You can’t tell the story of Final Four Saturday without regaling the heroics of Christian Laettner, Lew Alcindor, Akeem Olajuwon, Bill Walton, Steve Alford, James Worthy, David Thompson … and Frank Kaminsky.
Frank Kaminsky … really?
As we celebrate the 81st anniversary of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (sadly, without actual live hoops), BATSBY Sports breaks down the 15 greatest (or most significant) games from Final Four Saturday.
The term Final Four Saturday may be universal to the sporting public now, but it’s also relatively loose in tone – since the national semifinals used to be held on Thursdays in the 1960s and 70s (with the championship game on Saturday).
2019 — VIRGINIA 63, AUBURN 62
RANKING: HONORABLE MENTION
SKINNY: Let’s offer some bonus-pick love to the most recent game of this countdown.
In 2018, Virginia suffered the ultimate humiliation of becoming the first 1-seed in NCAA tournament history to fall to a 16 (University of Maryland-Baltimore County); and frankly, it was a seismic blowout.
Fast forward to 2019: The Cavaliers owned a top seed once again, but weren’t viewed as massive title favorites this time, often playing in the shadow of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Gonzaga or Michigan State – which had a recent track record of bouncing UVa from tournament action.
Virginia was steady enough to get through the initial three rounds without much anxiety; but that went out in the window against 3-seeded Purdue (South final), which seemingly had the regional championship locked up in the final moments.
The most memorable part: The Boilermakers were up two with 5.9 seconds left, and the Cavs shooting just one free throw. An unintentional miss, frantically led to a long rebound for Virginia (arguably a missed over-and-back call) … and then a game-tying basket with no time on the clock (from Mamadi Diakite).
UVa managed to win in overtime, clinching the school’s first Final Four appearance since 1984.
The Wahoos were even more fortunate on Final Four Saturday: Trailing by two scores with under 10 seconds left, Virginia’s Kyle Guy initially hit a corner three-pointer with 6.8 seconds to spare.
Auburn’s Jared Harper subsequently buried one of two free throws to boost the Tigers’ lead to two with 1.5 ticks left and for its inbounds pass in the frontcourt, Guy caught the ball on the opposite corner and had a great look at the game-winning basket … which didn’t fall as the buzzer rang.
However, the officials called a low touch foul on Auburn’s Samir Doughty, which led to Guy nailing all three free throws to solidify Virginia’s 63-62 win.
The final foul elicited a flood of controversy in the aftermath, but it was also an incident that could have gone either way. As such, Auburn became the only team in Final Four history to lose when holding a four-point lead with less than seven seconds remaining.
As a postscript, two nights later, Virginia needed more late heroics to force overtime against Texas Tech in the national title game, before eventually pulling away (85-77) and capturing the school’s first men’s championship.
1971 — VILLANOVA 92, WESTERN KENTUCKY 89 (2OT)
SKINNY: This Final Four classic holds a dubious place in modern history, comprising not one, but two teams (Villanova, Western Kentucky) that would eventually vacate tournament victories – due to competing with ineligible players.
And that’s a real shame, since Villanova’s Howard Porter sparked the Wildcats to a scintillating 92-89 win over the Hilltoppers, needing double overtime to earn a spot in the championship game.
For its four tourney outings leading up to the NCAA final, Villanova averaged 90 points; and for the season, five players – Porter (23.5 ppg), Hank Siemiontkowski (15.8 ppg), Chris Ford (13.8 ppg), Tom Inglesby (13.3 ppg), Clarence Smith (13.0 ppg) – averaged double-digit scoring.
And need we remind you … the three-point line did not exist in 1971.
Everything changed in the championship game, though, as UCLA kept Villanova under wraps and earned the 68-62 victory, representing the Bruins’ fifth straight NCAA title.
1993 — MICHIGAN 81, KENTUCKY 78 (OT)
SKINNY: This game would have had a substantially higher ranking, if Michigan hadn’t been forced to vacate its wins from the 1992-93 season down the road, as part of the Chris Webber/Ed Martin scandal fallout.
On Final Four Saturday in New Orleans, the CBS audience was treated to a heavyweight matchup of No. 1 seeds, top-notch coaches (Rick Pitino vs. Steve Fisher) and a flood of eventual first-round picks in the NBA draft (Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jamal Mashburn).
Plus, this was at the height of Michigan’s Fab Five fame, a pulse-pounding, yet turbulent period which changed the culture of college basketball and the apparel business, at large.
The Fab Five (Webber, Rose, Howard, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson) accounted for 75 of Michigan’s 81 points in the victory over Kentucky.
But here’s the fascinating part of this triumph:
No Wolverines player buried a single three-point attempt, a surreal feat that would never fly in today’s three-and-D game.
1977 — MARQUETTE 51, UNC-CHARLOTTE 49
SKINNY: It’s only fitting coach Al McGuire’s career would end on a drama-filled note.
On Final Four Saturday in Atlanta (the old Omni), with Marquette and North Carolina-Charlotte tied at 49 and three seconds remaining, Warriors guard Butch Lee heaved a long inbounds pass roughly 87 feet.
The ball was initially tipped by UNC-Charlotte’s Cornbread Maxwell, but recovered by Marquette forward Jerome Whitehead … who power-dribbled to the basket before awkwardly dunking the ball before the buzzer.
It marked one of the most controversial endings in tournament history.
However, as the video clip would attest, Whitehead cleanly released the ball before the clock struck zero.
Two nights later, Marquette trumped North Carolina in the championship game, ending McGuire’s coaching career on the highest of notes.
1981 — NORTH CAROLINA 78, VIRGINIA 65
SKINNY: The North Carolina-Virginia rivalry was starting to gather serious national steam in 1981.
The young Heels had future college stars like James Worthy, Jimmy Black, and Sam Perkins, and the Cavaliers featured Jeff Lamp and 7-foot-4 sophomore Ralph Sampson (AP Player of the Year) patrolling the paint.
However, senior forward Al Wood stole the show on Final Four Saturday in Philadelphia, exploding for 39 points (25 in the second half) and single-handedly carrying UNC to a berth in Monday’s title game.
The euphoria of Wood’s masterpiece soon would wash away, though, based on two sizable occurrences:
a) Isiah Thomas and the Hoosiers clamped down on UNC in the championship game, rolling to a 63-50 victory.
b) On a grander scale, Monday’s title game was nearly postponed, due to the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan earlier in the day.
(Watch the YouTube clip … and be amazed by the eerie silence of announcers Dick Enberg, Al McGuire and Billy Packer, when NBC had switched back to network coverage of President Reagan in the hospital.)
1978 — DUKE 90, NOTRE DAME 86
SKINNY: We’ll keep this one short and sweet: If the NCAA had adopted the three-point line in the 1970s, the Duke-Notre Dame clash would have ended up as the highest-scoring Final Four Saturday game in history.
The Blue Devils, led by Mike Gminski (29 points), Eugene Banks (22 points, 12 boards) and Jim Spanarkel (20 points), shot 55 percent from the field.
On a similarly stellar note, Notre Dame produced five double-digit scorers (Don Williams, Kelly Tripucka, Dave Batton, Bruce Flowers, Tracy Jackson) and notched 57 points in the second half alone.
It was a run-and-gun game for the ages, even though neither team featured across-the-board speed with its playing rotations.
2004 — CONNECTICUT 79, DUKE 78
SKINNY: There’s an old adage about Final Four weekend: Two captivating semifinals matchups … ultimately lead to a boring title game and vice versa.
This held true for the 2004 Final Four in San Antonio.
In the opener, Georgia Tech’s Will Bynum drove through the Oklahoma State defense for a game-winning layup off the high glass with just 1.5 seconds left.
A few moments prior, OSU’s John Lucas III buried a long three-pointer to knot the score at 65.
For the nightcap, pitting superpowers Duke and Connecticut, the Huskies (led by Emeka Okafor’s 18 second-half points) scored the game’s final 12 points to collect a miraculous win over the Blue Devils – preventing the first all-ACC national championship in tournament history.
1989 — MICHIGAN 83, ILLINOIS 81
SKINNY: Few people believed Michigan could beat Illinois on Final Four Saturday in Seattle, just two weeks after the Flyin’ Illini had dismantled the Wolverines in Ann Arbor (89-73).
Of course, that blowout came prior to Michigan coach Bill Frieder secretly accepting the head job at Arizona State two days before the NCAA tournament – spinning forward a series of dramatic events that led to U-M athletic director Bo Schembechler firing Frieder (on the spot) and tapping assistant Steve Fisher to guide the battered and bruised Wolverines in tourney action.
On Final Four Saturday, Michigan pulled out a last-second win over the favored Illini, thanks to Sean Higgins’ short put-back off a missed three-pointer from forward Terry Mills.
Two nights later, Michigan clipped Seton Hall in overtime to capture the program’s first national title in hoops.
2001 — DUKE 95, MARYLAND 84
SKINNY: The Duke-Maryland rivalry had long been a contentious one, when sharing the ACC spotlight, but the stakes were never higher than 19 years ago.
And early on, it was all Maryland, which sprinted to separate leads of 27-9 and 39-17 … before falling from grace in the second half.
Led by Shane Battier (25 points), the Blue Devils pulled off a serious comeback, storming to a 95-84 win in the national semifinal.
Two nights later, Duke beat Arizona (82-72) to clinch coach Mike Krzyzewski’s third national championship in 10 years.
Interestingly, the 2001 Blue Devils won all six of their NCAA games by double digits.
1979 — INDIANA STATE 76, DEPAUL 74
SKINNY: Larry Bird might have produced the greatest single performance of any player on Final Four Saturday, rolling for 35 points (16 of 19 shooting), 16 rebounds and nine assists against DePaul, while advancing No. 1 Indiana State (33-0) to the championship against Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans.
Bird, who had already been drafted by the Celtics in 1978 (the NBA permitted teams to draft college juniors back then … even if they stayed as seniors), was just becoming a national phenomenon in March of ’79, due to Indiana State’s lack of TV exposure in these pre-ESPN days.
As such, the win over DePaul might have forever changed the perception of Bird’s polished talents.
At the very least, Saturday’s heroics set the stage for the largest TV audience in NCAA hoops history (35-plus million viewers … 24.1 Nielsen rating), as Magic beat Bird in the national title game – ushering in a new age of tournament hysteria during March.
Or Madness, if you will.
1975 — UCLA 75, LOUISVILLE 74
SKINNY: On the heels of UCLA’s dramatic win over Louisville in the Final Four round, legendary coach John Wooden revealed the NCAA final (vs. Kentucky) would be his last game.
Looking back, though, the Bruins were lucky to reach the championship, rallying from a four-point deficit in the final minute to force overtime … and then getting a small miracle in the extra session, when Louisville guard Terry Howard – who apparently hadn’t missed a free throw all season (the records were sketchy back then) – booted a one-and-one with the Cardinals clinging to a one-point lead with 20-plus seconds left.
In 1975, there was no three-point line or shot clock … meaning that if Howard had nailed both free throws, Wooden likely would have missed on his 10th national championship with the Bruins.
Watch this NBC clip from 45 years ago … the action was relentless in the final seconds.
1987 — INDIANA 97, UNLV 93
SKINNY: Heading into the 1987 Final Four, Indiana and UNLV were viewed as great teams … but with drastically different styles of play.
The Hoosiers were supposedly cool, methodical and efficient, taking their cues from senior leader Steve Alford.
The aptly named Runnin’ Rebels, in turn, were a frenetic bunch that wanted to push the ball on every single possession.
The fact that Indiana defeated UNLV was only a mild surprise.
The real shocker involved the following: Thirty-three years later, the Hoosiers and Runnin’ Rebels still boast the highest-scoring Final Four tilt in NCAA history – thanks to Alford’s 33 points and Freddie Banks’ 10 three-pointers for UNLV (still a record for Final Four weekend).
Prior to updating this countdown, I re-watched Indiana vs. UNLV a few days ago; and it holds up pretty well, when comparing it to the speed of the modern game.
2015 — WISCONSIN 71, KENTUCKY 64
SKINNY: We can already hear the Badgers faithful screaming in unison, How can you, a Big Ten alum (Michigan State) rank this at No. 4 … when it’s on the short list of greatest upsets in college basketball history?
That’s a fair beef, for sure.
However, this classic falls just achingly short of eclipsing (in no particular order) … the most jarring upset in Final Four history, the greatest dunk-a-thon in Final Four history and the end of a dynastic streak of consecutive NCAA championships that will never be duplicated on the men’s side.
Now, let’s celebrate the greatness of this game:
a) Kentucky entered Final Four weekend at 38-0 and ranked No. 1. By extension, the Wildcats were vying to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976.
b) For that 2014-15 season, Kentucky notched 16 victories of 20 points or more.
Think about that for a second.
While playing against top-notch competition, the Wildcats were uber-dominant for two-thirds of their games (and this doesn’t include blowouts ranging from 15-19 points).
c) Wisconsin had the, uh, luxury of losing a 74-73 heartbreaker to Kentucky in the 2014 Final Four.
So, instead of being fearful of the Kentucky brand, the Badgers (led by Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes, Traevon Jackson, Bronson Koenig) were actually craving for a rematch in 2015.
1974 — NC STATE 80, UCLA 77 (2OT)
SKINNY: In January 1974, Notre Dame stunned No. 1 UCLA to bust the Bruins’ 88-game win streak, a men’s hoops record that still stands today.
Two months later, UCLA saw another peerless streak come to an end – the program’s run of seven straight national titles, halted by North Carolina State.
During the national semifinals in nearby Greensboro, N.C., the Wolfpack – led by Tom Burlison, Monty Towe and the incomparable David Thompson – outlasted Bill Walton and the Bruins, rallying from a large deficit in double overtime.
Two days later, N.C. State rolled through Marquette to clinch The Pack’s first national title.
1983 — HOUSTON 94, LOUISVILLE 81
SKINNY: Say hello to the most enjoyable experience of this countdown … and it’s not even close.
North Carolina State’s victory over Houston (aka Phi Slama Jamma) in the 1983 final will forever be punctuated by Lorenzo Charles’ dunk off Dereck Whittenburg’s desperation airball before the buzzer … and coach Jim Valvano charmingly running around the court.
THEY WON IT … ON THE DUNK!!!!
Leading into the title match, though, Houston-N.C. State was actually viewed as a potential snoozer, with the real championship game taking place two days earlier.
On Final Four Saturday, Houston and Louisville, the top-ranked teams in the country, combined for 175 points and nearly 30 dunks – while also conquering the high altitude of Albuquerque, N.M.
Akeem (now Hakeem) Olajuwon tallied 21 points, 22 rebounds and eight blocks … while high-flying teammate Clyde Drexler collected 21 points, seven boards and six assists for the Cougars.
The best part of this clip: Check out NC State coach Jim Valvano after the Houston-Louisville game, essentially waving the white flag to his team’s chances, while talking to CBS icon Brent Musburger.
But it was all a ruse with the TV-savvy Valvano. He converted the hype and hysteria of Saturday’s showcase …. into an upset for the ages on Monday night.
1991 — DUKE 79, UNLV 77
SKINNY: In March 1991, the Runnin’ Rebels (defending national champs), led by Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony, were the undisputed kings of college basketball, rattling off 34 straight victories and seemingly cruising toward back-to-back titles.
On the flip side, the Blue Devils – led by Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, and freshman Grant Hill – were still being ridiculed for getting fleeced by UNLV (103-73) in the 1990 NCAA final.
Things would be different the following year. Late in the 1991 semifinal (Indianapolis), Hurley buried a super-clutch three-pointer, trimming Duke’s deficit to two points.
A few minutes later, Laettner coolly nailed a pair of free throws to put the Devils up by two with 12.7 seconds left.
On its final possession, UNLV couldn’t get off a clean shot from long range, sealing Duke’s landmark upset.
Two nights later, the Blue Devils would claim the first of five national titles in the Coach K era, beating Kansas in the final.