College basketball: Top 7 national championship games since 1985
It’s so close you can almost hear it. There are just seven more weeks until Selection Sunday, one of the most magical days of the year.
Eleven weeks in to this season, we’ve been treated to our fair share of excitement, as there have been four different No. 1 teams so far, and more upsets than you can count.
But with just seven Sundays to go until the NCAA tournament officially begins, we’re taking a look back at the seven best national championship games since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985:
7. 2014: No. 7 UConn 60, No. 8 Kentucky 54
Not only was 2014’s championship game the first of the modern era where neither team had even made the previous year’s NCAA Tournament, it was also the first to not feature a No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 seed, and remains the highest combined seeding in the title game ever.
Kentucky had entered the year ranked as the preseason No. 1 even after playing in the NIT a year prior. That was thanks in no small part to the freshman class John Calipari put together, which included a record six McDonald’s All-Americans.
UConn, on the other hand, was in the second year of a new coach. Kevin Ollie took over for Jim Calhoun — the man who coached him during his UConn playing days — as the Huskies head coach in 2013, and led his team to a respectable 20-10 record, but the team was banned from postseason play due to sanctions. But in 2014, the Huskies were eligible for the NCAA tournament, and they made the most of their opportunity.
Though it took UConn an overtime period to escape from their first-round matchup with Saint Joseph’s, they cruised the rest of the way to the title game, rolling over No. 1 Florida, which had entered the bout with a 30-game winning streak.
Kentucky had a tighter road to the title game, but thanks to two last-second, go-ahead three-pointers by Aaron Harrison in the Elite Eight and Final Four, the Wildcats went from an NIT team a year before to contenders for the national title.
But it was not to be. In the championship game itself, the game was tied just three times — at 0-0, 2-2, and 6-6 — and UConn never trailed. Shabazz Napier had a game-high 22 points while shooting 50 percent from the field, and Aaron Harrison was held to just seven points. The Huskies also managed to go 10-10 from the charity stripe, including two in the final minute that pushed their lead to six points and secured Ollie’s title, making him the first coach to win the championship in his first tournament appearance since Steve Fisher did it with Michigan in 1989.
6: 1989: No. 3 Michigan 70, No. 3 Seton Hall 69, OT
Speaking of Steve Fisher’s 1989 title, the Wolverines head coach didn’t even hold that position at the start of the season. The job belonged to Bill Frieder, as it had for the previous eight years. But, two days before Michigan’s first game in the NCAA tournament, Frieder announced he was taking the head coaching job at Arizona State. He had hoped to coach the Wolverines through the tournament, but Michigan athletic director Bo Schembechler declined. Schembechler promoted Fisher, then the assistant coach, to the head gig with 48 hours until the first tournament matchup.
''I don't want someone from Arizona State coaching the Michigan team,'' Schembechler said, according to the New York Times. ''A Michigan man is going to coach Michigan.''
And so he did, all the way to the title game, where the Wolverines met Seton Hall, a 31-6 team that had won its first five NCAA tournament games by an average of 15.2 points.
But if the storyline leading up to the championship bout was good, then the game itself was great.
With just over a minute remaining in the contest, Michigan trailed by two, until Glen Rice — who set a tournament record with 184 points in six games — knocked down a contested three to give the Wolverines the one-point lead. Seton Hall missed on their next possession, and after Sean Higgins was fouled and knocked down both shots, the Pirates’ John Morton had a shot to tie, and he didn’t flinch. The game went to overtime, where the lead went back and forth until Seton Hall held it by one point with three seconds left, and Michigan’s Rumeal Robinson headed to the free throw line.
Undeterred by a Seton Hall timeout meant to ice him, Robinson hit both shots, a Seton Hall last-second shot missed its mark and Fisher had a national championship to his name in a season where he coached only six games.
5. 1987: No. 1 Indiana 74, No. 2 Syracuse 73
In a game as back and forth as this title bout was — there were 19 lead changes and 10 ties throughout the game — it was only right that the decision came down to the final seconds.
With half a minute remaining, Syracuse led 73-72, and Derrick Coleman was headed to the line for a one-and-one, but the freshman missed the front end. Syracuse's Jim Boeheim had decided to pull his four other players back on defense, so the Hoosiers had an uncontested rebound off of the miss.
With the ball and a chance to win, Indiana waited patiently for a window, letting the clock drain. Then, Keith Smart — who had 12 of Indiana’s final 15 points — pulled up from 18 feet out, and knocked down the go-ahead basket with just four ticks left on the clock.
Syracuse would attempt a full-court pass on the inbounds play, but Smart was there again, this time to intercept the ball and give Bobby Knight his third and final national championship as a head coach.
4. 1993: No. 1 UNC 77, No. 1 Michigan 71
“Such is the way it ends for Dean Smith on championship nights in this decadent city, a guard making jumpers and a poor soul making the mistake of his basketball life.”
So reads a column in the New York Daily News from Tuesday, April 6, 1993.
11 years after Georgetown’s Freddie Brown mistakenly passed to North Carolina’s James Worthy in the final seconds of the two teams’ championship matchup (giving Dean Smith his first ring), UNC was back in the title game, and again the title game was tight in the waning seconds.
With 20 seconds left in the game, UNC’s Pat Sullivan made the front end of a one-and-one to give the Tar Heels a 73-71 lead. But he missed the second, which was corralled by Michigan’s Chris Webber, who already had 23 points and 11 rebounds in the game. Webber sprinted down the court and into the corner, where he was subsequently trapped. The sophomore called a timeout, but Michigan had used its final one moments ago. A technical was called, and the Tar Heels would go on to ice the game at the free throw line, giving Smith his second (and final) national championship.
3. 2008: No. 1 Kansas 75, No. 1 Memphis 68, OT
While other games in this list earned their spot for the storylines leading up to the title bout, this championship’s claim to fame comes mainly from the 2.1 seconds leading up to the final buzzer, mainly a Derrick Rose missed free throw, and a Mario Chalmers shot that would go down as one of the most clutch moments in the history of the tournament.
It’s a type of moment that is better watched than read about.
After rallying from a nine-point deficit with 2:12 left, Kansas had tied the game up. A desperation heave fell short for Memphis, and the game would go to overtime. The Jayhawks would carry their momentum into the extra period, where they outscored Memphis 12-5 and captured the program's third national title.
2. 1985: No. 8 Villanova 66, No. 1 Georgetown 64
In the first year that the NCAA tournament was expanded to 64 teams, one of those teams set a record that has yet to be broken. That would be eighth-seeded Villanova, which became the lowest seed in NCAA history to win the national championship — an impressive feat in and of itself, but add to that who the Wildcats had to knock off in the title game and the victory somehow gets more unbelievable.
That team was mighty Georgetown. Led by All-American Patrick Ewing, the preseason No. 1 team started their season 14-0, and was riding a 16-game winning streak into the championship fight that included a Big East crown along the way. Furthermore, two of their 14 conference wins came against their championship opponent, Villanova.
On the other hand, Villanova was 5-5 in their final 10 regular season games, had fallen out of the AP Top 25 and won their five tournament games leading up to the championship by just 5.6 points a contest.
But that mattered little once the clock started in the final game of the season. To counter the Hoyas’ menacing 1-3-1 defense, the Wildcats employed a patient four corners offense on their way to a 29-28 lead at half.
In the second half, Ewing picked up three straight fouls in the opening minutes, and the Wildcats kept Georgetown at bay, until, with just under five minutes remaining, the Hoyas held a 54-53 lead. Villanova went back to the four corners, holding the ball for 46 seconds (the shot clock wouldn’t be instituted until the following season), before a controversial turnover gave the Hoyas the ball. Now it was Georgetown’s turn to try to stall, but 20 seconds into their own impromptu spread offense, an errant pass was collected by the Wildcats.
Villanova took over with 3:33 left in the game. They didn’t take a shot until, with 2:35 left, Harold Jensen found himself wide open and knocked down the go-ahead jumper.
The Wildcats won the program’s first national title, but Villanova did not return to the championship game until 2016.
1. No. 2 Villanova 77, No. 1 UNC 74
The greatest ending to a national championship also had one of the best starts. Through the first 19 minutes of the game, neither team led by more than five points. UNC managed a seven-point lead with 40 seconds left in the first frame, then led 39-34 at halftime.
The second half offered much of the same, until with 5:29 left in the game, Villanova took a 10-point lead and looked poised to coast to the program’s second national title. Over the next four minutes and 22 seconds, however, the Tar Heels went on a 12-3 run, capped off by a Marcus Paige three and a Brice Johnson jumper to bring the game to within one point with 1:07 left to play.
After two Josh Hart free throws gave the Wildcats a three-point lead again, the ball was in Paige’s hands, and the senior guard hit this shot:
After the game, Paige said that in the air, he saw a wide-open player under the basket, started to pass the ball, realized his team needed three points, double clutched, and released.
If it weren’t for what happened next, that shot might go down as the most impressive basket in the history of the NCAA tournament. But it was soon to be overshadowed. Coming out of a timeout, Kris Jenkins pulled up from half-court and sank the game winner as the buzzer sounded, giving Villanova the title, and giving the world the best finish to a national championship game in history.