It’s one of the foundations of March Madness: buzzer beaters in the NCAA tournament.
Those last-second shots, along with the patented upsets, have turned the men’s NCAA basketball tournament into must-see TV and a premier event on the sports calendar each year.
As we prepare for the 2023 tourney and see who reaches the Final Four in Houston, let’s take a look at some of the top moments from past tournaments. It’s the top 10 buzzer beaters in men’s NCAA tournament history.
Before we get started, a buzzer beater is a shot that goes up into the air, the horn sounds, and the ball then goes into the net. If there’s time remaining on the clock when the shot is made, it’s not a buzzer beater. Sorry, Keith Smart and Lorenzo Charles.
10. Drew Nicholas, Maryland vs. UNC-Wilmington in 2003
Maryland, despite being a 6-seed in the 2003 NCAA tournament, was the defending national champions and getting everything UNC-Wilmington could throw at them in a first-round contest. The Terps were down a point with 5 seconds remaining, and the Seahawks were doing their best to prevent Steve Blake from beating them. No matter: Drew Nicholas took the inbounds pass, drove the length of the court, and let loose a 3-point shot while on the run. The shot dropped through the hoop, keeping the Terrapins’ title defense alive.
9. Bryce Drew, Valparaiso vs. Ole Miss in 1998
One of the early poster children for the first-round March Madness upset was Bryce Drew. The Rebels were a 4-seed against 13-seeded Valpo. Ole Miss missed two free throws, keeping the door open for the school then known as the Crusaders to fire one final shot. After an inbounds pass that went about two-thirds of the court, a quick pass went to Bryce Drew, who had a good look at a 3-point shot that found nothing but net. Drew, whose father Homer Drew coached this Valpo team, would go on to be a head coach at his alma mater and also at Vanderbilt.
8. Paul Jesperson, Northern Iowa vs. Texas in 2016
Northern Iowa has a history of being troublesome for higher-seeded teams in the NCAA tournament. After already beating a 3-seed (Missouri) and 1-seed (Kansas) in earlier tourneys, the Panthers were an 11-seed in the 2016 tournament and squared off with 6-seeded Texas. It was a close game throughout that was tied at 72 after the Longhorns got a basked with 2.7 seconds remaining. Deciding against taking a timeout, the Panthers inbounded the ball to Paul Jesperson, who let loose with a half-court shot. The buzzer sounded while the ball was in the air, and the next two sounds were the ball smacking off the backboard and then going through the net. The next sound that followed was the roar of the crowd in Oklahoma City as UNI celebrated.
7. James Forrest, Georgia Tech vs. USC in 1992
What brings this play to our list is because the game-winning shot came with 0.8 seconds left on the clock when the ball was brought in from out of bounds. Known as the “hot potato” play, Forrest took the pass and fired the ball in the direction of the hoop. The ball went in, giving Forrest his first made 3-pointer of the season and a win over the 2-seed Trojans. CBS analyst Al Maguire summed it up best: “Holy mackerel!”
6. Christian Laettner, Duke vs. Connecticut in 1990
We’ll get to Christian Laettner’s more famous buzzer beater later on in the list, but in 1990, the Duke Blue Devils were looking for their third-straight Final Four appearance and first championship in school history. Duke was battling Tate George’s UConn Huskies in the Elite Eight, and with Connecticut up one in the final seconds, it was looking good for the Big East program’s first trip to the Final Four.
Laettner, however, had other plans. After taking an inbounds pass with 2.6 seconds left, the sophomore put up a jumper that found the net for a 79-78 win. Duke would lose the title game that year to UNLV by 30 points but would beat the Runnin’ Rebels the following year.
Virginia was on the path to redemption in 2019, a year removed from becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in NCAA tournament history. The Cavaliers, who were again a top seed, faced 3-seed Purdue in the Elite 8 round with a trip to the Final Four on the line. Down by two, Ty Jerome missed a free throw. Mamadi Diakite swatted the ball on the rebound attempt. With the ball heading away from the Cavs’ basket and time running out, Kihei Clark chased it down and found Diakite just outside the paint. His jumper fell as time expired, sending the game into overtime. The Cavs won that game and two more to win the national championship.
4. Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga vs. UCLA in 2021
Even though this was a meeting of two top-tier college basketball programs, UCLA had made a run all the way from the First Four to the Final Four as an 11-seed in 2021. Gonzaga, on the other hand, was looking to become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to finish an entire season undefeated. In overtime, the Bruins tied the game with 8 seconds remaining. With a timeout to spare, Gonzaga took the ball out and Jalen Suggs launched a shot from just inside half court. After bouncing off the glass, the shot fell. Unfortunately for the Zags, they would fall in the title game to Baylor.
3. U.S. Reed, Arkansas vs. Louisville in 1981
Two years before Charles’ last-second shot lifted North Carolina State to a national championship, and years before there were hundreds of bets available on each March Madness game, this is the play that many credit for the NCAA tournament becoming a can’t-miss event. Louisville was the defending national champion and seeded 4th in 1981. A jumper by Derek Smith put the Cardinals ahead by one over Eddie Sutton’s Arkansas Razorbacks. But following a timeout, U.S. Reed nearly ran out of time at half court before taking a 49-foot jump shot. The ball went right through the hoop for a one-point win (yes, this was before the NCAA adopted the 3-point shot).
2. Kris Jenkins, Villanova vs. North Carolina in 2016
Lorenzo Charles and Keith Smart hit late shots to win national championships, but Villanova’s Kris Jenkins is the only one to win a title with a true buzzer beater. After North Carolina tied the 2016 National Championship game at 77 with seconds remaining, Jenkins trailed the ball as it was brought down court. With one second left, Jenkins received the ball and sent it towards the basket. Pandemonium ensued as soon as the ball cleared the cylinder, giving Nova its first title in 31 years. With fireworks exploding and streamers and confetti falling onto the court, it was a scene that truly captures what March Madness is all about (even though this took place in April).
1. Christian Laettner, Duke vs. Kentucky in 1992
What sets Christian Laettner’s shot in the 1992 NCAA Tournament regional final above the others high on this list is that his Duke Blue Devils were losing the game at the time of his clutch shot. Down 103-102 to Kentucky in overtime, Grant Hill threw a pass three-quarters of the way down the court to the other free throw line. Laettner was there waiting for it, even took a dribble, before spinning and nailing the jumper. A week later, the Blue Devils would win their second national title in as many years. The win also cemented Duke as a top-tier program that remains the case to this day.