the regular season, but the Wildcats turned the tables in the finals to capture their first National Championship in school history while also preventing Georgetown from winning back-to-back titles.

5. 2009: Syracuse Survives Six Overtime Battle Against Connecticut

Let’s call this the Energizer Bunny of games because it kept going and going and going. Obviously, a lot of games would be exciting if they went to six overtimes. But this was the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden between two old rivals that were both ranked in the top 20 at the time.

Both teams refused to blink even as players on both sides gradually fouled out of the game. In the end, the game lasted three hours and 46 minutes with Syracuse point guard Johnny Flynn playing 67 of the 70 minutes, notching 34 points and 11 assists.

Oddly enough, the Orange didn’t lead after regulation until the sixth overtime when they went on a 10-0 run to finally put the game away.

The kicker is that Syracuse had won the previous night and then had to play the next night, outlasting West Virginia after only one overtime.

The Orange were finally worn out by the finals, losing to Pittsburgh, but if you stayed up for Syracuse-UConn in the Big East Quarterfinals, you saw a classic.

4. 1957: North Carolina Outlasts Wilt Chamberlain's Jayhawks in Triple OT

Granted, not a lot of people are old enough to remember this game, but who wouldn't love a National Championship Game that goes to three overtimes?

Wilt Chamberlain led a Kansas team that had just two losses all season while Hall of Fame head coach Frank McGuire and the Tar Heels were undefeated. In theory, North Carolina should have been tired after surviving a triple-overtime game against Michigan State in the semifinals the previous day.

Playing the Jayhawks in Kansas City didn’t help their chances, either. However, McGuire’s zone defense that was focused on Chamberlain was able to slow down the Kansas big man late in the game.

It’s also worth mentioning that benches cleared during a fight during the first overtime after Chamberlain took a hard foul. Police eventually restored sanity, allowing the game to be completed.

North Carolina’s Joe Quigg made a pair of free throws with six seconds left to put the Tar Heels on top to give them a 54-53 win.

3. 1982: Michael Jordan Hits Game-Winner to Give North Carolina the Title over Georgetown

In a way, this was Michael Jordan’s coming out party when he was a freshman at UNC. James Worthy and Sam Perkins carried the Tar Heels throughout the tournament, setting up an epic showdown in the finals with Georgetown freshman big man Patrick Ewing.

The game could not have been tighter from start to finish. Georgetown led by one point at the half and continued to lead by one point late in the game when North Carolina coach Dean Smith drew up a play to give Jordan the team’s final shot rather than Worthy or Perkins.

Jordan, of course, came up clutch to give the Tar Heels a 63-62 win. Georgetown’s Fred Brown came down the court and passed the ball straight to Worthy, denying the Hoyas one final chance to win.

2. 1983: The Wolfpack Stun Houston to win the Championship

It’s safe to say that the late Jim Valvano running around the court looking for someone to hug helped cement this game as one of the best ever. But even without that moment, this game was something special, as it involved Valvano’s NC State squad finishing one of the great Cinderella stories in college basketball history.

At the time, Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma team had won 26 in a row behind Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. Meanwhile, the sixth-seeded Wolfpack probably should have been knocked out in one of their first two games. NC State then beat Ralph Sampson’s Virginia in the Elite Eight to reach the Final Four.

Somehow, Valvano’s team stayed close with a loaded Houston team, setting up Lorenzo Charles to dunk home the game-winning basket at the buzzer after a missed 30-footer from Dereck Whittenburg. It was a stunning result and an iconic finish.

1. 1992: Christian Laettner's Shot Lifts Duke Over Kentucky

Forget college basketball, this is one of the great games in American sports, period. It was a Regional Final between the top two seeds and two powerhouse programs. Both programs played at a high level, living up to the names on the front of the jerseys.

On top of that, things got heated during the game with many people thinking that Christian Laettner should have been ejected for stepping on Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake. Of course, it would be Laettner who would break Kentucky hearts at the buzzer. Late in the overtime, Sean Woods banked in a ridiculous shot to give the Wildcats a one-point lead with just 2.9 seconds left.

But that was just enough time for Grant Hill to make the famous pass to Laettner who turned and made a miraculous shot, giving Duke a 104-103 win.

The game was amazing and the ending was unreal, allowing the Blue Devils to eventually win the National Championship.

Photo: Getty Images