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Mike Lopresti | | March 28, 2015

Crazy eights

  Wisconsin held off Arizona in dramatic fashion in last year's Elite Eight.

So now the survivors are on the doorstep of the Final Four. This is when things can get wild.

Duke beating Kentucky 104-103 in 1992, with the Christian Laettner turn-around jumper that history now has on an eternal replay loop ...

Kentucky topping Indiana 92-90 in 1975 to cut short the Hoosiers’ unbeaten 31-0 season ...

George Mason shocking Connecticut 86-84 in overtime in 2006; Cinderella making six consecutive 3-pointers just when it was supposed to be midnight ...

Know what they have in common? All are regional championships.

Wisconsin frantically holding off Arizona 64-63 last spring, on what would have been the 90th birthday of Bo Ryan’s father, who died before the season ...

Aaron Harrison’s 24-footer at 2.3 seconds to push Kentucky past Michigan last March ...

Kevin Ware shattering his right leg in 2013, then urging his Louisville teammates to finish the job against Duke before he was carried away to the hospital ...

Regional finals, all.

Butler beating Florida 74-71 in overtime in 2011; the Bulldogs going 7-for-7 from the free-throw line in OT after missing 10 of 20 in regulation ...

Scottie Reynolds’ half-court length dash to a winning layup at 0.5 seconds to get Villanova past Pittsburgh 78-76 in 2009, after 14 lead changes in the second half ...

Stephen Curry’s 25 points being not quite enough as Davidson’s underdog run was barely stopped by Kansas 59-57 in 2008 ...

Yep, regional championships.

There is something about that particular step in the NCAA tournament that seems to push all the right buttons on the drama machine. Maybe it’s the lure of the Final Four, shining in front of them like the Emerald City. Maybe it’s the fact that by then, all the pretenders have been sent home. Only natural that top teams produce top games.

But the Final Four is often less dramatic than regional championships. Fifteen of the past 44 regional title games -- 34 percent -- have ether gone overtime or been decided by one possession.

History tends to sway in these games.

What happens in 1966, if Jo Jo White’s 30-footer at the buzzer with Kansas and Texas Western tied was not waved off by the trailing official, who said White’s heel was just out of bounds? It is a call debated to this day in Lawrence. The Jayhawks would not have lost 81-80 in two overtimes, and there would have been no landmark Texas Western national championship with five black starters the next week, and the movie Glory Road never gets made.

What happens if Ohio State doesn’t miss a shot to win at the end of regulation in 1992, and eventually loses 75-71 in overtime to Michigan? The Final Four might never have been introduced to the Fab Five.

  Aaron Harrison's winner vs. Michigan in 2014.
What happens if Kentucky and Louisville had not been thrown into the same 1983 regional championship, after ducking one another for a quarter-century? Maybe they don’t start an annual series, since the impetus came from that day when the Cardinals won 80-68 in overtime.

If Arizona doesn’t regroup to beat Providence 96-92 in overtime in 1997 after blowing a 12-point lead, Lute Olson never wins a Wildcat national championship.

If Daryl Thomas’ last-ditch shot in the final seconds for Indiana in 1987 against LSU was not an airball -- had he actually a truer aim and hit the rim -- Rick Calloway would not have been in the spot to grab the ball and score to beat LSU 77-76. Maybe Bob Knight never wins his third championship.

If a reserve named Bob Heaton doesn’t score on a left-handed prayer in the final seconds -- breaking a tie between Indiana State and Arkansas in 1979 -- maybe Larry Bird never gets to Magic Johnson in their famous championship game.

What happens in 1955, with San Francisco clinging to a 57-56 lead against Oregon State in the final seconds, had 6-1 K.C. Jones not won a crucial jump ball against 7-3 Swede Halbrook, depriving the Beavers a last chance to score? Reports of the game claim Jones jumped when the ball was going up and got away with it, which is how he tapped the ball away from a guy 14 inches taller. Whatever, it was part of a 60-game winning streak that would produce two national championships for Jones, Bill Russell and company. If Oregon State had scored, maybe the Dons win none.

On and on the regional title classics go. Great rallies, riveting moments, inexplicable fades. From Jacksonville beating Kentucky 106-100 in 1970, to UNLV outsprinting Loyola Marymount 131-101 in 1990, to Kentucky coming from 17 points behind in the last 10 minutes to beat Duke 86-84 in 1998 -- a dose of revenge six years after Laettner’s turnaround.

Laettner’s buzzer-beater also knocked out Connecticut in 1990, and was a reasonable harbinger for what he would do to Kentucky two years later.

Iowa beat Georgetown 81-80 in 1980 by making 17 of its last 21 shots and 15 of 15 free throws. So torrid were the Hawkeyes, Georgetown shot 68 percent the second half and lost a 14-point lead. Something almost impossible to do.

In 2007 -- the 50th anniversary of the school’s first national championship -- North Carolina led Georgetown by 11 points in the second half, then missed 22 of 23 shots and lost 96-84 in overtime.

In 2004, there were three lead changes in the last 41 seconds between Oklahoma State and Saint Joseph’s. John Lucas’ 3-pointer with 6.9 seconds left finally settled it for the Cowboys, and Saint Joseph’s upstart climb to the Final Four fell one step short.

And then there was 2005. This is the 10th anniversary of the Golden Age for regional championship games.

Within 24 hours there were three overtime classics, each with its own remarkable twists of plot and fortune.

First came Louisville against West Virginia. The Mountaineers, on their way to an astonishing 18-for-27 shooting day in 3-pointers, rolled to a 20-point lead in the first half. Rick Pitino would later say he threw out his entire defensive game plan at halftime and ad-libbed from there. It took his Cardinals until 38 seconds were left in regulation to finally pull even, then they won it 93-85 in overtime. "I’ve never seen anything like it in my life," Pitino said afterward.

Actually, something like it was seen just two hours later. Top-ranked Illinois trailed Arizona by 15 points with just over four minutes left, exploded on a 20-5 run, and eked by 90-89 in overtime. "It was just an unbelievable thing," Arizona’s Mustafa Shakur said, "to lose a game that way."

The next day it was Michigan State leading Kentucky by three points, when the Wildcats’ Patrick Sparks put up a shot at the buzzer. The bounced around the rim four times before going through. But was it a 3-pointer?

It took officials five minutes of dissecting every angle of replay to decide Sparks’ right toe was justthisshort of the line. Three-pointer. Overtime. But Michigan State won anyway 94-88 in two overtimes.

"You figure if you give everything you have and all your hard work, you will get the result that you want," Kentucky’s Chuck Hayes said. "Sometimes you get it, and sometimes you don’t."

Now it is someone else’s turn to find that out. A Notre Dame upset of Kentucky? Another Wisconsin-Arizona epic, one year later? Considering the storied past of regional championship games, they’re a hard act to follow this weekend. But someone usually does.

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