Final Four Saturday was a good one, with both games coming down to the final minute. I don’t know that either game reaches the absolute top rung of best Final Four games ever—both Gonzaga and North Carolina seemed in control for extended stretches before it suddenly got close. But two games being extremely compelling did put this day as a whole in the running for the best overall Semi-Final Saturday.
In reviewing the last thirty years of Final Four history, I was struck by how few games really reached what I would consider the top rung of historic excellence. Using 1987 as a starting point—that was the first year the NCAA Tournament used both a shot clock and a three-point line, thus providing some historical symmetry—here are the seven games I would identify as candidates for best Final Four game ever. We’ll go in chronological order…
*1989 Michigan-Illinois: A riveting game down to the end, finally decided when Michigan’s Sean Higgins got an offensive rebound and putback with two seconds left for the 83-81 win.
*1991 Duke-UNLV: At the forefront of any list when it comes to considering best college basketball games of any round or any era. UNLV’s undefeated season comes to an end with Duke’s 79-77 upset. In retrospect, with the Blue Devils having Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill, it’s fair to ask just how big of an upset this really was.
*1993: Michigan-Kentucky: The Fab Five won one of the best basketball games I’ve ever watched and Kentucky’s Jamal Mashburn put on a show, nearly defeating Michigan’s fabulous sophomore class by himself. In the end, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose & Co., survive with an 81-78 overtime win.
*1998: Kentucky-Stanford: A game that’s an underrated classic nationally. Utah had already upset North Carolina in the early game and CBS was no doubt cringing at losing its cherished Kentucky-UNC game on Monday night to the possibility of Stanford-Utah. The Wildcats survive in overtime 86-85.
*2004: Connecticut-Duke: The Blue Devils seem in command much of the way before foul trouble helps the Huskies rally to a 79-78 win. On the merits, this game is probably similar to either Gonzaga-South Carolina or UNC-Oregon this year—it should be just a notch below the highest level. Connecticut had finally taken control and was up four points in the closing seconds, so there was no late drama…except in Las Vegas.
Duke’s Chris Duhon, disheartened at the loss, just tossed a meaningless three at the buzzer and it went in, cutting the final margin to one point—and covering the spread for the Blue Devils. Literally millions of dollars changed hands on a shot the poor kid could have cared less about making. That unique storyline lifts this game up a bit higher than it would be otherwise.
2014: Wisconsin-Kentucky: This one still hurts those of us who follow Wisconsin. The Badgers led 73-71 in the closing seconds. Aaron Harrison, who had already hit huge shots in wins over Wichita, Louisville and Michigan, hit his biggest one yet for the Wildcats—a three-pointer for the lead. The Badgers got a good look for Traevon Jackson following, but it glanced off the rim.
2015: Wisconsin-Kentucky: A historic rematch one year later with Kentucky chasing the first perfect season since 1976. This time it’s the Badgers who hit the big trey, a step-back by Sam Dekker breaking a tie—I nearly hurt my hand pounding the floor in joy so hard when the shot went down—and Bucky had their revenge.