HOUSTON — Thirty minutes after Kris Jenkins’ thunderbolt of a 3-pointer delivered Villanova its first championship in 31 years, Wildcats coach Jay Wright opened his press conference by calling Monday’s title game “one of the great college basketball games we've ever been a part of.”
To be honest, he may not have needed those qualifiers.
Villanova’s epic 77-74 victory over North Carolina had everything synonymous with March Madness — wild momentum swings, thunderous roars, heroic performances and a dramatic finish that left one team stunned and heartbroken and the other spilling onto the floor in celebration. In this case there were two shining moments, Marcus Paige’s leaning, twisting 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left that seemed destined to force overtime and Jenkins’ rebuttal at the buzzer to end the game in regulation.
The lingering question the day after the gripping drama of Monday night is whether Villanova-North Carolina is the best title game that college basketball has ever produced.
Helping its case is the high-level quality of play from start to finish and a Disney-worthy ending that will be replayed every March for decades. Hurting its case is that neither side featured a transcendent star player, nor was the outcome a seismic upset or an instigator for change.
Here’s a humble attempt at the daunting task of ranking college basketball’s eight greatest title games. The criteria include everything from quality of the players and coaches involved, to the historical significance of the outcome, to the shock and awe of the finish.
1. North Carolina 63, Georgetown 62 (1982): This one had everything, from rosters riddled with future NBA stars, to two coaching legends vying for their first championship, to an indelible gaffe as memorable as the go-ahead shot that preceded it. Patrick Ewing, James Worthy, Eric “Sleepy” Floyd and Sam Perkins were the game’s most established players, but it was a jumper from the left side by a freshman named Michael Jordan that gave North Carolina the lead with 15 seconds to play. Georgetown had one last chance, but Fred Brown thought Worthy was a teammate and inexplicably threw him the ball, enabling the Tar Heels to run out the clock and shed Dean Smith’s label as a coach who couldn’t win the big one.
2. North Carolina State 54, Houston 52 (1983): Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma team was seemingly one of the most invincible favorites in NCAA tournament history, a 31-2 undisputed No. 1 that crushed opponents by an average of 18 points per game and did so via a barrage of jaw-dropping dunks. Stars Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were not just future pros but future NBA all-stars. Somehow, NC State shocked the Cougars when Lorenzo Charles dunked Dereck Whittenburg's last-second miss at the buzzer, sending coach Jim Valvano in search of someone to hug. The sixth-seeded Wolfpack lost 10 games, barely made it into the NCAA tournament and survived a series of close games to advance to the title game at all.
3. Villanova 77, North Carolina 74 (2016): Villanova had beaten its five previous NCAA tournament opponents by an average of 24.2 points and had throttled Oklahoma by 44. North Carolina had won all five of its NCAA tournament games by 14 or more and had scarcely trailed in the second half in any of them. In a year that lacked a dominant team during the regular season, these two had emerged to challenge the season-long narrative in March. The 3-pointers from Paige and Jenkins have deservedly dominated the conversation Tuesday, but the quality of the rest of the game should not be ignored. From North Carolina’s unlikely outside shooting, to Villanova’s aggressive forays to the rim, this was compelling from the start.
4. Villanova 66, Georgetown 64 (1985): It was supposed to be a coronation for Patrick Ewing's greatest Georgetown team. The Hoyas had won 17 straight games, had held opponents to 39 percent shooting all season and were one win away from joining the small group of teams that had captured back-to-back national championships. Eighth-seeded Villanova was an improbable candidate to spoil the day for Georgetown, but led by point guard Gary McLain and center Ed Pinckney, the Wildcats earned one of the most memorable title game upsets in college hoops history. The Wildcats shot 78 percent from the field, opened a five-point lead with 1:24 to go and sank just enough free throws to seal the upset.
5. Texas Western 72, Kentucky 65 (1966): What stood out about this game at the time it was played was that it was a big upset, a largely unknown school toppling one of the sport’s most tradition-rich programs. Only in hindsight is it now apparent the social significance of the result. Texas Western was the first NCAA champion to start five black players. Kentucky, like other Southern schools, had never had one. The outcome hastened the integration of college basketball, especially in the South and made unwitting racial pioneers out of coach Don Haskins and his players. It also dispelled the then-popular notion that black players needed at least one white player on the court to lead them.
6. Michigan State 75, Indiana State 64 (1979): Thirty-seven years ago, college basketball was primitive by today’s standards. Nationally televised games were rare, so most people had only heard tales of the exploits of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird before this title game. As a result, a record television audience of about 20 million fans tuned in for the rare chance to see both play. The game itself was one-sided — Johnson’s superior supporting cast helped Michigan State remain in control throughout — but the interest helped pave the way for the growth of the NCAA tournament. The game also served as the birth of the rivalry between Johnson and Bird, who competed throughout the 1980s with the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.
7. North Carolina 54, Kansas 53, 3OT (1957): On one side was a Tar Heels team undefeated all season. On the other side was a Jayhawks team starring the most dominant player of his era. It was one of the most compelling matchups of the NCAA tournament’s early years, and it lived up to the pregame buildup. North Carolina slowed the pace of play to a crawl, held — yes, held — Kansas star Wilt Chamberlain to 23 points and 14 rebounds and took the lead on a pair of Joe Quigg free throws with 13 seconds to go in the third overtime. The Jayhawks tried to get the ball to Chamberlain on their final possession, but Quigg tipped away the pass to seal the victory.
8. Indiana 74, Syracuse 73 (1987): In a clash of two of college basketball’s most iconic coaches, Keith Smart helped Bob Knight get the best of Jim Boeheim. Smart received a pass from Darryl Thomas at the left elbow, dribbled toward the baseline and sank a game-winning jump shot just before time expired. In-state hero Steve Alford was Indiana’s best player that season, but Smart stepped up when Syracuse began face-guarding Alford to keep the ball out of his hands. Smart finished with 20 points to help the Hoosiers survive a loaded Syracuse team featuring future NBA standouts Sherman Douglas, Derrick Coleman and Rony Seikaly.
Five other title games of note:
Duke 61, Butler 59 (2010): Had Gordon Hayward’s last-second half-court heave gone in, it would have produced the most unlikely champion ever and been hailed as the greatest shot of all time.
Kansas 75, Memphis 68, OT (2008): Mario’s miracle paved the way for the Jayhawks to win in overtime, earning Bill Self his lone title and denying John Calipari his first for another four years.
Connecticut 77, Duke 74 (1999): The Huskies forced back-to-back Trajan Langdon turnovers on Duke’s final two possessions to secure a huge upset and capture their first title.
North Carolina 77, Michigan 71 (1993): Chris Webber’s ill-fated timeout he didn’t have provided the clinching free throws as North Carolina captured Dean Smith’s second championship.
Kansas 83, Oklahoma 79 (1988): It took an improbable run as a No. 6 seed, but Kansas finally got its second championship thanks to Danny and the Miracles.
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