The Greatest NCAA Championship Finish Ever

It’s easy to be prisoner of the moment and call the incredible ending of Villanova’s 77-74 win over North Carolina in last night’s NCAA final the greatest ever. It’s even easier though when that grandiose statement is exactly correct. We’ve seen a lot of great national championship games in college basketball over the years, but I can’t recall one that matches the incredible ending from last night in Houston.

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Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater three would take its place in history under any circumstances, but what Carolina’s Marcus Paige did leading up to that is even more surreal. It starts when he first somehow steals away an offensive rebound that Villanova appeared to have secured and scores a quick bucket to cut the lead back to three. If Paige doesn’t make that play, ‘Nova shifts into make-your-free-throws-and-go-home mode.

Then comes the greatest shot I’ve ever seen in this type of circumstances. Trailing 74-71, and well-defended. Paige double-clutches to get space and somehow makes a long three to tie the game. It’s also worth noting that this completes bringing North Carolina from ten points down late in the second half.

Paige is set to be a Carolina hero with a finish better than anything the great Michael Jordan, one of many Tar Heel alums in attendance, ever pulled off. If Villanova lets this get away, it’s going to be gutwrenching to try and live down.

Then, in the blink of an eye, comes Jenkins. Running as the trailer as Villanova breaks the press, he’s completely unguarded and takes a little lateral pass from Ryan Arcidionaco and drills it. The ball was halfway up when I shouted “that’s going in” and started to rise from the couch. Nothing but net.

That’s the ending. Now, before we rashly declare something to be the best ever, let’s at least properly vet the other choices. What follows below are the best finishes in a championship game since the fall of the UCLA dynasty following the 1975 season.

Please note that these are narrowly focused on big game-winning shot sequences. Hence, a game like 1985 Villanova-Georgetown, that was a tense two-point affair, but didn’t have a magical shot per se, aren’t on the list…

March Madness history1982—Michael Jordan hits the game-winner for North Carolina, but there’s still plenty of time for Georgetown to run an offensive set, down 63-62. Hoya point guard Fred Brown has some type of mental lock-up and throws the ball directly to UNC’s James Worthy.

1983—N.C. State wins 54-52 when Lorenzo Charles grabs Derek Whittenburg’s desperation airball out of the sky and slams it down in alley-oop style.

1987—Down 73-72, Indiana runs an outstanding halfcourt offensive set capped off by Keith Smart’s 10-foot jumper on the left baseline with five seconds left.

1989—Michigan and Seton Hall go to overtime. The Hall, up one has a chance to close it out, but a missed shot leads to Wolverine point guard Rumeal Robinson getting the ball in transition. As he pivots to pass to Terry Mills on the wing, a touch foul is whistled. Robinson hits both ends of a one-and-one with seconds to play for the 80-79 win.

1993—The infamous timeout of Michigan’s Chris Webber. Down 73-71, Webber first gets away with a travel in the backcourt (leaving one to wonder where Jalen Rose or any of the Wolverine guards were to get the ball). Webber then barrels into the corner, gets trapped and calls a timeout his team doesn’t have. Technical foul and UNC wraps it up.

1994—Scott Thurman’s rainbow trey breaks a 70-70 tie and gives Arkansas the lead over Duke. The Razorbacks close it out.

1997—Even though Arizona and Kentucky went to overtime, there were no magical shots in U of A’s ultimate 84-79 win.

2008—Mario Challmes drills a three for Kansas to tie the game against Memphis, completing an impossible comeback from down nine with two minutes left. The Jayhawks win in overtime.

2010—We generally aren’t acknowledging missed shots, but the desperation heave by Butler’s Gordon Heyward rimmed out in a 61-59 loss to Duke. “And it almost went in!”, Jim Nantz said in disbelief as everyone was prematurely preparing for a Blue Devil celebration.

That brings us to last night. I can’t see where anything matches the combination of Paige’s double-clutch impossible shot followed by Jenkins’ game-winner, done in the context of a rally from ten down by Carolina and another great play by Paige just prior. I don’t think it’s being prisoner of the moment to say we just witnessed the greatest finish to an NCAA Tournament championship basketball game. What’s up for discussion is whether this was the greatest finish to a championship event in any sport. But that will have to be for another post.