5 Most Important Buzzer-Beaters in March Madness History

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5 Most Important Buzzer-Beaters in March Madness History
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The NCAA tournament is noted for buzzer-beating shots -- whether they're half-court heaves, turnaround jumpers or last-second tip-ins -- that leave one team and its fans delirious and the other side heartbroken. 

Gambling.com looked at the most important buzzer-beaters in NCAA men's basketball championship history and selected the five most heartbreaking games -- shockers that fans recall every spring. 

Top 5

Methodology 

In judging the top dramatic shots in March Madness history, Gambling.com relied on a grading system that assigned up to 10 points in each of the following categories, for a total of 50:

Immediate Dramatic Impact

Upset Factor

Difficulty

Legacy

Bookmaker’s Score

The Bookmaker’s Score, looking at the overall importance of the shot and the game while considering each of the above elements, was provided by Las Vegas oddsmaker Casey Lewless, a college basketball expert now managing Penn Entertainment sportsbooks in Louisiana.

1. Arkansas over Louisville, March 14, 1981, Austin, Texas

Dramatic Impact: At the time, this was the longest buzzer-beating shot in tournament history (10 points).

Upset Factor: With this victory, Arkansas toppled defending national champion Louisville. (9)

Difficulty: By any standard, a 49-foot shot is extremely difficult, especially under pressure. (10)

Legacy: The basketball that U.S. Reed fired from long range is enshrined on the University of Arkansas campus. (9)

Bookmaker’s Score: Lewless gives this 10 points out of 10. (10)

Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton called a timeout with six seconds left and his team trailing 73-72. In the second-round matchup, he needed to draw up a miracle play.

Sutton instructed his huddled Razorbacks: Get the ball down court as far as possible, maybe to 6-foot-10 forward Scott Hastings.

Instead, 6-2 guard U.S. Reed nailed his legendary 49-footer -- a two-pointer at the time, as college basketball added the three-point line a few years later.

Reed realized he didn’t have many options, he said in an interview with Gambling.com.

“I’ve got to take the shot,” Reed said to himself.

When he connected, announcer Marv Albert expressed disbelief. “It’s in!’ he exclaimed as fans rushed the floor. “It’s a one-point incredible victory for the Razorbacks!”

The pandemonium is part of what led announcer Brent Musburger the next year to refer to the tournament as “March Madness.”

That’s one thing that made this game legendary. The prized basketball is another.

An Arkansas cheerleader recovered the ball during the celebration and gave it to the university decades later. It is enshrined at Bud Walton Arena on the Fayetteville campus and bears Reed’s signature.

That shot was the high point of the tournament for Arkansas, who lost to Dale Brown’s LSU Tigers in the next round.

 

 

2. Duke over Kentucky, March 28, 1992, Philadelphia

Dramatic Impact: Christian Laettner’s turnaround jumper seemed to unfold in slow motion, chewing up valuable time until the ball sailed through the hoop. (10) 

Upset Factor: Before the shot, the upset factor seemed to favor Kentucky, a 7.5-point underdog. (8)

Difficulty: A long inbounds pass and turnaround jumper, pulled off with precision under the gun, is a highly difficult feat. (10)

Legacy: Decades later, Laettner is still associated with that clutch shot. (9)

Bookmaker’s Score: Lewless gives this nine points. (9) 

With 7.8 seconds left in overtime, 6-foot-2 Kentucky guard Sean Woods took an inbounds pass from the near side, weaved his way into the lane and sunk a straight-on, floating bank shot over 6-11 Duke center Christian Laettner.

Only 2.1 seconds remained in the Elite Eight matchup until Duke would be denied a chance at a second consecutive national title. The most recent repeat champion was UCLA, in 1973.

With his team trailing 103-102, Duke’s Grant Hill was tasked with inbounding the ball on the far baseline. Unguarded, Hill heaved a 70-foot pass to Laettner at the Blue Devils’ free throw line. 

The center caught the ball with his back to the goal, pivoted left, then spun right and, facing the goal, hit a fadeaway jump shot from 17 feet for the win.

The victory sent coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team to the Final Four; it would win another title.

Duke guard Bobby Hurley said the shot — and the victory — elevated the Blue Devils’ program to “a different level.” 

“It put us more shoulder to shoulder at the big boys’ table, with a lot of the teams that had won multiple championships,” he told The Sporting News. “It kind of started laying the groundwork for Duke being an elite basketball program on the same terms as UCLA, North Carolina and Kentucky.”

Though Hurley was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, Laettner led all players that year with 115 points. 

 

3. North Carolina State over Houston, April 4, 1983, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Dramatic Impact: North Carolina State’s desperation final shot came up short, seeming to end the Wolfpack's hopes in the national championship game. Lorenzo Charles' catch and make changed all that. (10)

Upset Factor: Lightly regarded N.C. State toppled the nation’s most formidable team. (10)

Difficulty: Grabbing a missed shot under the goal is not the most difficult scenario, but the outcome was shocking. (7)

Lasting Legacy: Replays of coach Jim Valvano’s mad dash down the court, hunting for someone to hug after his team won the championship game, rank among tournament's most memorable moments. (9)

Bookmaker’s Score: Lewless gives this one a nine. (9) 

It ranks as one the iconic moments in sports: Valvano sprinting down the court after the final horn sounded, mop-top hair and necktie flapping (back when head coaches wore a suit and tie, not like today’s team-logo pullovers).

In the 1983 title game, Valvano had just guided his N.C. State Wolfpack to a monumental takedown of the No. 1-ranked Houston Cougars. 

Entering the game, Houston was a juggernaut riding a 26-game winning streak, anchored by 7-footer Akeem Olajuwon and 6-foot-7 slashing forward Clyde “The Glide” Drexler.   

Valvano’s team was mediocre in the regular season — tied for third place in the Atlantic Coast Conference with an 8-6 conference record and sporting a 17-10 overall mark.

The Wolfpack heated up at the tournament, burning through Pepperdine, UNLV, Utah, Virginia and Georgia to reach the title game against Houston — as a 7.5-point underdog.

Then lightning struck.

After a missed Houston free throw and a timeout, with the game tied 52-52, N.C. State’s Dereck Whittenburg launched a desperation shot well above the key with three seconds remaining. 

As the ball came down just short of the rim, Wolfpack forward Lorenzo Charles grabbed it, throwing down an uncontested dunk as the buzzer sounded. It was his second bucket of the game.

Reflecting later on his successes and setbacks, Valvano credited to his dad, Rocco, a basketball coach at Seaford High on Long Island, for teaching him never to give up.

“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person,” Valvano said. “He believed in me.” 

A decade after winning the national title, Valvano would die at age 47 after a yearlong battle with cancer.  

Mike Krzyzewski, a rival ACC coach at Duke, said of Valvano after his death: ”Jim was a dreamer, motivator and a fighter. He did all those things to the last day." 

 

4. Northern Iowa over Texas, March 18, 2016, Oklahoma City

Dramatic Impact: Paul Jesperson’s long-range missile catapulted tiny Northern Iowa past Texas in the first-round game. (10)

Upset Factor: The 11th-seeded Panthers upended No. 6-seed Texas, which was favored by three points. (7)

Difficulty: Making a 50-foot shot at the buzzer is so difficult, no one else has done it in NCAA tournament play. (10)

Legacy: Jesperson’s heave remains in the record books. (9)

Bookmaker’s Score: Lewless gives this one an eight. (8)

Like a frame around a work of art, the backboard’s red light showcased Paul Jesperson's masterpiece.

A 6-foot-6 Northern Iowa guard, Jesperson heaved a 50-foot shot from beyond halfcourt as time expired. The ball, airborne before the backboard’s four edges were lit up in red, struck the lighted backboard first and banked in.

This picture-perfect finale capped the 11th-seeded Panthers’ stunning 75-72 victory over No. 6-seed Texas in the first round of the West Region that year. 

Jesperson’s running half-court heave remains the longest game-winning buzzer-beater in NCAA tournament history.

With the television screen showing stunned Texas players, an on-air commentator summed up the scene.

“You can just see the heartbreak,” he said. “It’s one thing to get beat by a 15-foot jump shot. It’s another thing to get beat by a halfcourt heave.”

Along with his teammates, Jesperson was overjoyed.

“I was just hoping it was going in,” he said. “It felt good when it left my hand, but you never know with those shots. I’m just thankful it went in, thankful we get to live another day.” 

The team’s Cinderella run would end in the next game, a 92-88 double-overtime loss to a different Lone Star State school, the Texas A&M Aggies.

Jesperson had some more basketball life in him, though. He went on from Cedar Falls-based Northern Iowa — touted as the state’s “most affordable public university” — to playing in the NBA’s D-League and in Europe.

U.S. Reed, the Arkansas player who stunned Louisville with a half-court winner, told Gambling.com he heard about Jespersen’s bank shot right after it happened. 

That projectile beat Reed’s by one foot.

“I got a lot of phone calls,” Reed said, fondly recalling Jespersen’s masterpiece.

 

5. Valparaiso over Mississippi, March 13, 1998, Oklahoma City

Dramatic Impact: The tension during the closing seconds was heightened when Ole Miss star Ansu Sesay missed two free throws to give Valpo’s Bryce Drew a second shot at winning the game at the buzzer. (10)

Upset Factor: Valpo was a 12-point underdog against a talented SEC team, the University of Mississippi. (9)

Difficulty: Unguarded, this isn’t the most difficult shot. (7)

Legacy: Bryce Drew remains more of a legend in this Indiana town east of Chicago than even famed native popcorn maker Orville Redenbacher. (9)

Bookmaker’s Score: Lewless gives this one seven points. (8)

“What a heartbreaker for Valparaiso,” the television announcer said.

With the No. 13-seeded Crusaders trailing 69-67 against the fourth-seeded Ole Miss Rebels, 6-foot-2 guard Bryce Drew had just missed a three-pointer with less than five seconds left in this first-round contest.

That miss prompted the announcer’s gloomy assessment: It was all but over for Valpo. 

At Drew’s miss, the Rebels’ Ansu Sesay, voted by the SEC coaches as the conference player of the year, snagged the rebound and was fouled. Only 4.1 seconds remained. 

He missed both attempts. On the second, the ball sailed out of bounds, last touched by Ole Miss.

With the Rebels clinging to a 69-67 lead, 2.5 seconds remained. Valpo would have another last-gasp shot.  

In the remaining time, Valpo's Jamie Sykes threw the ball from the far baseline, lobbing a pass to a Crusader just past midcourt. He quickly fed the ball to Drew on the right side behind the three-point line.

This time coach Homer Drew’s son came through, nailing the game-winner.  

"Valpo has won the game!" the announcer exclaimed as fans charged the floor. "A miracle!”

On the NCAA’s March Madness YouTube channel, a reader identified as Walterlv01 summed up how many felt when tiny Valpo upended the Rebels. 

“I remember feeling bad for Bryce Drew after he missed the first 3 — seeing the expression on his and his dad's faces, realizing that their little school's one chance at glory was probably gone,” Walterlv01 wrote in the comment section. “But, hey, at least they could live with knowing they took their best shot at it. Little did anyone know what was to follow.”

Valpo would win one more game in that tournament, notching an overtime victory over Florida State before falling to Rhode Island.

Drew played six seasons in the NBA with four teams. He then coached in college, including at Valpo and Vanderbilt. In 2019, he was fired at Vanderbilt after the worst season in program history — a 9-23 overall record and an 0-18 mark in the SEC.

But Valpo fans remember their hero for his shot, not his coaching.

In 2021, when Valpo dropped the "Crusaders" nickname and mascot (for signifying "aggressive religious oppression and violence”), the Indianapolis Star came up with a few alternatives.

Among the newspaper’s favorites:

“Poppin’ Orvilles,” because Orville Redenbacher opened his first popcorn plant in his adopted hometown, Valparaiso, Indiana.

“Dishwashers,” because Josephine Cochran, raised in Valparaiso, received a patent in 1886 for the first automated dishwasher.

“Buzzer Beaters,” because, as the Star put it, “Few fans can forget the magic of the 1998 NCAA Tournament.”

The university settled on the nickname “Beacons,” symbolizing, in the school’s words, “our call to reflect the light of hope and learning in the world.”

 

NCAA Tournament 2023 Dates

The 2023 NCAA men’s March Madness tournament begins March 14, with play scheduled at arenas across the country, culminating in the NCAA championship game April 3 at NRG Stadium in Houston.  

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Larry Henry

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