March 14, 1981, is arguably one of the best days in the history of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. It’s a date that truly defines March Madness, since college basketball fans were taken on a wild ride with three of the tournament favorites, including two No. 1 seeds and the defending national champion, losing either at the buzzer or in the final seconds.

The three second-round upsets featured St. Joseph’s stunning 49-48 victory against No. 1-ranked and Mideast top-seeded DePaul, Arkansas’ miracle 74-73 win against Louisville and Kansas State’s thrilling, come-from-behind 50-48 triumph against No.1 West seed Oregon State.

Demons for the Blue Demons
DePaul entered the 1981 tournament as a hungry squad led by All-American forward Mark Aguirre and legendary coach Ray Meyer.

In those days, the tournament had a 48-team field and the top four seeds in each region received byes into the second round. The Blue Demons desperately wanted to erase a bitter memory from the year before when they were named the top seed in the West but were upset 77-71 by UCLA in the 1980 tourney.

In 1981, DePaul faced ninth-seeded St. Joseph’s in the second round in Dayton, Ohio, which is the site of this year’s First Four. The Hawks had barely sneaked by Creighton 59-57 in the first round.

The game was relatively close throughout, but DePaul held a seven-point lead with about 10 minutes to play. St. Joseph’s finally drew to within one point, 48-47, with 48 seconds left in the game.

DePaul was able to milk the clock to 13 seconds before St. Joseph’s fouled Blue Demons guard Skip Dillard, whose nickname was “Money” because of his prowess at the free-throw line. Dillard missed the front end of the 1-and-1, and St. Joseph’s raced up court without calling a timeout.

St. Joseph’s guard Bryan Warrick found freshman Lonnie McFarlan wide open in the right corner. As McFarlan jumped in the air to take the shot, two Blue Demons came running toward him.

Instead of shooting, McFarlan passed the ball to forward John Smith underneath the basket for the winning layup with 2 seconds remaining. When asked by the media afterward how he got McFarlan’s attention for the pass, Smith said he simply yelled, “Please!”

U.S. Reed (24) and Darrell Walker
AP Images

‘Champions die hard’

Perhaps no defending national champion saw its season come to halt like Louisville in the 1981 tournament.

The fourth-seeded Cardinals began defense of their 1980 national title by facing fifth-seeded Arkansas in the Midwest Regional in Austin, Texas. This edition of the Cardinals was part of a program that produced four Final Four teams from 1980 to 1986.

Louisville was poised for another deep run in the tournament until it found itself in a tussle with the Razorbacks.

The game was highly competitive with Arkansas leading most of the way. It finally appeared to turn in Louisville’s favor as Derek Smith, father of Duke guard Nolan Smith, grabbed an offensive rebound and then made a fade-away jumper in the paint to give the Cardinals a 73-72 lead.

Arkansas called timeout with 5 seconds remaining and then-Razorback coach Eddie Sutton gave his team one instruction: Get the ball to U.S. Reed.

The Arkansas guard was able to dribble near half court thanks to the defensive pressure by two Louisville defenders. Reed launched a 49-foot shot that swished through the net at the buzzer, setting off a wild celebration for Arkansas players and cheerleaders.

Many of the Cardinals stood in place or fell to the court, stunned as their championship reign came to an end.

Like Sutton told the assembled media after Reed’s buzzer-beater “Champions die hard.”

Another No. 1 seed exits early
Oregon State had to figure the 1981 tournament would be its time to shine. The Beavers entered the bracket as the No. 1 seed in the West and had posted a 52-4 record the previous two seasons. Their 1980 tournament appearance was brief, though, as Lamar sent them packing with an 81-77 second-round upset.

They were led by Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach Ralph Miller and 6-10 senior center Steve Johnson.

Again, the stars seemed aligned for Oregon State as it prepared to face eighth-seeded Kansas State in Los Angeles. Oregon State was in control of the game, building as much as an 11-point lead in the second half.

Kansas State guard Rolando Blackman spurred Kansas State’s comeback effort as the Wildcats put together a 16-6 run to tie the game at 48-48 with 3:23 left on the clock.
Oregon State’s Johnson fouled out at that point and the game came to a screeching halt with each side daring the other to make a mistake.

The Beavers eventually missed a one-and-one opportunity and Kansas State held for the last shot. With the clock ticking down, Blackman found himself with the ball and being double-teamed by Mark Radford and Ray Blume.

Blackman made his move along the right baseline and hit a fall-away 17-footer with 2 seconds left to give Kansas State a 50-48 upset win.

“I had the good release,” Blackman told the media after the game. “I wasn't even aware that anyone was on me. It was just me and the rim.”

Other memorable moments from 1981
• The regional semifinals were filled with exciting finishes also. St. Joseph’s continued its run with a 42-41 win against Boston College, and Wichita State edged Kansas State 66-65.

• The most famous finish in that round of the tournament happened in the East Regional when Brigham Young guard Danny Ainge dribbled the length of the court and made a layup at the buzzer to beat Notre Dame 51-50.

• The tournament’s championship game was played on March 30, which is also the same day that President Ronald Reagan was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. Reagan, who was leaving a speaking engagement in Washington, D.C., was rushed to the hospital where he underwent surgery for a punctured lung.

There was some thought of postponing the championship game, but the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee decided to play the game after reports said the president would survive.

Indiana’s Isiah Thomas led the Hoosiers to a 63-50 victory against North Carolina.