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Best NCAA Buzzer Beaters Of All Time

Publish Date:03/16/2023
Fact checked by: Allan Howe

basketball hoop

What’s the most exciting play in sports? A walkoff home run? A long touchdown pass? An overtime goal in soccer or ice hockey?

Don’t discount the basketball buzzer beater. For thrills, it’s hard to surpass a last-second, buzzer-beating basket in March Madness. The result is exultation for one team, and misery for the other.

Drama, that's one of the reasons March Madness is so popular. That’s why so many fans watch the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. It’s why so many people participate in a March Madness pool.

Here are the top four choices for the best NCAA buzzer beaters of all-time.

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1. Jenkins Hits Triple to Win Title for Villanova With 0.6 on Clock

2016 National Championship Game, Villanova vs North Carolina

When you hit a buzzer beater, you’re the hero. When you hit a buzzer beater in the Final Four, you’ll always be remembered. But when you drain a buzzer beater that wins a national title, you become a legend.

The circumstances of this shot, with all that was on line, as well as the difficulty of the play, elevate to our number one spot on this hoops list.

The 2016 March Madness title game was a heavyweight bout. The North Carolina Tar Heels were a No. 1 seed. The Villanova Wildcats were a No. 2 seed. Both teams had great players, and great coaching.

The Wildcats built a six-point lead with just under two minutes left, but the Tar Heels showed their spirit by charging back a three-pointer and a pair of putback baskets. With 13.5 seconds, the Wildcats made two free throws to push their lead to three.

With 4.5 seconds left, Marcus Page, the smallest player on the court, hit a circus shot three-pointer for North Carolina. Recovering from a near-turnover, Page dribbled into a defender, and leapt in the air, he had to double-pump and twist his upper body to get the shot off from about three feet behind the three-point line. The basketball circled the rim and dropped, tying the national championship game.

But the drama wasn’t complete. After a timeout, the Wildcats advanced the ball across center court, and a pass went back to the trailer, junior Kris Jenkins. Catching the ball in perfect stride and rhythm, Jenkins stopped a foot behind the arc and elevated uncontested. His jump shot went through without touching the rim. The clock was at zero and Villanova won the championship.

Jenkins' buzzer beater was the first in a March Madness title game since 1987, when Keith Smart won at the buzzer for Indiana. It’s only happened three times in the last 60 years. The other instance is next on our list…

2. NC State’s Miracle in 1983

1983 National Championship Game, North Carolina State vs Houston

The NC State Wolfpack were not supposed to be in the Final Four. Heck, most experts didn’t think Jim Valvano’s team should have been in the Sweet 16. But, following three one-bucket wins in the tournament, and two other victories, they found themselves in the national title game.

Their reward? Facing the vaunted Houston Cougars, the No. 1 team in the country. The Cougars entered the final with a 31-2 record, and a 26-game winning streak. Houston boasted a slew of high-jumping, lightning-quick, powerful dunkers. So much so that the team was called “Phi SLama Jama.” The roster included two future Basketball Hall of Famers: Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler.

Amazingly, the underdog Wildcats led at the half and built a lead of as much as nine points. But Houston coach Guy Lewis made a lineup change in the second half and his talented team gobbled up that deficit. With five minutes left, the Cougars regained a lead, but the two teams danced around each other the rest of the way, neither pulling away.

In 1983 there was no shot clock, which meant the Wildcats could take their time, wearing down the more talented Houston team. With a minute left, NC State had the ball with the score tied. Valvano put his team in a four corners set, forcing Houston to chase and defend, allowing the clock to click away for the last shot. With about 15 seconds remaining NC State became frantic, unable to get the ball into the paint, and nearly throwing it away. With three seconds left, Dereck Whittenburg launched a desperation heave from ten feet beyond the arc. His shot was short, but Lorenzo Charles caught it and dunked it for the win as time expired, to win 54-52.

The celebration by Valvano, who ran across the floor trying to find anyone to hug, is an historic moment in March Madness history. For many, NC State’s unlikely win is the biggest upset in NCAA Championship Game history.

3. Laettner Lifts Duke Over Kentucky

1992 Regional Final, Duke vs Kentucky

When Kentucky guard Sean Woods sank an ugly, off-balance, prayer of a one-hander in the paint in the Regional Final, it seemed like Duke’s reign would end. There were only 2.1 seconds left on the clock, and Duke had to inbounds the ball under the Kentucky basket.

For some reason, the Wildcats decided not to guard Grant Hill, who was asked to throw the inbounds pass for Duke. Unmolested and able to run the length of the baseline, Hill heaved a perfect pass to Christian Laettner, the man just about everyone in college basketball loved to hate. Laettner faked one way, dribbled, spun, and shot. The ball left his hands with 0.2 seconds left, and it was nothing but net.

Pandemonium. The result was a thrilling, epic, 104-103 overtime victory for Duke. The game and that play are so iconic that it has spawned books and at least one documentary film. In Durham, it’s known simply as “The Shot.”

4. Buzzer Beater 3-Pointer Propels Loyola’s Cinderella Run

2018 First Round, Loyola-Chicago vs Miami (FL)

There’s never been another story that can rival the unlikely run by Loyola-Chicago’s to make the Final Four. A school with only about 11,000 students making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in more than three decades, the Ramblers stunned the basketball world, and maybe even themselves in 2018 when they wore the Cinderella slipper all the way to the Final Four.

In Round One, the Ramblers (a 11.5 point underdog) scrapped with the Hurricanes as a No. 11 seed. The game went back and forth much of the second half, and with less than 10 seconds on the clock, trailing by one point, they had to take the ball the length of the court.

That’s when senior Donte Ingram, a native of Chicago, caught the ball at the top of the key, about three feet beyond the arc, and drained a three-pointer as time expired. The shot finished a 64-62 victory. It was the first win by Loyola in March Madness since 1985.

The Ramblers, who went 28-5 in the regular season, kept rambling: knocking off No. 3 Tennessee, No. 7 Nevada, and No. 9 Kansas State easily, to advance to the Final Four. As a result, Loyola-Chicago became just the fourth No. 11 seed to get that far in the tourney.

As an aside to that magical March Madness run, Loyola’s biggest fan was Sister Jean, the 98-year old team chaplain, who appeared on the sidelines in a wheelchair wearing team colors. Sister Jean became such a popular symbol of Loyola’s amazing tournament performance, that she was the face of that tournament.

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