With the 75th anniversary of NCAA men¹s basketball championships upon us, lists already have been plentiful regarding the Final Four's greatest hits.
Since 1939, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship has grown into one of the staple events in American sports. The terms “March Madness” and “Final Four” are not only trademarked but also etched into the lexicon of fans.
Who can forget the images of Magic Johnson leading Michigan State against Larry Bird’s undefeated Indiana State team in the 1979 final, launching one of the most storied rivalries in all of basketball?
Or how about Lorenzo Charles catching an air ball from teammate Dereck Whittenburg and slamming it into the basket to give North Carolina State a stunning 54-52 victory in 1983 over a heavily favored Houston team that featured Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
Or John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins’ annual parade to the victory stand after capturing 10 NCAA titles in a 12-year period, including a record seven in a row from 1967 through 1973.
Over the last few months, fans have been inundated with lists that chronicled the best games, the top players, the best buzzer-beaters and the defining moments that have made this championship so special.
But in addition to the games everyone ought to know, there are numerous stories from the 75 years of the Final Four that haven’t been told quite so much, or perhaps not at all.
Here are some Final Four games that you may not know about but should …
Utah’s national championship turned into the epitome of fate. In 1944, many colleges struggled to field teams because many of the young men who would normally be on campus were fighting their way through World War II.
Most of Utah’s games that season were against service or industrial teams such as Bushnell Hospital, the Wendover Bombing Quintet, the Salt Lake Air Base and the Fort Warren Army Team.
Utah won 18 games that season and actually turned down the chance to play in the Western Regional of the fledgling NCAA tournament in Kansas City. The Utes instead took a train to New York City to compete in the NIT, which at that time was considered a more prestigious and financially lucrative postseason destination.
The Utes lost to Kentucky in the first round of the NIT and assumed their season was over. But tragedy intervened. The Arkansas team, which was slated to be in the NCAA regional in Kansas City, was involved in a horrific vehicle accident in which a staff member was killed and two players were badly injured. The team had stopped alongside a highway with a narrow shoulder to change a flat tire when another driver plowed into the back of the stopped car.
The Razorbacks had no choice but to withdraw from the regional. NCAA officials, having already coveted Utah and knowing that the Utes would be traveling back through the area on their way home, asked if they would consider being Arkansas’ replacement. Given a chance to extend their season, Utah freshman Arnie Ferrin told the media, “We’ll be back (in New York City) to play the Eastern NCAA champ.”
The Utes jumped on a train and eventually made it to Kansas City in time to win the Western Regional by downing Missouri, 45-35, and Iowa State, 40-31. That meant a return trip to New York to take on Dartmouth in the NCAA championship game (only two teams advanced to the finals site before 1952).
Utah was known for its aggressive style for those times, and the team was eventually given the moniker, “The Blitz Kids.” Ferrin was considered the Utes’ best player, and appearing in both the NIT and the NCAA tournaments gave him the stage to shine in Madison Square Garden.
A then-record crowd of 15,000 fans – although some reports cited more than 17,000 – attended the NCAA championship game, and many of them rooted for the underdog Utes.
Utah held a four-point lead with a minute left in regulation, but Dartmouth managed to send the game to overtime. The teams were tied 40-40 late in the overtime when Ferrin drove to the basket in the closing seconds, but the ball was knocked away. The Utes’ Herb Wilkinson retrieved it and made a shot from near the free throw line, beating the buzzer for an early tournament Cinderella story.
Ferrin scored 22 points and was named the Most Outstanding Player. Two nights later, the NCAA champion Utes defeated NIT champion St. John’s (N.Y.) in a benefit game that earned more than $35,000 for the war effort.
It’s hard to think that a triple-overtime victory in the national semifinals isn’t better known in March Madness lore. But North Carolina’s marathon victory over a Wilt Chamberlain-led Kansas team the very next day is usually the game that gets mentioned when this championship edition of the Tar Heels is discussed.
Before toppling the Jayhawks, though, North Carolina had to outlast Michigan State on March 22, 1957, in Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium. The semifinal was tied 29-29 at the half, 58-58 at the end of regulation, 64-64 after one overtime and 66-66 after two extra periods before the undefeated Tar Heels won the game, 74-70.
North Carolina’s championship hopes were on life support in the first overtime when Michigan State’s Johnny Green stepped to the line with the Spartans leading, 64-62, with 11 seconds left. Green, who had made two free throws near the end of regulation to force the extra session, missed this time around. North Carolina’s Pete Brennan grabbed the rebound, dribbled down court and hit a jump shot in the final seconds to keep the Tar Heels alive.
Green forced the third overtime when he converted a tip-in in the final seconds. Lennie Rosenbluth had two key steals and layups for the Tar Heels, and point guard Tommy Kearns sealed the game with a pair of free throws.
Questions immediately arose about how the top-ranked Tar Heels could recover and handle playing Chamberlain and the Jayhawks the next day. Chamberlain had scored 32 points in Kansas’ much easier 80-56 semifinal victory over San Francisco.
North Carolina coach Frank McGuire sent the 5-10 Kearns to jump center against Chamberlain as a psychological ploy. Despite Rosenbluth fouling out in regulation, North Carolina’s zone surrounded Chamberlain and limited him to 23 points for the game. Again, missed free throws by their opponents benefited the Tar Heels. Kansas’ Gene Elstun put up an errant foul shot with 1:45 left and the Jayhawks leading, 44-41. The Tar Heels eventually tied the score with a layup and a free throw in the final seconds of regulation.
Both teams scored only two points in the first overtime and neither team scored in the second. North Carolina built a 52-48 advantage in the last overtime, but Chamberlain converted a three-point play and Maurice King added a free throw to tie the game. Elstun redeemed himself at the free-throw line by giving Kansas a 53-52 lead in the final minute, but North Carolina had time to respond. Chamberlain blocked a shot by Kearns in the final seconds, but Joe Quigg retrieved the ball and was fouled with six seconds remaining. Quigg calmly sank both free throws and deflected the inbounds pass to Kearns, who dribbled out the clock.
This championship game doesn’t show up in many Final Four lists, but perhaps it should. Loyola rallied from 15 points down in the second half to defeat a Cincinnati team that was in its fourth consecutive Final Four and the two-time defending champion.
Loyola’s win over Mississippi State in the Midwest Regional semifinal garners much more attention. Mississippi State sneaked out of the state under the cover of darkness to play in the tournament that year, because the sentiment of the time prohibited them from playing against integrated teams. Loyola featured four African-American starters, which was highly unusual for those racially charged times.
Jerry Harkness was a senior guard for that Loyola team, and he admits he is proud to have played in the game that he believes helped spur social change.
The Ramblers were the highest-scoring team in the country that season, averaging 91.8 points with their up-tempo style. Actually, Mississippi State’s deliberate style helped prepare Loyola for the championship game when Cincinnati slowed the pace.
Midway through the second half, the Bearcats’ strategy was working. Loyola trailed, 45-30.
“I remember being almost in tears at that point,” said Harkness, who scored 14 points in the championship game. “There weren’t many nationally televised games back then, and all I could think about was that my mom, my dad and the family I had from the projects in the Bronx and Harlem were watching. We were getting blown out and embarrassed.”
Harkness believes his team’s mental toughness played a role in the comeback. Of the nine players on the team, they combined to accumulate 21 undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.
Loyola also turned up the pressure, and Cincinnati made uncharacteristic mistakes. Slowly, the Ramblers drew to within striking distance, but still trailed, 53-52, with 12 seconds left.
Cincinnati’s Larry Shingleton made the front end of a one-and-one free throw opportunity but missed the second. Les Hunter rebounded the ball and passed it to Harkness, who drove to the basket and tied the game, 54-54, in the final frantic seconds.
Late in the overtime with the score tied 58-58, Hunter missed a shot and Loyola’s Vic Rouse tipped in the miss with two second left to complete the upset.
“I remember going crazy from all the positive emotion,” Harkness said. “That feeling only comes once in a lifetime. Still, the Mississippi State game sticks with me forever. When you look at the significance of the Mississippi State game, you realize how important that game was for society.”
The 1975 tournament is most remembered as the last time John Wooden coached college basketball. The Wizard of Westwood guided this team to the program’s 10th national championship in a 12-year period.
That last title would not have been possible had not the Bruins survived some close calls in the tournament, including the national semifinal win over Louisville.
The Cardinals were coached by former UCLA player and assistant coach Denny Crum.
UCLA, which won in overtime over Michigan (103-91) and 67-64 over Montana earlier in the tournament, trailed by as many as nine points on four different occasions against Louisville, but each time the Bruins reeled the Cardinals back in.
With about 50 seconds left in the game, UCLA was down four but had the ball. Bruins forward Dave Meyers had two shots blocked by Louisville’s Bill Bunton.
After the second rejection, UCLA’s Richard Washington ended up with the ball, and he was fouled. Washington converted both foul shots, and Marques Johnson made a steal and a layup to tie the game, 65-65.
UCLA found itself in dire straits in overtime with 20 seconds left and trailing, 74-73. Louisville’s Terry Howard, who was 28-for-28 from the foul line that season, was shooting a one-and-one. Howard missed.
UCLA rebounded and called timeout to set up its final play for Washington, who swished the winning baseline jumper with two seconds left.
After the game, Meyers told the assembled media, “I haven’t been in a game like that in a long time. There was no moaning or messing around. It felt like there were two UCLAs out there.”
The 64-year-old Wooden told his players that the championship game two nights later would be his final as a coach. The Bruins were determined to send their legendary leader out with a victory, and they downed Kentucky,
92-85, to give Wooden his 664th career win.
Without this game, there might never have been the college version of Bird vs. Johnson. While the nation yearned to see the two stars face each other in the final, DePaul freshman Mark Aguirre and Blue Demons coach Ray Meyer tried their best to play spoiler in the semifinal.
The game was tied 15 times in the first half, but the undefeated Sycamores took control and led by 11 points four minutes into the second half. Bird led the way as usual, eventually finishing with 35 points (16-for-19 shooting), 16 rebounds and nine assists.
Indiana State’s sixth man, Bob Heaton, remembered how confident the Sycamores were at that point but said they took some bad shots when they had DePaul on the ropes.
“There was no shot clock in the game then,” said Heaton, who made a last-second shot to down Arkansas, 73-71, in the Midwest Regional final. “If we were more disciplined, we could have beaten them by more.”
Instead, the game turned into a nail-biter as the Blue Demons erased the deficit and took a 73-71 lead with five minutes remaining. Meyer decided to shorten the game by ordering his team to stall.
DePaul turned the ball over, though, and Bird found Heaton free for a layup to tie the game with 3:27 left.
The Blue Demons regained the lead, 74-73, with 1:37 left on a free throw. Heaton, who had a knack for the dramatic that season, got free on the next Indiana State possession and converted a layup off an assist from Carl Nicks.
Aguirre missed a turnaround jumper on DePaul’s next possession and the Sycamores made a free throw in the final seconds to seal the game.
That led to Bird and Johnson meeting for the first time in their hall of fame careers. Michigan State’s 75-64 victory is still the highest-rated basketball game in television history.
Heaton said former CBS analyst Billy Packer told him a couple of times, “Bob, if it wasn’t for that shot you made against DePaul, there would not have been a Larry Bird-Magic Johnson matchup.”
Heaton also hit a half-court shot to force overtime at New Mexico State earlier in the year to help keep the Sycamores undefeated.
Today, Heaton is a state representative in the Indiana legislature. He also owns a financial services company.
“Anyone on our team could’ve made a layup,” Heaton said. “We were a confident team, and Larry was the best player in the world to us. We knew there was a lot of hype about Magic and Larry playing against each other. I guess people just thought they couldn’t miss that last game.”
Phi Slamma Jamma vs. The Doctors of Dunk. That was on the marquee for the second semifinal game of the 1983 Final Four. The highly anticipated matchup featured the athletic teams of Houston and Louisville. Many billed it as the de facto national title game since the other semifinal featured Cinderellas North Carolina State and Georgia.
Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon and Benny Anders led Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma squad. Louisville’s dunk doctors included Rodney and Scooter McCray and Billy Thompson.
There was no dramatic finish. Houston pulled away to win, 94-81. But the matchup was memorable for the athletic prowess displayed above the rim. Houston had 14 dunks in the game, including an incredible six in a row at one point in the second half. Louisville’s Rodney McCray was impressed even in defeat. When asked if he’d seen anything like that before on the court, McCray replied, “Not in a real game.”
Hank Nichols, one of the officials that day, had a great view of the action.
“At times, I thought I was in the London Blitzkrieg,” Nichols recalled. “When you were under the basket and those guys came down, you just got out of the way. They threw them down so hard that if it didn’t touch anything, it would kill you. It was just one after another.”
Les Robinson, a former coach and director of athletics at North Carolina State and The Citadel, attended the game that day and marveled about the memories more than two decades later.
“You were blinking your eyes and wondering if you just saw what happened,” he said.
Houston advanced to the championship game where it was the victim of one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament. Ironically, North Carolina State’s winning points came when Lorenzo Charles slammed home Dereck Whittenburg’s air ball to defeat Phi Slamma Jamma with, of all things, a dunk.
While Division I has been conducting championships longer than Divisions II and III, DI hasn’t cornered the market on dramatic finishes. Here are some Division II and Division III championship games for the ages.
1963 championship game // South Dakota State 44, Wittenberg 42
South Dakota State reserve guard Bob Glasrud made a pair of 25-foot jumpers in the last minute to tie the game, and Sid Bostic sank a 40-foot shot to give the Jackrabbits an improbable comeback victory in what was known then as the College Division championship (the University Division was composed of what now are referred to as Division I schools; the NCAA membership established the current three-division structure in 1973).
2007 championship game // Barton 77, Winona State 75
In one of the most amazing finishes in any sport, Anthony Atkinson, known as “Little Ant,” scored his team’s last 10 points in a 39-second span to give the Bulldogs the championship. Atkinson capped off his avalanche of points with a game-winning layup at the buzzer to defeat Winona State, which was the defending national champion and owner of a Division II-record 56-game win streak.
2009 championship game // Findlay 56, Cal Poly Pomona 53 (ot)
Tyler Evans, a 6-2 senior guard, will always remember his final shot as a college basketball player. His 3-pointer at the buzzer gave Findlay a thrilling overtime win in the final and capped a perfect 36-0 season for the Oilers.
1994 championship game // Lebanon Valley 66, New York U. 59 (ot)
Lebanon Valley’s Jason Say tipped in a missed shot with one second remaining to force overtime, and Mike Rhoades scored seven of his 20 points in the extra session, including four free throws in the last 19 seconds, to give the Flying Dutchmen the national crown.
1999 championship game // Wisconsin-Platteville 76, Hampden-Sydney 75 (2 ot)
Wisconsin-Platteville’s Brian Murphy sent the game to overtime with a free throw, and teammate Mike Jones made a 3-pointer in the first extra session to force a second. Colin Gassner scored the game-winner on a reverse layup to give the Pioneers (coached at the time by current Wisconsin Badgers coach Bo Ryan) a second straight national title.
2003 championship game // Williams 67, Gustavus Adolphus 65
Williams led for a total of 18 seconds in the championship game but still managed to take home the championship trophy. Tim Folan made two free throws with two seconds remaining to give the Ephs the victory. Folan, a senior forward, sealed the victory by intercepting the ensuing long inbounds pass.
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of NCAA Champion magazine.