Conference tournament play has already started for NCAA basketball however the major ones won’t start until later this week. They’ll be played between March 9th and 13th, all in a build up to Selection Sunday next weekend. By this time next week, we’ll know who is in and who is out when it comes to the big dance, an event that starts on March 15th.
March Madness is known for intense drama, and a big reason for that is the straight-elimination format that characterizes college basketball. There is no best-of-seven series meaning that if you win all your games from November to February inclusive, one missed step in March and you are still done. There have been plenty of times in NCAA basketball history when two teams have squared off with nothing but a shot at the buzzer between the team advancing and the team sent home.
While fans of college basketball love the upsets and the Cinderella stories, there have been plenty of times when giant killers have fallen just short. Here’s my take on the Top Five buzzer-beaters in NCAA basketball since 1990 that involved a ‘saving-the-day’ scenario for a higher seed or even a tournament’s favorite.
Save #5: Mike Miller Saves the Day for Florida in the First Round
The Butler Bulldogs had an upset on their mind as the 12-seed held a one-point lead over the SEC’s Florida Gators in the first round of the 2000 tournament. But the Gators were destined not just to win that game but to make the final, an example of how the spread of a game doesn’t matter as long as you survive in March.
In a play that should be noted for amazing clock awareness, future NBA champion Mike Miller caught a pass on the wing with about 2.4 seconds to play and down by one. Instead of heaving up what would have to be a low-percentage three-pointer, Miller drove toward the free throw line before hooking toward the hoop. What resulted was a runner that dribbled over the rim, a shot that knocked out Butler – and saved the higher-ranked Florida Gators.
Mike Miller saves the day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgb1rh7iKgM
Save #4. Rip Hamilton Finds the Ball and the Net at the Buzzer
Richard Hamilton enjoyed a stellar career in the NBA. In college, he was a recruit of Jim Calhoun’s and played for the Connecticut Huskies. A clutch player, Hamilton was central to UCONN winning the national championship in 1999.
The year before that UCONN weren’t quite as good. But besides Hamilton, UCONN also had Jake Voskuhl, a seven footer that would have a fairly solid NBA career. Furthermore, UCONN had Khalid El Amin, a player who spent a bit of time in the association. With strong role players, like Ricky Moore, UCONN managed a 2-seed in their region, and they had a chance to make it to the Final Four.
But in the Sweet 16, the Connecticut Huskies flirted with disaster as they bumped into a lesser-Husky from the Pac-10, the 11th-seeded University of Washington. Washington entered the game very below the radar as they were a peripheral seed. However, they had Todd MacCulloch, who would start in the NBA alongside Allen Iverson in 2001 when the 76ers made the NBA Finals (2001).
With less than 35 seconds to go in a game from Greensboro, Donald Watts licked a three-pointer from the wing to give Washington a one-point lead. In a gutsy move, UCONN refrained from taking a quick shot to answer.
Instead, El Amin dribbled the clock down near half court before penetrating the lane. Amidst the screams from the fans Voskuhl missed a short-range shot and Hamilton missed as well. The ball then bounced around in the air as every player tried to grab it with almost nothing on the clock. With no time to spare, it ended up in Hamilton’s hands who hit a fade away as time expired.
The two seed was saved for another day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpH85OZMxZ0.
Save #3. Eventual Champion Saved in Round of 32
The UCLA Bruins entered the 1995 March Madness tournament as the favorites. However, they bumped into trouble quick as they faced Missouri in the second round in a game that was played in Boise, Idaho.
The Bruins had a guy named Toby Bailey, a future NBA bust in Ed O’Bannon, Cameron Dollar, and last but not least – Tyus Edney. The NCAA had just recently moved from a 45-second shot clock to a 35-second one, and that made a big difference in the ending of this game. In the second-last possession, Missouri trailed by one with 38.9 seconds to play. Choosing to wind the clock down, Missouri scored on an inside shot with four seconds and change to go.
UCLA’s season definitely hung in the balance as they headed into a timeout. When they came out of it, the ball was inbounded to Edney on a very short pass for the amount of time left. He dribbled the ball up court and created an open lane with an impresssive behind-the-back crossover as he approached the three-point line. He penetrated that lane as the seconds ticked away to bank a shot in off glass as time expired.
UCLA was saved, and they made the most of it as they won the national championship a couple weeks later: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeSM7dGwcp0
2. Tate George Keeps UCONN’s Dream Season Alive
The Connecticut Huskies have not always been the basketball school that fans have come to know them as. Back in the 1989/90 season, the Huskies still had an unproven coach in Jim Calhoun and an unproven program. But that year, which is known as the dream season, Connecticut had a lineup that featured Tate George, a future NBA-er and, tragically, a future Ponzi Schemer. The Huskies also had Scott Burrell, who would play for the Chicago Bulls, and Chris Smith, who also made the association.
The Huskies were top dogs in a region that also featured the Duke Blue Devils. Playing in the Sweet 16, UCONN held a huge 19-point lead over the Clemson Tigers, a team that had Elden Campbell. However, Clemson solved UCONN in the second half and incredibly overcame a 19-point deficit to pull ahead by one point. The Tigers appeared destined to make the Elite 8 and to put an end to Connecticut’s break-out year.
However, the catch was that there was still one second to go as they sat with the one-point lead. Inbounding on their one baseline after time-outs Calhoun had Burrell inbound over top of Campbell. The Husky threw the ball the entire length of the court, save a few feet, and right into the hands of George. With his back to the basket as he caught the ball in the air, George ‘schemed’ a way to find nothing but net to send the Huskies into the next round – where they met their own end on a shot at the buzzer.
Tate George Saves UCONN: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4CxbjRXwhY
1. Christian Laettner Saves the Highly-Touted Duke Blue Devils
The Duke Blue Devils were the front-to-back No. 1 team in the nation for the 1991/92 season. With only two losses on the campaign a team with Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, and Cherokee Parks found itself in the national quarterfinals – and losing late. With a trip to the Final Four almost out of reach, an outstanding season stood to become just another casualty of March Madness.
Rick Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats had Jamal Mashburn fouled out. However, Kentucky still had a 1-point lead with only 2.1 seconds to play.
Coach K. called upon Laettner, a senior and very much the face of college sports at that time. The future NBA-er caught a three-quarter court pass from Hill, faked out one of his defenders, and put up a fadeaway from beyond the free throw line. Kentucky defenders could do nothing but look on as it swished for what is largely considered the greatest shot of all time in college basketball.
Laettner Saves the 1992 Duke Blue Devils: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uf_oKaNh9kE