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Brian Mull | | April 1, 2016

March Madness: 9 unexpected Final Four heroes

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For the most part, stars put their talent on parade during the Final Four each April. The players who carried the load all season must perform at a championship level to help their team claim the trophy.

Scan a list of Most Outstanding Player winners from the last three decades: Anthony Davis, Kemba Walker, Wayne Ellington, Mario Chalmers, Sean May, Emeka Okafor, Carmelo Anthony, Juan Dixon, Shane Battier, Richard Hamilton, Miles Simon, Tony Delk, Ed O’Bannon, Christian Laettner - no surprises in that bunch.

Yet sometimes the stars draw inordinate attention from opposing coaches and players who are determined not to let the best player thrive. And the door opens for others to shine. Without their contributions, the celebration may have remained a dream for these national champions.

Here are nine unexpected Final Four heroes from the last 35 years.

Lorenzo Charles, N.C. State 1983

Compared to others on this list, the chiseled power forward recorded the least impressive stat line. He made, however, one of the more memorable shots in NCAA tournament history to cap an improbable run to the national championship.

Charles, a sophomore, snared teammate Dereck Whittenburg’s desperation heave and dropped the ball in the net as time expired to lift the sixth-seed Wolfpack to a 54-52 upset of the powerful Houston Cougars, aka Phi Slama Jama. Charles scored only nine points in the two games in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but the last two sent coach Jim Valvano running across the court seeking someone to hug in what’s become an iconic image replayed each March.

Sadly, neither is here to enjoy those replays. Valvano died in 1993 after a short battle with cancer. Charles died in 2011 when the bus he was driving crashed. 

Pervis Ellison, Louisville 1986

In an era devoid of freshman stars, this precocious center scored 25 points and snagged 11 rebounds to lead the Cardinals past Duke 72-69, and give coach Denny Crum his second national championship in seven years.

Ellison was the Cardinals third-leading scorer and leading rebounder on the season, but make no mistake the stars of this team were guard Milt Wagner and forward Billy Thompson.

Still, it was Ellison who made the difference against the favored Blue Devils, who had a dynamite senior class of Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas.

Ellison also had a double-double (11 points, 13 rebounds) in the national semifinals against LSU.

Keith Smart, Indiana 1987

Steve Alford was the All-American guard who averaged 22 points per game, but his backcourt mate became a Hoosiers legend by hitting a jump shot with three seconds remaining for a 74-73 victory over Syracuse.

After Syracuse star Derrick Coleman missed a free throw, the Hoosiers moved the ball in the halfcourt, worked it inside, then kicked a pass out to Smart along the left baseline. He buried the 17-footer and coach Bobby Knight had a third national title in 12 years.

Coming off a 14-point effort against UNLV in the national semifinals, Smart delivered 21 points, six assists and five rebounds in the championship game.  

Ricky Moore, Connecticut 1999

Duke was a strong favorite to win the championship in 1999. The Blue Devils blazed through the ACC unbeaten and rolled into the title game riding a 32-game winning streak behind a lineup that included four first-round NBA Draft picks.

The freshman guard Moore helped the Huskies derail the juggernaut and earn coach Jim Calhoun his first of three championships.

In particular, Moore’s defense played a pivotal role in UConn’s Final Four success. He held Ohio State point guard Scoonie Penn to 3 of 13 shooting in the semifinal. Against Duke, he shadowed William Avery, his childhood friend from Augusta, Ga., limiting him to 3 of 12 shooting. On the game’s final possession, Moore stifled Duke guard Trajan Langdon, denying him the potential game-tying 3-point shot.

Moore, who averaged 6.8 ppg for the season, also provided 13 points and eight rebounds against the Blue Devils.  

Rashad Anderson, Connecticut, 2004

Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor created a dangerous inside-outside duo for UConn in the 2003-2004 season, combining for 36 points per game.

In the Final Four, Anderson’s offense pushed the Huskies over the top.

He scored 14 points on five shots in a one-point defeat of Duke in the semifinals, then contributed 18 points and six rebounds as UConn nipped Georgia Tech and clipped the nets on Monday night.

Lee Humphrey, Florida 2005

It’s easy to name four of the five starters on the first of coach Billy Donovan’s back-to-back national championship teams. Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah and Al Horford are still enjoying long careers in the NBA, while Taurean Green was the driving force at point guard.

Of course, the trophy may have never made it to Gainesville without the sizzling shooting of unheralded guard Lee Humphrey, who entered the Final Four averaging four points per game and 27 3-pointers on the season.

The Fifth Gator swished 6 of 12 from beyond-the-arc in the 15-point romp over George Mason on Saturday night and followed that with a 4 of 8 outing to spark the title game rout of UCLA.

The breakout performance propelled Humphrey to greatness in the final two seasons of his career - 226 3-pointers on 46 percent shooting.

Sherron Collins, Kansas 2008

The Jayhawks had ample star power in Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush and Darrell Arthur. Each produced at the usual level in the two games inside San Antonio’s Alamodome, although their sixth man Collins provided a boost off the bench in the victories over fellow top seeds, North Carolina and Memphis.

Collins, a 5-11 sophomore, had 11 points, four assists, four rebounds against the Tar Heels in an 18-point rout. The team’s fifth-leading scorer contributed 11 points, six rebounds and four assists in the overtime defeat of the Tigers.  

Luke Hancock, Louisville 2013

Leaders of the Game: Louisville's Luke Hancock
The junior wing entered the Final Four as Rick Pitino’s super substitute.

He arrived in Atlanta averaging less than eight points per game as an afterthought in a backcourt led by speedy scorers Russ Smith and Peyton Siva.

He departed as a national champion and the Most Outstanding Player, in one of the more remarkable performances in Final Four history.

In narrow victories over Wichita State and Michigan, Hancock scored 42 points on 15 shots. He had five assists and zero turnovers in 61 minutes, coming off the bench in both games.

The average college basketball observer was probably wondering who this guy was, anyway, but he silenced all doubters with a championship game shooting exhibition beyond compare - 22 points on six shots, sinking all five 3-pointers as the Cardinals nipped the Wolverines.

Grayson Allen, Duke 2015

The Blue Devils national title hopes were dim and fading about seven minutes into the second half of the final against Wisconsin.

Duke trailed 48-39 and its normally reliable offense was sputtering. That’s when Allen, a freshman who had scored 137 points in the Blue Devils first 34 games, ripped off eight points in a row and forced a turnover to trim the deficit and inject life into his teammates.

His layup with 5:26 remaining gave Duke a two-point lead.

Feeding off the run, Duke closed strong and coach Mike Krzyzewski carved another notch in his legacy with a fifth national championship.

Allen, who scored nine points in the semifinals against Michigan State, finished the championship game with 16 points in 21 minutes. He played 38 minutes in the Final Four after playing 33 in the first four NCAA tournament games.

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