Ask virtually any sports fan what the most exciting event of the year is and they’ll probably tell you that March Madness is impossible to beat. The sheer number of teams, the speed of the games, the intriguing matchups, the young stars and the friendly wagering that always accompany the NCAA men’s basketball tournament make it the best sporting event ever created.
Since 1939, the single-elimination tournament that decides the year’s best college basketball team has given us countless classic moments. Everyone who’s regularly watched the tournament has their own favorite moment they’ll never forget. We’ve gone back through March Madness history and ranked the best moments ever from the tournament.
See if your favorite moment is cutting down the net, or if it’s going home after the first weekend.
#25 — Darvin Ham Breaks Glass (1996)
Dunks are always exciting — but it’s hard to beat one that shatters the backboard. The only time this has ever happened during a March Madness game was in 1996 when Texas Tech was battling North Carolina in the second round. Texas Tech’s Darvin Ham became immortal during that game when he grabbed a rebound and slammed it in with such authority that it broke the backboard into a million pieces. That powerhouse jam gave Texas Tech the momentum they needed to finish off the win and get into the Sweet 16.
#24 — Shaq’s Block Party (1992)
One of the most exciting things about watching March Madness is seeing future basketball icons come into their own. People watching the tournament in 1992 saw that in the form of LSU center Shaquille O’Neal. In his team’s first-round victory over BYU, O’Neal set the all-time record for blocks by swatting 11 shots away. That stat, along with his 26 points and 13 rebounds, gave him one of the few triple-doubles ever recorded in the NCAA tournament.
#23 — Bill Walton’s Near-Perfect Game (1973)
There’s no question Bill Walton was one of the greatest college basketball players in history — and you only need to look at his performance in the 1973 championship game for proof. Walton’s UCLA Bruins were seeking their seventh consecutive NCAA men’s basketball title and the man himself was the reigning national college player of the year. In the title game versus Memphis State, Walton went 21 of 22 from the field, scoring 44 of UCLA’s 87 total points and putting on the type of dominant, single-player performance we may never see again.
#22 — The Perfect Pass (1990)
This is only the first of several moments from the 1990 NCAA tournament that made our list, so it was clearly a March to remember. When No. 1 seed UConn was facing No. 5 seed Clemson in the Sweet 16, the Huskies needed a miracle to win the game. That miracle came with 1 second left on the clock and UConn trailing 70-69. Scott Burrell launched the basketball the entire length of the court, as if he were throwing a football, hitting teammate Tate George, who turned and shot in a fraction of a second, sinking the game-winner.
#21 — Northwestern’s Long-Awaited Win (2017)
Despite playing college basketball since 1901, Northwestern University didn’t make the NCAA tournament until 2017. After impressing the selection committee, the Wildcats finally made the Big Dance that year, and they made it count. The team was a No. 8 seed and won their game in the first round, 68-66 over Vanderbilt. It was a victory that was nearly 80 years in the making, dating back to the first year of the tournament.
#20 — Tyus Edney Goes The Distance (1995)
There have been a lot of great buzzer-beaters from March Madness, but this was one of the most unique. In 1995, UCLA would win its first championship since the John Wooden era, and it needed an insane play from Tyus Edney to make it happen. UCLA was facing Missouri in the second round and found themselves down by one with less than 5 seconds to go. Edney gets the inbound pass and, instead of making a long pass to another teammate, he drives the ball across the entire court himself before hitting the game-winning shot from inside the paint, barely getting it off in time. The sheer speed and ball-handling skill under immense pressure is something to behold.
#19 — George Mason’s Slipper Fits (2006)
Anyone who filled out a bracket for the 2006 March Madness tournament remembers George Mason forcing them to crumple it up early. The Patriots, playing as a No. 11 seed out of the Colonial Athletic Association, went all the way to the Final Four after a series of improbable upsets. Among the blue-blooded teams George Mason knocked off were Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn. The entire 2006 tournament was full of upsets, as it marked the first time since 1980 that none of the No. 1 seeds made the Final Four.
#18 — The Half-Court Two-Pointer (1981)
One of the most signature buzzer beaters from the history of the tournament happened in 1981, when Arkansas knocked off the defending champs, Louisville, in the second round. Louisville led the game 73-72 with 5 seconds left, forcing Arkansas to get creative. Coach Eddie Sutton called a play that sent a half-court pass to U.S. Reed, who launched a 49-foot shot that went in at the buzzer. Since this was before three-pointers, that half-court shot was only worth two points — but it was enough.
#17 — UNLV Runs Over Everyone (1990)
The story of the 1990 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels might technically be considered a Cinderella story, but they were one of the most talented teams to ever play in the NCAA tournament. UNLV’s lineup boasted four NBA draft picks, including three first-round selections. The team mostly dominated in the tournament, including posting a dazzling 103-73 win over Duke in the title game, which is the most lopsided championship match ever. As of 2019, UNLV is the last team from a mid-major conference to win the tournament.
#16 — Austin Carr Goes Off (1970)
Austin Carr was an incredible player during his time at Notre Dame — and never was that more clear than during the 1970 NCAA tournament. In the first round of the tournament — which was the quarterfinals back then — Carr scored 61 points as Notre Dame beat Ohio University 112-82. That number still stands as the most points scored in a game by any player in tournament history. In the next round, Carr scored 52 points in a loss to Kentucky, which is the fourth-highest single-game total by any player. He was a monster.
#15 — The Shot (1998)
Depending on which fan base you ask, there are plenty of March Madness buzzer beaters that could be referred to simply as “The Shot,” including this perfect dagger. In the 1998 tournament, the Valparaiso Crusaders were a No. 13 seed facing the No. 4 seed Ole Miss in the first round. Valpo was down by two with 2.5 seconds left when Jamie Sykes threw a brilliant pass to mid-court that found its way to Bryce Drew, who drained the game-winning three as time expired. It’s been shown on countless March Madness highlight reels because it shows exactly why this tournament is so special.
#14 — Loyola Marymount’s Emotional Run (1990)
The 1989-90 Loyola Marymount Lions were ahead of their time by leaving defense behind and simply crushing their opponents by racking up an endless amount of points. Less than three weeks before the team would play in the NCAA tournament, their star player, Hank Gathers, died during a game after a heart condition caused him to collapse. His teammates played for Gathers’ memory and made it all the way to the Elite Eight, putting up record points in the process. One of those games was a 149-115 win over the reigning champs, Michigan, which set records for the most combined points, most three-pointers and most points for a single team in tournament history.
#13 — Indiana Achieves Perfection (1976)
The Indiana Hoosiers hadn’t won an NCAA men’s basketball title since the 1950s, but in 1976 they announced they were back with a thunderous statement. The team came into the tournament undefeated and ran through to the title game, beating Michigan 86-68 to finish the year at 32-0. As of 2019, this is the last Division I men’s college basketball team to finish the year undefeated.
#12 — John Wooden Goes Out On Top (1975)
In the history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, one name in coaching stands above all the rest: John Wooden. The iconic coach led UCLA to an unmatched 10 championships in just a 12-season span, capped off with the school’s 92-85 win over Kentucky in the 1975 title game. Wooden retired after that game with a legacy of domination that will likely never be matched, including four undefeated seasons.
#11 — Ron Hunter Falls Off His Seat (2015)
This gem was undoubtedly one of the greatest father-son moments in sports history. Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter was forced to lead his team from a rolling stool at courtside during the 2015 tournament because he’d torn his Achilles tendon celebrating the team’s berth as a No. 14 seed into the tournament. His son, R.J. Hunter, played on the team and hit a deep, game-winning three with seconds left to beat No. 3-seed Baylor in the first round. The shot made Ron Hunter fall off his stool and onto the floor because he was so excited about his son’s buzzer beater.
#10 — Butler Almost Shocks The World (2010)
This is the only example of a buzzer-beater not going in to make our list of best March Madness moments. In the 2010 championship game, No. 5 seed Butler was playing a home game, as the tournament was being hosted in Indianapolis, against No. 1 seed Duke. The game was a thriller and Duke ended up winning 61-59 but Butler came so close to stunning the college basketball world. Butler star Gordon Hayward barely missed two go-ahead shots in the final 6 seconds, including a half-court heave with less than 1 second left that missed by inches. Everyone watching this game around the world was holding their breath while that ball sailed through the air.
#9 — Loyola-Chicago Rambles On (2018)
The 2018 tournament was truly memorable — as we’ll see again later in this list — and the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers stole the spotlight. We’ve seen other deep runs by low-seed teams on this list, but Loyola’s was even better than those, possibly because they had a die-hard fan who captured everyone’s hearts. The No. 11 seed Ramblers shocked Miami and Tennessee with game-winning shots in the first two rounds before making it all the way through the second weekend and into the Final Four. But the 98-year-old nun named Sister Jean who rooted for the team at every game became the biggest star of the entire tournament.
#8 — A Legend Is Born (1982)
It doesn’t get much more star-studded than the 1982 championship game. Six future Hall of Famers, including both head coaches, were involved in the matchup between North Carolina and Georgetown, but one freshman really made his mark. With 15 seconds left in the biggest game of the year, a 19-year-old North Carolina player named Michael Jordan hit what was the game-winning shot. That shot gave North Carolina its first title since the 1950s and they haven’t slowed down since. In addition to Jordan, the game also featured NBA legends James Worthy and Patrick Ewing.
#7 — The Ultimate Cinderella (2018)
Plenty of upsets happen every year during March Madness, but a No. 16 seed had never defeated a No. 1 seed — until 2018. That ultimate, first-round upset came when UMBC topped Virginia 74-54. Anyone who watched the game will never forget coming to the slow realization that this was finally going to happen, and rooting hard for UMBC even though it meant their own bracket was being destroyed. UMBC wound up losing in the second round, but no one will ever forget the historic beating they gave Virginia.
#6 — Texas Western Makes History (1966)
While many of the moments on this list are all about fun and excitement, the 1966 championship game is important for a much bigger reason. That year, Texas Western (now known as UTEP) became the first team to ever have an all-black starting lineup in the championship game. Texas Western’s historic lineup beat the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats 72-65, challenging many popular prejudices about black players. The fact that the victory came over Kentucky’s coach Adolph Rupp, a man who’d himself said he wouldn’t recruit non-white players, made it even sweeter.
#5 — David Stuns Goliath (1985)
As we’ve seen, the best March Madness moments often involve upsets — and in 1985, Villanova pulled the biggest upset of them all. The school had never won a basketball championship and was coming into the title game as a No. 8 seed, facing Georgetown, the reigning champs and overall No. 1 seed of the tournament. Villanova shot better than 78 percent from the floor — still a Final Four record — and won it 66-64, becoming the lowest-seeded team to ever win the tournament to this day.
#4 — Christian Laettner Becomes An Icon (1992)
In the 1992 NCAA tournament, Duke was trying to win its second straight championship, but the road wasn’t easy. In the Elite Eight, the Blue Devils faced the Kentucky Wildcats in a game that has been called the greatest in college basketball history. The two teams played an overtime thriller that Duke won 103-102 on the most replayed buzzer-beater ever made. With 2.1 seconds left in overtime, Duke’s Grant Hill threw a perfect, full-court pass to teammate Christian Laettner, who put the ball on the deck before hitting the game-winning two at the buzzer.
#3 — The Boyhood Dream Comes True (2016)
Christian Laettner’s 1992 game-winning shot is a classic, but just you can’t top a buzzer-beater that wins the entire tournament. In the 2016 championship game between Villanova and North Carolina, Kris Jenkins hit the shot that every basketball-loving kid has practiced a million times. UNC’s Marcus Paige hit a game-tying three with under 5 seconds to play, but Villanova’s Jenkins one-upped him on the next possession. Jenkins’ buzzer-beating three won the game — and the tournament — 77-74 for Villanova and has been called the best game-winning shot in tournament history by the NCAA.
#2 — Magic Vs. Bird (1979)
A legendary rivalry was born in the 1979 tournament — and pretty much everyone in America was watching. The championship game that year saw Michigan State, led by Magic Johnson, face off with the undefeated Indiana State, led by Larry Bird. Johnson’s Spartans won the title, but this moment was much bigger than a simple basketball game. The game is still the most-watched basketball game — college or professional — in American history, and it’s not even close. Of course, Johnson and Bird went on to have the best one-on-one rivalry in NBA history, facing off three different times in the NBA Finals.
#1 — Jimmy V. Needs A Hug (1983)
The buzzer beater that ended the 1983 NCAA championship isn’t the prettiest shot on this list, and the game itself was a low-scoring slugfest, but it culminated in the best moment in March Madness history. North Carolina State was a huge underdog going into the title match against Houston’s iconic Phi Slamma Jamma lineup and it took them until the final seconds to overcome the challenge. The game was tied 52-52 when NC State’s Dereck Whittenburg heaved up a shot — or was it a pass? — that teammate Lorenzo Charles caught in mid-air and dunked with 1 second left. The best part is the celebration that erupted from the Wolfpack bench, with coach Jim Valvano being caught on camera running down the court desperately looking for someone to celebrate with. The power of the moment was forever magnified when Valvano died after a battle with cancer just 10 years after that defining win.