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March Madness: 15 most iconic buzzer-beaters in NCAA Tournament history

Our YouTube-inspired countdown features the craziest finishes in tourney history... including two title-clinching shots for Villanova and NC State.
Credit: Internal

On paper, last year's Michigan team (3-seed) had one of the least cumbersome paths to the NCAA title game in recent memory, defeating Montana (14-seed), Houston (6-seed), Texas A&M (7-seed), Florida State (9-seed) and Loyola of Chicago (11-seed) in the first five rounds.

To be fair, though, the 2018 Houston was squad was under-seeded by two or three slots; and if Jordan Poole hadn't buried his glorious game-winner at the buzzer in Round 2, the Cougars probably would have reached the championship round, in place of Michigan.

Before his miracle trey, Poole hadn't scored the entire second half against Houston; and looking at the replay, it's clear that he wasn't the first option.

Oh well, none of that matters in the present. Poole shall forever be a campus hero at Michigan ... thanks to a play which seemingly had no momentum at the onset.

This awesome finish doesn't get enough props, when discussing the greatest games in Sweet 16 history. 

At the old Georgia Dome, fans were treated to an amazing flurry of crucial baskets – starting with West Virginia big man Kevin Pittsnoggle (a wizard from beyond the arc) and then Kevin Paulino's game-clincher at the buzzer.

For what it's worth, this highlight represents one of three buzzer-beating classics that took place in Atlanta.

Wisconsin's Broson Koenig drills a catch-and-shoot three at the buzzer; and if you look close enough, the ultra-confident guard knew it was good the second it left his fingertips.

The infamous conclusion to the 1972 Olympics clash between Team USA and the Russians (Soviet Union) inspired this Final Four Saturday ending in Atlanta – which took place at The Omni (torn down in the 1990s).

With the scored tied and three seconds left, Marquette's Jerome Whitehead fields a full-court baseball pass and brings buzzer-beating controversy to college basketball...long before instant replay.

#12 – UCONN VS. CLEMSON (1990)
It's one thing for Jerome Whitehead (above) to execute a full-court buzzer-beater with three full seconds of clock. 

But how about accomplishing the same miraculous feat in just one second...and with a menacing 7-footer (Clemson's Elden Campbell) wreaking havoc along the baseline – 94 feet away?

Well, none of this mattered to UConn's Tate George, who received a long pass in the right corner and deftly buried the greatest clutch shot in school history.

Or, at least this distinction would hold true for another eight years (scroll down, please).

As for the Huskies' pursuit of Final Four glory in 1990 ... their dreams would be ironically crushed by a buzzer-beater in the following clip.

#11 – DUKE VS. UCONN (1990)
There's an old saying about defending inbound plays late in games: The guy inbounding the ball is the most dangerous man on the floor.

As Exhibit A, Christian Laettner executed a simple give-and-go, before nailing the shot that vaulted Duke to its second Final Four of the Mike Krzyzewski era. 

As a bonus, the Laettner bomb was dropped less than 48 hours after Tate George's rainmaker against Clemson.

Of all the brilliant plays in this countdown, U.S. Reed's half-court miracle stands as the only buzzer-beater to boot the defending national champ from the NCAA Tournament.

As a bonus, it's great to hear legendary announcer Marv Albert make this glorious call, while working around NBC Sports' frenetic bouncing around to other games.

Bryce Drew officially puts Valpo on the map...with this perfectly executed three-point play against the Rebels. 

#8 – BYU VS. NOTRE DAME (1981)
Say hello to my favorite play of this countdown. 

With BYU trailing by a point and only eight ticks left on the clock, future NBA star Danny Ainge dribbles through the entire Notre Dame defense to find paydirt at the other end of the court.

So, why doesn't this amazing finish rank higher in the countdown? Ainge scored with two seconds left...but back in 1981, the clock didn't stop for made baskets under the 2-minute mark. 

(Notre Dame was presumably out of timeouts at that juncture.)

As a result, the Fighting Irish were powerless to get off a clean shot before the buzzer.

#7 – UCLA VS. MISSOURI (1995)
Ainge's coast-to-coast play had everything...but it still couldn't match the speed of Tyus Edney's full-court wizardry from 24 years ago.

Thanks to Edney, UCLA avoided a shocking upset in Round 2...and then rallied to produce the school's first national championship of the post-John Wooden era. 

(Under Wooden's direction, UCLA absurdly captured 10 national titles during the span of 1964-75.)

Remember Kevin Paulino's last-second make at the top of this countdown, pushing Texas into the 2006 regional final?

Well 10 years later, the Longhorns would be on the business end of a shocking buzzer-beater...in the form of Paul Jesperson's half-court Hail Mary for the ages.

#5 – GEORGIA TECH VS. USC (1992)
Here's a nice flashback to a time when Georgia Tech was a true national power.

But even powerhouse programs need a dash of good fortune along the way, as evidenced by James Forrest's catch-and-shoot miracle to beat USC.

Forrest might have become a forever hero on Georgia Tech's campus after this amazing shot; but the real glory lies with legendary coach-turned-broadcaster Al McGuire – who claimed his only national championship in Atlanta (1977) – going crazy with the buzzer-beating celebration.


Here's the wildest closing sequence of this countdown...which says a lot.

Connecticut gets four stabs at the game-winning shot, but nothing sticks until Richard 'Rip' Hamilton drains the buzzer-beater, while falling to the floor. Riveting television!

#3 – DUKE VS. KENTUCKY (1992)
You can't tell the story of college basketball without showing Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater against Kentucky. 

It represented the perfect capper to arguably the greatest game in NCAA history, with Duke outlasting Kentucky in overtime, 104-103 (East regional final).

This shot preserved Duke's pursuit of back-to-back national titles (mission accomplished). 

It also cemented Laettner's status as the most clutch player in NCAA Tournament history (four Final Four berths, two national championships, one Final Four MVP).

Kris Jenkins partakes in the ultimate give-and-go to help Villanova claim its first national championship in 31 years. 

It's easily one of the greatest plays in NCAA history. 

Unfortunately, it cannot match the grandeur of the No. 1 buzzer-beater in tournament history.

The 1983 Houston Cougars might have been the most perfectly constructed team of the last 40 years, possessing depth, versatility, athleticism, experience and two future basketball Hall of Famers (Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler).

But on April 4, 1983, the night of the national championship game, the basketball gods had a different plan for the Cougars, who lost to NC State in heartbreaking fashion (54-52).

How painful was this defeat?

The final bucket (with the score tied) could have easily been a steal/breakaway dunk for Houston's Benny Anders. 

Instead, the late, great Lorenzo Charles was the lucky benefactor to the greatest airball in NCAA Tournament history.

On the TV side, we also owe CBS analyst Billy Packer a debt of gratitude for uttering the six greatest words in basketball-broadcasting lore: