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Best Sweet 16 Games in NCAA Tournament History

Publish Date: 03/21/2023
Fact checked by: Allan Howe

Basketball player dunking in a hoop

With apologies to “The Final Four,” I think “Sweet Sixteen” is the most alliterative phase of March Madness. There’s something well, very “sweet” about this round of the NCAA Tournament.

On Thursday, you can set your bets for the tournament by checking our odds and picks, and maybe consider the team best-suited for a Final Four run. But before we get that far into the weekend, let’s look back at tournament history and select the greatest Sweet 16 games since 2000.

2011: VCU Goes From First Four to Final Four

Virginia Commonwealth University had to win a First Four play-in game just to see the first round of the NCAA tournament. But they weren’t content with only one victory. They pounded Georgetown and Purdue by 18 points each to earn the right to face Florida State.

Small-time school? No worries. VCU played like a bully, and didn’t flinch when FSU built a second-half lead. Down by 10 points with eight minutes left, VCU forced overtime. That’s where Bradford Burgess scored on a driving layup with less than ten seconds, securing a 72-71 stunner.

In the next round, the Elite Eight, VCU upset Kansas, the top-seed of the tourney, and became the third No. 11 seed to make the Final Four. In many ways, considering the path they traveled, the Rams are the unlikeliest Final Four team in March Madness history. They were defeated by Butler in the national semifinals, but their Cinderella slippers were already cast in gold by then.

2016: Gonzaga Blows 17-Point Lead to UCLA

Who knows if Gonzaga will ever win the elusive national championship. Four times the Zags have been a No. 1 seed, and they’ve failed to win the tournament every time, twice in the championship game.

In 2016, Gonzaga was a No. 11 seed, and had yet to make the FInal Four. But, led by the swaggering play of Adam Morrison (28 PPG that season), Gonzaga knocked off Seton Hall and Utah to set up a clash with UCLA in the Sweet 16.

Everything looked fantastic for the Zags, who built a 17-point lead in the second half. But UCLA used its athleticism and shot blocking to get back into the game. An 11-0 run by the Bruins to finish off the game completed an epic collapse by the Zags, who lost 73-71.

Morrison’s sad tearful cry at the center of the court after time expired put a punctuation on his college career, and serves as a classic moment in March Madness history.

2010: Two Overtimes Needed as Kansas State and Xavier Trade Circus Shots

If you love amazing buzzer beaters and back-and-forth three-point shots, this was the game for you. The Xavier Bulldogs and Kansas State Jayhawks played this game in Salt Lake City.

The Bulldogs got four threes from Tu Holloway and three apiece from Jordan Crawford and Dante Jackson. But Jacob Pullen of K State topped them all, shooting six of 12 from beyond the arc. Late baskets sent the game to OT and later a second OT. Ultimately Kansas State won, 101-96.

2013: Michigan’s Trey Burke Game

When your range is unlimited as a shooter, you are undefendable. That’s what Trey Burke was in the 2013 tournament for the Michigan Wolverines. In the South Region, No. 4 Michigan was on a collision course with Kansas, the No. 1 seed.

Burke had a double-double and hit three shots in this game that were at least three feet beyond the three-point line. He scored all 23 of his points in the second half and overtime. His most exciting play was a 28-foot shot late in the game that gave the Wolverines the lead.

“[It] was probably the biggest shot I ever made and definitely a shot I'll always remember,” Burke said of the shot that sent the contest into OT, where Michigan prevailed.

2008: Curry Leads Davidson, Outscores Wisconsin

A long time ago in a hoops galaxy far far away, Steph Curry was the greatest unknown long-range shooter in the NCAA. In this Sweet 16 contest, Curry led the Davidson Wildcats against Wisconsin, the No. 3 seed.

Curry shot 11-for-22 including 6-for-11 from three-point range. He poured in 33 points, and outscored the Badgers in the second half, 24-20.

The Wildcats lost in the Elite Eight. We wonder whatever happened to Steph Curry?

2002: Duke Blows Big Lead to Indiana

Who doesn’t love to see a blueblood program blow a game in March Madness? Duke is the team (almost) everyone loves to hate. And honestly, Indiana is a close second. In 2002 in the regional semifinals in Lexington, the Blue Devils imploded on the national stage.

Duke led the Hoosiers by as many as 14 points, and 13 at the half. But second-year coach Mike Davis had the perfect demeanor to spur his team on from the abyss. Indiana stormed back, taking the lead with just under a minute left. The final score was 74-73. There’s nothing like watching Coach K have a conniption on television.

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