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Defeated by Duke, 104-103 (OT), in the 1992 Elite Eight
‘We can’t get over that ’92 game, no matter what’
The moments spilled out in a sequence so implausible they can be hard to fathom even 20 Marches later. They conspired to forge one of the most astounding games in the history of even March Madness, that American habit so prone to astound.
“It was almost like I was dreaming,” the game’s star, Wayne Turner, would say 20 years later.
Yet somehow, the South Region final of March 22, 1998, in St. Petersburg, Fla., falls into the vague category of the somewhat overlooked, in a way that might even remind us about human nature. For one thing, the game featured a “Kentucky” and a “Duke,” a combination of words that shout out a different night, the East Region final of March 28, 1992, the 104-103 overtime marvel in which the lead vacillated five times in the final 32 seconds.
For another thing, Kentucky won the 1998 South Region final.
It lost the 1992 East Region final.
In the mysterious tunnels of the human memory bank, that does seem to matter.
As much as March Madness brims with its famed winners and upset winners and both, its fabric owes just as much to jolting, near-debilitating losses. The pain has taken its diabolical turns striking pretty much everywhere, including even at the kingdoms: North Carolina, coping with what happened with Villanova in 2016; or Arizona, living alongside the fumbling of a 75-60 lead on Illinois with four minutes to go in 2005; or Connecticut, like Kentucky, seeing nightmares of Christian Laettner after 1990; or almost everyone, everywhere.
In the case of the Kentucky fan base, a base one might call rapt while still committing understatement, Laettner’s deathless shot in 1992 in Philadelphia not only wrung bitter and commiserating letters-to-the-editor all the way through that springtime and into the early summer in the Lexington Herald-Leader. It then began reappearing on television promos, March after March after March, laceration after laceration after laceration, Duke’s Thomas Hill always doing the only sensible thing to do upon such a victory: sobbing.
What is it about people, the late coach Rick Majerus once wondered aloud from a dais, that the losses hurt more than the wins help?
“They forget about the ’98 game,” Cameron Mills said of Kentucky fans, speaking as a Kentuckian from Lexington who launched one of the utmost shots in that 1998 game long before he became a Lexington radio host mingling routinely with the fans.
“We can’t get over that ’92 game, no matter what, because: Think about who was involved [in 1992]. It was the recovery of Kentucky’s program [from NCAA probation]. It was three guys from Kentucky, all of whom should have transferred when we got in trouble, but they wouldn’t because they were Kentucky boys. We call them the ‘Unforgettables’ [along with the Indianan Sean Woods] because they got us to that game. And then if it wasn’t for Christian Laettner . . .”
Laettner took one three-point shot in that 1992 game, 10 free throws and nine two-point shots, the last arcing upward at the horn when he turned around in Philadelphia and broke about 3 million hearts in Kentucky.
He made all 20.
“How could you say anyone’s ever played a greater game, at least shooting?” Mills said. “And most of them [the fans], they hate to lose more than they love to win. I do think that’s part of it.”
In St. Petersburg in 1998, Ken Denlinger of The Washington Post knew what he had seen when he began his story from the game, “If the Duke-Kentucky regional final six years ago was the best game in the history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the one they played today ought to be 1A.” Of course, the 1992 game served as unavoidable backdrop, howling from the past as the 1998 game veered into its own ludicrous madness until it ended and one detail blared from its play-by-play:
Duke had led, 71-54, with 9:38 to play, before losing, 86-84, while employing the best coach of the era with his 7-0 record in region finals.
“I remember sitting on the bench and just thinking, ‘Okay, this is my last game,’ ” Mills said. “And the dejection and the sadness. There was no part of me that thought, We’re gonna win this game. Because we’re down 17 with nine-and-a-half minutes left! Who thinks that’s gonna happen?”
Somehow, maybe one hour later, Mike Krzyzewski would find himself saying of Kentucky, “They have amazing camaraderie,” just before hatching another of his customary acts of post-loss grace which have mingled with only episodic departures from same.
“Even at the time when were about to play them, you know, I kept saying to myself, ‘That’s Coach K on the other side,’ ” Turner, the point guard, said recently. “Because I used to play his game on Sega Genesis. He had his own [video] game, called Coach K. That’s the game me, Antoine Walker, Nazr [Mohammed], we always played that game. So it was almost like, ‘That’s Coach K on the other side, he’s like a legendary coach.’ ”
Kentucky then overcame that coach and his No. 1 seed in a manner that felt like mountain-climbing through exceedingly rare air with herculean lungs.
Yet it’s possible that Kentucky fans feel more keenly a game that ended with devastation more than a game that ended with elation. They might feel an outcome in which Krzyzewski said boldly in the huddle with 2.1 seconds left, “We’re going to win,” more than an outcome in which Krzyzewski ran out of timeouts with 5:21 left, then couldn’t provide his incoherent team the reconvening it needed utterly.
They might have lamented Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino not guarding Grant Hill’s Peyton Manning-like inbounds pass in 1992, more than they have exulted in Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith shrewdly calling no timeouts himself, letting the 1998 game flow through its closing moments as games in March seldom do.
Which would a fan prefer to remember: the great college player Jamal Mashburn fouling out with 28 points some 14 seconds from the end in 1992, or the outstanding college point guard Turner changing his team’s tack, attacking the basket chronically, annihilating Duke senior Steve Wojciechowski, scoring 16 points with eight assists, and kicking passes off to Heshimu Evans, Allen Edwards and Scott Padgett for three-point shots?
Would a fan prefer to remember Laettner’s six points in the final 32 seconds and his final shot, or the Mills’s three-pointer to provide a first lead at 79-78 with 2:16 left, and the Louisville native Padgett’s crucial three-pointer with 39 seconds left for an 84-81 lead, of which he said in a recent documentary, “Out Of The Blue,” authored by Mills and Kentucky broadcaster Dick Gabriel, “I’d be lying if I didn’t say in my head, ‘Screw you, Christian Laettner.’ ”
Now, which one does a fan tend to remember?
Duke’s last heave had no chance in 1998. Kentucky players sprawled onto the floor. Mills found it weird to feel fur in the pile until he realized it was the Wildcat mascot. Turner found “the best feeling I’ve ever felt” in basketball, including even the victorious Final Four that followed. And Krzyzewski would finish his media conference by walking out through the curtains, crossing paths with the Kentucky players, stopping and saying to them, audible on the other side, “What you did today . . .” then raving, to them, about them.
“To all of us Kentucky boys,” Mills said, “that’s what I think was forefront in our head, is that, ‘This takes care of Christian Laettner.’ But it doesn’t. For some of us, it’s easier to wipe out that ’92 game because of [the 1998 game], because we were very much a part of it. But it’s funny how many Kentucky fans, they still to this day, hate Christian Laettner. And I don’t know that it’s that they forget about ’98. It’s that 1992 was a seminal moment in this program.”
He then spoke those strange and familiar words of the strange and familiar human species: “Honestly, maybe it’s because we won, it’s not as memorable.”Read more
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Defeated by Illinois, 90-89 (OT), in the 2005 Elite Eight
Lute Olson led Arizona to four Final Fours in his time in the desert. Four nightmarish minutes prevented the Wildcats from reaching a fifth in the autumn of the Hall of Famer’s career.
Third-seeded Arizona drew a daunting task, forced to face top-seeded Illinois in the Chicago suburbs in a regional final. That Illini team was the program’s best since its 1989 Final Four appearance, featuring a stellar backcourt that included Dee Brown, Luther Head and Deron Williams.
Still, the Wildcats seized a 75-60 lead thanks to an 18-6 spurt, seemingly putting some distance between themselves and the Illini as the game’s final TV timeout approached. Arizona maintained an 80-72 lead with 1:03 to play. But Head hit a three-pointer, Brown made a layup off a Williams steal, and Williams canned a three-pointer after an Arizona inbounds pass was deflected to tie it with 38 seconds remaining.
Just like that, the Wildcats’ lead was gone. And while the game went to overtime, it was Illinois that snipped the nets after Arizona’s Hassan Adams missed a shot at the buzzer in the extra session.
“My disappointment is for the team,” Olson said after the game. “I’m disappointed we didn’t reach one of our goals.”
It was, it turned out, the beginning of the end of Olson’s career. Arizona made the round of 32 the next year and a one-and-done appearance in the tournament in 2007. Olson would take a one-year leave of absence and planned to coach in 2008-09 before abruptly announcing his retirement less than a month before that season.
The Wildcats haven’t made it back to a Final Four since, with their fans absorbing plenty more heartbreak in losing regional finals in 2011, 2014 and 2015. All of them came by single-digit margins, but none created quite the anguish in Tucson as letting the 2005 regional final slip away in bewildering fashion.
“It was just an unbelievable thing to lose a game that way,” Arizona guard Mustafa Shakur told reporters afterward.Read more
Duke Blue Devils
Defeated by UNLV, 103-73, in the 1990 national championship
Before Mike Krzyzewski won five national championships at Duke, he had to win his first. Considering how omnipresent the Blue Devils and Coach K are in college basketball, it’s easy to overlook that they made four Final Fours between 1986 and 1990 without snagging a title. They lost to the eventual national champion four times in the NCAA tournament in that span, but their pride was especially tattered in the 1990 title game.
It was — and remains — the most lopsided championship loss in NCAA tournament history.
Duke encountered UNLV in its heyday under Jerry Tarkanian, and the Rebels simply overwhelmed the Blue Devils. UNLV shot 61.2 percent from the fieldand rapidly turned a 12-point game at the break into a blowout. Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson would all go on to become first-round NBA draft selections, and they were the supporting cast in the final for Anderson Hunt, who scored 29 points.
The loss stuck with the Blue Devils for nearly a year. And sure enough, Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner led the team back to the Final Four for the fourth consecutive season. Awaiting in the semifinals were the Rebels, who brought a perfect record and all those same future pros into the teams’ rematch.
The difference this time around? The 6-foot-11 Laettner had gone from really good as a sophomore to borderline unstoppable as a junior, Hurley was a year older, freshman Grant Hill provided stability and Duke figured out a way to slow down UNLV. After Laettner (28 points) made a pair of free throws with 12.7 seconds to go to put Duke up 79-77, Hunt missed a three-pointer at the buzzer and the Blue Devils moved on.
“In last year’s game, we were intimidated. I think we just gave up right after halftime,” Blue Devils guard Thomas Hill told reporters after the game. “But that really helped for this year’s team; we showed them that we weren’t going to back down.”
Two nights later, Duke defeated Kansas, 72-65, for its first national title, the first of five in a quarter-century and one definitely fueled by the misery of the last day of the 1990 season.Read more
Defeated by Villanova, 66-64, in the 1985 national championship
Find a montage of championship game moments from the last 40 years, and the eighth-seeded Wildcats’ riveting upset is in it somewhere. It’s known as “The Perfect Game.” It was hardly that for the Hoyas, who were overwhelming favorites to win consecutive national titles.
No one had gone back-to-back since the UCLA dynasty, and only Duke (1991-92) and Florida (2006-07) have done it since. It requires an exceptional core group willing to stick around and a determined coach who could construct a strong, lasting program identity.
In the mid-1980s, Georgetown teemed with both of those qualities.
Eventual No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Patrick Ewing had already appeared in the national title game as a freshman and led the Hoyas to their first NCAA championship as a junior. A year later, he was poised to cap his career with another title. Coach John Thompson Jr. was in the prime of his Hall of Fame career. The Hoyas had won 121 games in a four-year span, including 16 in a row entering the Big East rematch.
Georgetown wasn’t going to intimidate Villanova. In two regular season meetings, the Wildcats had taken the Hoyas to overtime once (52-50) and were competitive in the other (57-50). But there was no way to predict how flawlessly Rollie Massimino’s team would execute with a championship on the line.
Villanova shot 22 of 28 (78.6 percent) from the floor, more than offsetting Georgetown’s efficiency (29 of 53). The Wildcats also made 22 of 27 free throws, helping to make up for their 17 turnovers against the stingy Hoyas defense.
“All the credit should be given to Villanova,” Thompson told reporters afterward. “They won the national championship fairly. We played as hard as we could. We have no complaints.”
The Hoyas remained a national power for the rest of the decade, finishing with three top-10 finishes in the Associated Press poll in the following five years. But there wouldn’t be another Final Four appearance until another Thompson (John III) was coaching at Georgetown, and the Hoyas haven’t reached a national title game since coming so close to going back to back.Read more
Defeated by UCLA, 73-71, in the 2006 Sweet 16
Adam Morrison was the country’s leading scorer for a team that had risen to the top five in the national rankings. The Gonzaga star ended the season covering his head with his jersey and sobbing on the court.
The 2005-06 Bulldogs — by now known to college basketball fans as the Zags — marked a transformation for the once-plucky program from Spokane, Wash. Gonzaga’s run to the Elite Eight in 1999 was quickly followed by Sweet 16 trips the following two years. The Bulldogs were a double-digit seed all three times.
Gonzaga graduated from Cinderella status and became a national brand, but its postseason success withered. It suffered round-of-32 exits as a No. 2 seed in 2004 and a No. 3 seed in 2005, setting up the program for skepticism as it entered every March for nearly a decade.
Yet the presence of Morrison, a shaggy-haired 6-foot-8 forward who averaged 28.1 points, and a rollicking triple-overtime win over Michigan State in the Maui Invitational early that season made this bunch a relatively known commodity. Plus, the Bulldogs entered the Sweet 16 on a 20-game winning streak.
So when the third-seeded Zags built a 17-point margin in the first half and led 71-62 with a little more than three minutes left, it seemed Mark Few’s program had a chance to go further than ever before. At the very least, the thought that Gonzaga was a one-man band with no interest in playing defense was tossed aside.
But UCLA would score the final 11 points and eventually reach the national title game. Gonzaga, which at the time was making the eighth of its now-20 NCAA trips in a row, remained a reliably steady but rarely impactful team in March. It would make it to the Sweet 16 just once in the next eight years, even losing to upstarts such as Davidson (2008) and Wichita State (2013) early in their respective runs to prominence.
Perhaps the protracted wait made the Zags’ recent success even sweeter. After reaching the second weekend in 2015 and 2016, Gonzaga advanced to its first Final Four last season. Even if they did fall to North Carolina in the title game, the Zags still snipped the nets after winning the West Region final, turning those postseason tears to cheers 11 years later.Read more
Defeated by Cleveland State, 83-79, in the 1986 first round
Indiana had won two national titles in the previous 10 years. It had Coach Bob Knight, who had never lost a first-round game with the Hoosiers. And it was in the midst of a resurgent season.
Then it ran into a team from a conference then called the AMCU-8 that didn’t even have an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. It ran into the Run ’N’ Stun.
A season after the Hoosiers were relegated to the NIT with a 15-13 regular season record, including a meager 7-11 in the Big Ten, they finished second in the Big Ten behind guard Steve Alford and carried a 21-7 record into the NCAA tournament.
The Hoosiers landed a No. 3 seed and a trip to Syracuse, N.Y., to face Cleveland State. The Vikings were making their first NCAA tournament appearance but earned an at-large bid with a 27-3 record that included an upset of DePaul, 11 games with at least 100 points and a narrow 99-95 loss at Ohio State. They called their game the Run ’N’ Stun, and they were not afraid.
Indiana learned soon enough about the power of the Vikings’ pressure defense and eagerness to substitute, and Cleveland State held on for victory. Indiana soon had company: Cleveland State defeated Saint Joseph’s two days later to become the first No. 14 seed to reach the Sweet 16.
Still, it was a shocking setback for a program with such pedigree. The loss would lead to greater fame for two reasons. The first became clear the next fall, when it formed the climax of author John Feinstein’s groundbreaking, behind-the-scenes bestseller “A Season on the Brink.”
More importantly for the Hoosiers, the loss provided more than enough incentive for the following season. With Alford leading the way as a senior in 1987, Indiana went 30-4 and earned its third national title under Knight thanks to Keith Smart’s game-winning jumper in the closing seconds for a 74-73 victory over Syracuse.Read more
Defeated by North Carolina, 54-53 (3OT), in the 1957 national championship
Kansas and North Carolina rank second and third in NCAA history in victories; they have combined for 34 Final Four appearances and nine national titles. But they’ve faced off for the national title only once. It was the longest championship game in NCAA tournament history — and proved so painful for the Goliath Jayhawks that it helped drive their Goliath player out of school.
The Jayhawks, led by Hall of Fame Coach Phog Allen, were 24-2 entering the 1957 tournament final against the 31-0 Tar Heels. But the presence of 7-foot sophomore Wilt Chamberlain — and the game being held before a partisan crowd in nearby Kansas City, Mo. — made Kansas a slight favorite against North Carolina, then a relative upstart under Frank McGuire.
The game was played at an exceedingly slow pace, not uncommon before the shot clock was introduced. North Carolina opened in a zone and would spend much of the game throwing double- and triple-teams at Chamberlain, a dominant figure whose presence made many assume Kansas would cruise to a title. Even after Tar Heels all-American Lennie Rosenbluth fouled out late in regulation, North Carolina forced a tie at 46 to send the game to overtime.
The teams would trade baskets early in the first overtime, then didn’t score again until the third overtime. Gene Elstun made 1 of 2 foul shots with 31 seconds left to nudge Kansas ahead 53-52. But Maurice King fouled North Carolina’s Tommy Kearns at the other end with six seconds left, and Kearns made both free throws to secure a 54-53 victory.
Chamberlain had 23 points and 14 rebounds in the loss, fine numbers given the game’s pace and the constant attention he received from the Tar Heels’ defense. It would also be the last NCAA tournament game of his career.
Frustrated after a junior season spent facing more double- and triple-teams, and stung by criticism that he hadn’t led a title run, Chamberlain left Kansas to join the Harlem Globetrotters at the conclusion of his junior year. Chamberlain’s three years of eligibility yielded just one NCAA tournament appearance, a trip to what remains the only triple-overtime national title game.
It would be another three decades — 1988 — before the proud Jayhawks would again play on the final day of the season.Read more
Defeated by Duke, 95-84, in the 2001 Final Four
Maryland learned no lead was safe against Duke in the middle of the 2000-01 season. It revisited the lesson two months later in the Final Four.
The Terrapins built a 22-point lead in the first half of their first Final Four appearance, only to see Duke whittle it away.
This wasn’t as sudden as the infamous “Gone in 54 Seconds” game that January at Cole Field House, when Maryland squandered a 10-point lead in the last minute of regulation before losing in overtime to the Blue Devils. Duke gradually cut into Maryland’s lead in the Final Four, finally erasing it completely with 6:52 remaining.
But it was ultimately more impactful. Though the January loss precipitated a nearly three-week swoon that almost derailed Maryland’s season, the Final Four setback suffused the Terps with determination that fueled them the following season.
Maryland brought back four starters from that semifinal, including seniors Lonny Baxter, Juan Dixon and Byron Mouton. Driven by that failure, the Terps would lose once in November, December, January and March, splitting a pair of games with Duke along the way.
It was assumed they would have to go through the Blue Devils again. But Duke lost in the Sweet 16 to Indiana, the team the Terps ultimately faced in the 2002 title game. When Maryland fell behind briefly against the Hoosiers in the second half, Dixon drained a go-ahead three-pointer, and the Terps went on to win, 64-52.
“People asked me, ‘Was the Duke game on my mind,’ ” Baxter said afterward. “I was like, ‘No, it won’t be until I win a national championship.’ Now it is because we won tonight.”
It marked the pinnacle of a program just a decade removed from harsh NCAA sanctions. Maryland made it to the top, and there’s no doubt its Final Four loss a year earlier played a role.
“We’ve had to live for the last couple years with the idea that if you don’t win it all, you haven’t had a great year, when you win 25 or 26 games,” Coach Gary Williams said that night. “It’s been tough at times. I think that’s why we won tonight. It’s made everybody a little tougher. Probably made me a better coach. I know it really helped our players in terms of motivation. We’re just glad we came through tonight when we had to.”Read more
Defeated by North Carolina, 77-71, in the 1993 national championship
Chris Webber took a timeout Michigan didn’t have, and it effectively brought an end to an era.
While UNLV and Duke boasted dominant teams in the early 1990s, the most riveting team of that time was Michigan. The Wolverines won the national title in 1989 with a veteran team, but Coach Steve Fisher set about luring one of the most lauded recruiting classes in the sport’s history to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1991.
Webber was the headliner, and Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose quickly joined him in the Wolverines’ starting lineup. Jimmy King was a top-10 national recruit, and Ray Jackson took over as a full-time starter by February of their freshman year. Together, they were the Fab Five.
They blossomed quickly and boldly, breaking into the national consciousness both with their style of play and fashion — breaking conventions with black socks and extra-baggy shorts that soon became ubiquitous across basketball. And, of course, they won. The Wolverines earned a No. 6 seed in 1992 and raced through the Southeast Regionbefore falling to defending champion Duke, 71-51, in the national title game.
No matter. In a time before college was merely a one-year pit stop for elite players, there was always next year. The Wolverines opened the 1992-93 season ranked No. 1 in the nation and never fell out of the top 10, eventually taking a 31-4 record into a consecutive national championship appearance, this time against North Carolina.
Michigan trailed by two with 19 seconds left when Webber collected a rebound off a missed free throw. He got away with an obvious travel, rushed toward the sideline and called a timeout with 11 seconds to play.
The only problem? The Wolverines had used all of their timeouts, and Webber’s miscue resulted in a technical foul and both free throws and possession for the Tar Heels. The game was over.
Webber turned pro, and the Howard-led remnants of the Fab Five got Michigan to a regional final the following year. But an NCAA investigation into Wolverine booster Ed Martin’s payments to players later led to the vacation of the entire 1992-93 season.
Howard left Michigan after his junior season; it would be another 19 years before the Wolverines made it back to the Final Four.Read more
Michigan State Spartans
Defeated by Middle Tennessee, 90-81, in the 2016 first round
Michigan State looked like it had perhaps the highest floor of any team in the 2016 NCAA tournament. Instead, Middle Tennessee knocked March maestro Tom Izzo’s Spartans to the deck in the first round.
The Spartans were a model of stability throughout that season. Spurred by the memory of a Final Four exit against Duke the previous spring, Michigan State rolled to a 29-5 record. Aside from suffering a sweep against Iowa, the Spartans had only three one-point losses and took a nine-game winning streak into the postseason.
Izzo, generally not one for over-the-top predictions, declared this team could win it all. And with senior guard Denzel Valentine, who would be named the Associated Press national player of the year, averaging 19.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.8 assists, the Spartans were likely to have the top player on the floor at nearly all times.
But Middle Tennessee pounced quickly, building a 15-2 lead in the first five minutes. The Spartans would rally repeatedly, several times closing within a point. But Reggie Upshaw and the Blue Raiders always had an answer, shooting 55.9 percent from the floor and 57.9 percent from three-point range.
And just like that, Middle Tennessee owned the eighth 15-over-2 upset in tournament history.
“That’s probably one of the worst games we played all year, and it happened to be in the first round,” Valentine told reporters afterward. “You can’t have that if you want to win championships.”
It also marked the only time in 12 NCAA appearances as a No. 5 seed or better that Izzo didn’t guide the Spartans out of the first weekend. The Spartans enter this March 21-5 in the second game at an NCAA site under Izzo, but they didn’t even get that far in 2016.
“I put myself out there that this team had a chance to win a national championship,” Izzo said. “We just got beat. I want everybody to know this team had a chance to win a national championship. I don’t feel one bit different. It’s what they say about pro ball in college, one-and-done time . . . . One-and-done time makes it a little different than best-of-seven. And one bad day and you’re going home.”Read more
North Carolina Tar Heels
Defeated by Villanova, 77-74, in the 2016 national championship
Marcus Paige hung in the air and released an off-balance three-pointer that rattled in with 4.7 seconds left. North Carolina had forced the national championship game into overtime.
Only it hadn’t.
Villanova’s Kris Jenkins instead became the March Madness legend, drilling a three-pointer at the buzzer.
“You know, just that feeling of walking off the court, feeling the confetti fall, but it’s not for you,” Tar Heels guard Joel Berry II told reporters afterward. “It’s a horrible feeling.”
While Villanova celebrated, North Carolina tried to process its loss. The Tar Heels hadn’t stumbled since February, winning 10 in a row and claiming the ACC tournament, the East Region of the NCAA tournament and the program’s first trip to the Final Four since 2009.
There was also the swirl of an NCAA investigation into the school’s academic misconduct, a long-running saga Coach Roy Williams often referred to as “junk.” Fair or not, it was an issue that hovered over the Tar Heels for several years this decade.
As much uncertainty as it brought, the way the 2015-16 season ended delivered clarity to North Carolina’s players. The Tar Heels lost their savvy point guard (Paige) and their best interior presence (Brice Johnson) but returned six of their top eight scorers for the following season. Junior forward Justin Jackson earned ACC player of the year honors, and Carolina found its way back to the Final Four.
In the semifinals, senior Kennedy Meeks delivered 25 points and 14 rebounds as the Tar Heels squeaked by Oregon. Two nights later, Berry scored 22 points and had six assists while playing on two bum ankles to help secure a 71-65 victory over Gonzaga. He was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
This time, the confetti fell for him and the Tar Heels.
“It’s just an unbelievable feeling,” Berry said. “And this is what we worked for. And the ups and downs that we’ve had? It’s all worth it. And I can’t even describe my feeling right now, but I am just glad that I was able to do something with this team because I felt like just the personality and what we went through and I think we just deserved it.”Read more
Defeated by Georgetown, 50-49, in the 1989 first round
A No. 16 seed has never defeated a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. It wasn’t for lack of effort — or fearlessness — on the part of Princeton.
While most of the 132 losses absorbed by 16 seeds over the last 33 tournaments were garden-variety blowouts, a handful of underdogs delivered legitimate scares. Chief among them was the Tigers’ last-second loss, which launched them as the team no blue-blood program wanted to play for years afterward and introduced wise-owl coach Pete Carril and the influential “Princeton offense” to a national audience. More than that, it has lingered as a talisman of hope for every No. 16 seed that has followed.
Georgetown was four years removed from its last Final Four appearance, but it was still one of the banner programs of the decade. The Hoyas were ranked No. 2 in the country, were coming off a Big East tournament title and had two future Hall of Famers (Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo) in their frontcourt.
As for Princeton? It had two Washington natives in Matt Lapin and George Leftwich, who’d faced several Hoyas in Kenner League games over the summer.
“If they get a dunk or block a shot, big deal,” Lapin told The Washington Post the day before the game. “They’ve dunked on Derrick Coleman and blocked shots by Sherman Douglas. Look, their guys are great basketball players. But we think we can play with them. I mean, George and I did.”
All of the Tigers ultimately did. Princeton built a 10-point lead, using the backdoor cuts synonymous with Carril’s methodical offense to fluster the Hoyas. Georgetown earned its first lead midway through the second half and took a one-point lead with 23 seconds to go when Mourning made 1 of 2 free throws.
Tigers guard Bob Scrabis appeared to have a clear look off a screen with seven seconds to go. But Mourning swatted it away, Kit Mueller’s desperation heave at the buzzer was short and Georgetown survived.
In the loss, Princeton gave fans a lasting win. At the time, there was a push to squeeze out some small-conference champions in favor of more at-large bids for bigger programs. The Tigers’ near-upset effectively shelved those plans. A quarter-century later, Sports Illustrated called it “the game that saved March Madness.”Read more
Defeated by N.C. State, 80-77 (2OT), in the 1974 Final Four
Someone eventually was going to halt UCLA’s dynasty of the late 1960s and early 1970s. That makes it no less painful for one of the most famous Bruins players.
“That failure has plagued me, and will,” star center Bill Walton told NCAA.com in 2015. “It is a stigma on my soul, and there’s no way I can get rid of it.”
There was already a degree of vulnerability to the Bruins, which was borderline unthinkable in those days. UCLA had won seven consecutive national titles and nine of the previous 10. They had even hammered David Thompson and N.C. State, 84-66, on Dec. 15 in St. Louis.
But the Bruins’ 88-game winning streak had come to an end at Notre Dame in January, removing the sense of inevitability that arrived nearly every March. A month later, UCLA dropped both games of a weekend trip to Oregon and Oregon State.
Despite those missteps, UCLA survived the first weekend of the NCAA tournament (including a first-round overtime defeat of Dayton) to come within two victories of yet another championship. Awaiting in the semifinal was the Wolfpack, which hadn’t lost since it faced the Bruins before Christmas and was sure to be buoyed by a de facto home-court advantage in Greensboro, N.C. In Thompson, it boasted an all-time college great who could match Walton’s brilliance on the floor. And it had been galvanized in the ACC tournament final when it outlasted national contender Maryland, 103-100, in an overtime classic to clinch an automatic bid at a time when that was the only path to the NCAAs.
Still, UCLA had its chances, owning a lead late in regulation before N.C. State rallied. Once the game reached a second overtime, the Bruins seized a 74-67 advantage.
It didn’t last. Thompson and the Wolfpack closed the game on a 13-3 run and, two days later, defeated Marquette to become the first team other than UCLA to win the national title since 1966. Walton, who had 29 points and 18 rebounds, was left with a loss he and the Bruins would never forget.
The loss didn’t bring an immediate end of UCLA’s relevance; the Bruins would claim their 10th national title in 1975, after which Wooden retired. But it did end an era of dominance no program has come close to replicating in the years since.Read more
Defeated by N.C. State, 71-68, in the 2015 round of 32
Perhaps Villanova has never suffered that one singularly agonizing postseason loss that has tormented many other programs. Heck, the Wildcats delivered those setbacks to Georgetown (1985) and North Carolina (2016) on the final day of the season.
But a series of aggravating outcomes? No one assembled a bigger collection of frustrating early tournament exits than Coach Jay Wright’s program.
A year after making the Final Four in 2009, Villanova shuffled out of the postseason in the second round against 10th-seeded Saint Mary’s. In 2011 and 2013, the Wildcats dropped opening-round games to George Mason and North Carolina, respectively.
And in 2014, a second-seeded Villanova team was sent packing by seventh-seeded Connecticut, 77-65, in a matchup of old Big East rivals. Little did anyone know at the time that Shabazz Napier and the Huskies would go on to win the national title.
The trend was most harshly illustrated the following March when Villanova bagged the No. 1 seed in the East regional and took a 16-game winning streak into a second-round matchup against N.C. State, which needed a last-second hook shot simply to make it out of the first round.
Instead of gliding into a regional semifinal, Villanova shot a miserable 31.1 percent and another dominant regular season had given way to a premature postseason exit.
“I know we have to answer to the fact that we did not get to the second weekend again,” Wright said afterward. “We have to own that. But it’s not going to define us within our program. It’s going to define us outside of our program and we accept that . . . . We’re not afraid to fail. We failed here in this NCAA tournament. And we just got to accept it and we’ve got to own it and live with it. But it won’t define us.”
Wright knew he would return a stellar core group that included Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Daniel Ochefu. He also had the benefit of knowing the Wildcats had gone 62-8 over the previous two seasons.
Eventually, teams that good usually punch through if given enough chances. For Villanova, it happened the following year, when they won their first national title since 1985 on Jenkins’s buzzer-beating three-pointer. It’s an excellent reminder a string of early exits doesn’t preclude any program from enjoying a magical March.Read more
Defeated by Syracuse, 68-62, in the 2016 Elite Eight
It was the third consecutive year the Cavaliers had earned a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. They were finally free of dealing with Michigan State, which had knocked them from the tournament the previous two years but suffered a stunning first-round loss to Middle Tennessee. And here they were on the cusp of their first Final Four since 1984, leading by 15 with less than 10 minutes to go against a 10th-seeded Syracuse team they had defeated two months earlier.
Then the Orange’s sizzling shooting and confounding press discombobulated Virginia to cost Tony Bennett’s program one of the few feats it has yet to achieve.
This was the best blend of offense and defense Bennett had constructed in Charlottesville. With Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill enjoying exceptional senior seasons and junior point guard London Perrantes limiting errors, the Cavaliers entered the Elite Eight with a 29-7 record and no losses by more than seven points.
If there was a vulnerability, it was oddly on Bennett’s trademark. The Cavaliers, consistently the top defensive team in the nation under Bennett, were average at stopping three-point shooting. Syracuse, led by Malachi Richardson’s 23 points, took advantage by making 5 of 9 from the outside in the second half.
But that alone wasn’t the reason Virginia saw its 15-point lead erased in less than four minutes. The Cavaliers were unable to cope with the full-court press Syracuse unleashed midway though the second half and scored just eight points in the final nine minutes.
“I would say just being so close to something that you wanted for so long, I would say that’s the biggest shock,” Gill said. “We had a big lead, and then we let it go.”
Programs often need time to break through to a Final Four and to figure out how to cope with the agony of coming so close. Yet even that night, Bennett maintained a steady sense of what the Cavaliers had done — and what could yet come.
“We will have some tough nights because you’re so close you could taste it, but absolutely joy will come in the morning for what these guys have established for Virginia basketball,” Bennett said. “My gosh, I mean, where it was when they got here, all the guys that have helped get it to that, there will be joy, and I’m just so thankful to have coached them.”Read more