Where does Gonzaga-UCLA rank among greatest men's Final Four games of modern era?

·8 min read

Gonzaga and UCLA played a Final Four game for the ages on Saturday night.

Even before Jalen Suggs' buzzer-beater, it was everything the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament had been yearning for. It had tension and high-quality hoops. It had storylines, a cultural underdog and an actual underdog. It had dozens of ties and lead changes, a dramatic end to regulation, and an overtime.

Suggs' shot, though, elevated it toward the top of any list of greatest men's Final Four games ever.

We've attempted to place it among the top 10 below. But first, a few notes on criteria:

  • We're specifying men's Final Four. If we didn't, at least three women's game from the last five years would make the cut. Mississippi State-UConn 2017, Notre Dame-UConn 2018, Notre Dame-Mississippi State 2018, Baylor-Notre Dame 2019 and Stanford-South Carolina 2021 would all be contenders.

  • We're not just limiting this to semifinals. "Final Four" means semifinal or national title game.

  • We're not just ranking finishes. Of course, a dramatic ending is a key aspect of the criteria. But all 40-plus minutes, and the context in which they were played, matter. 

  • Picking the best games ever, dating all the way back to 1939, would be a ridiculous exercise. Instead, we're picking the best since 1985, when the tournament expanded to 64 teams. And heck, we'll admit it: The list is likely influenced by recency bias. The average living American was a toddler in 1985. I personally wasn't even alive. And all of our minds are naturally drawn to fresher memories. We've tried to consider the 20th-century games fairly, but its very difficult to replicate the impact of having experienced a game live, more recently.

So, without further ado, in descending order, our top-10 men's Final Four games since 1985.

10. Duke 61, Butler 59 (2010 final)

The ultimate "David vs. Goliath" showdown was hardly a well-played basketball game. The tension, though, was overwhelming. Neither team ever led by more than six. Every possession rattled nerves.

If Gordon Hayward's shot had banked in, of course, this is a relatively undisputed No. 1 on countless March Madness lists, including this one. The near-miss, though, still keeps it in the top 10.

9. Wisconsin 71, Kentucky 64 (2015 semifinal)

This was 38-0 Kentucky, led by future NBA All-Stars and seven soon-to-be pros. Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis, Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles and the Harrison twins had, for four months, been bolstering their case as perhaps the greatest men's college basketball team ever.

Wisconsin – who'd fallen at this same stage to the same opponent 364 days earlier – stopped them in their tracks. Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes had other ideas.

What this game lacked, though, was late-game shot-making. The teams combined for four made field goals over the final six-and-a-half minutes. They traded overlapping six-minute scoring droughts. Free throws were decisive. A classic game didn't get the classic ending it deserved.

8. Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79 (1989 final)

The 1989 title bout had almost everything: compelling backstories, back-and-forth drama, and controversy.

This was the Wolverines team that lost its coach on the eve of the tournament. Bill Frieder announced he'd taken the job at Arizona State. So Michigan essentially fired him and handed the reins to Steve Fisher.

Glen Rice then propelled the third-seeded Wolverines all the way to the final, and dueled with Seton Hall's John Morton on the big stage. Morton put the Pirates up one with two minutes left. Rice put Michigan back up one with a minute to play. With 25 seconds on the clock, Morton drilled a 3 to tie the game.

In OT, the two kept going. Morton's 33rd, 34th and 35th points of the night put Seton Hall up 79-76. Rice drained a jumper to cut the lead to one. Then a questionable call – a borderline phantom call – stole the headlines. Refs sent Rumeal Robinson to the line with three seconds remaining. He bottomed two free throws. Seton Hall connected on a full-court pass, but the would-be game-winner sailed long.

7. Indiana 74, Syracuse 73 (1987 final)

Keith Smart's baseline jumper beat Syracuse with mere seconds left. The championship-clincher – after 'Cuse freshman Derrick Coleman missed the front end of a one-and-one – remains one of the most memorable shots in tournament history.

6. Villanova 66, Georgetown 64 (1985 final)

One of March Madness' hallowed upsets, No. 8 seed Villanova stunned No. 1 overall seed Georgetown. The Wildcats remain the lowest-ranked team to ever capture a national title. The game's final chapters weren't the greatest, nor were the 40 minutes all that aesthetically pleasing, nor was the upset as improbable as history recalls – the Hoyas were eight- or nine-point favorites.

It was seismic, though, and rightly retains a firm place in college basketball's annals. 

5. Duke 79, UNLV 77 (1991 semifinal)

UNLV entered the 1991 Final Four as an undefeated defending national champion. The Larry Johnson-Stacey Augmon-Anderson Hunt-Greg Anthony core had won 45 consecutive games. Which is why Duke's takedown of the Runnin' Rebels – as an eight-point underdog, having lost to them by 30 in the title game the year before – is widely considered one of the most significant Final Four games ever.

And it was a magnificent game as well. Johnson's free throw with 50 seconds left – after a lane violation gave him a second chance – tied it for a 17th time. It was so gripping, so overflowing with storylines, that the soft foul call that sent Christian Laettner to the line for decisive freebies didn't mar the spectacle.

4. UConn 77, Duke 74 (1999 final)

The 1999 tournament unfolded just as the 2021 version has. Early rounds were full of upheaval. Later rounds, however, left America with the heavyweight showdown it had craved all along.

Duke, led by Elton Brand and Trajan Langdon, with sophomore Shane Battier as a helluva fifth option, seemingly entered the game at its turn-of-the-century peak. It hadn't lost since November. Its 32-game win streak churned through seven top-10 teams. UConn had only lost twice all season, but still entered March 29, 1999, as a nine-point underdog.

Together, they gave us the greatest 40 minutes of basketball that March Madness has ever seen. Rip Hamilton and Langdon traded big-time buckets. The teams traded slender leads. Neither ever led by more than seven.

The only thing they didn't deliver was a memorable finish.

3. Kansas 75, Memphis 68 (2008 final)

Kansas-Memphis, on the other hand, wasn't a 40-minute classic. But the final stages of regulation were great theater. Until a few years ago, Mario Chalmers' shot to send the game to overtime was arguably the greatest in Final Four history.

2. Gonzaga 93, UCLA 90 (2021 semifinal)

Gonzaga-UCLA cracks the top three because it was so much more than Suggs' winner. The Bruins entered as 13.5-point underdogs, longer shots than Villanova in 1985 or Duke in 1991. And they played a near-perfect game. They manipulated the pace to their liking. They drilled difficult shot after difficult shot. They hung with Gonzaga's 1.36 points per possession in the first half, and hung tough every time the game appeared to be slipping away.

And they had a chance to win it in regulation. If not for the wild end to OT, Drew Timme's drawn charge with 0.7 seconds left would be remembered as heroic. (It still should be.) It impeded what would have been arguably the biggest upset in Final Four history.

The buzzer-beater, of course, is what pushes this toward the top of our rankings. But not to the top. Not quite.

1. Villanova 77, North Carolina 74 (2016 final)

Nova-UNC was a very good game between two very good teams. What it had that no other men's Final Four game has ever had was a game-tying shot for the ages ... followed by a game-winning buzzer-beater that topped it.

Gonzaga-UCLA came close. But imagine if Juzang's uncontested put-back was, instead, a double-clutch 3-pointer. That's how Marcus Paige knotted the game at 74 with 4.7 seconds left.

And imagine if Suggs had won Mark Few his first national title, rather than merely bring the Zags within 40 minutes of one. Kris Jenkins' 28-footer remains the greatest shot in tournament history.

Honorable mention

  • Kentucky 74, Wisconsin 73 (2014 semifinal) — Kentucky-Wisconsin II was the better game, but Kentucky-Wisconsin I had the better finish. Aaron Harrison's 3-pointer won it with 5.7 seconds remaining.

  • Virginia 85, Texas Tech 77 (2019 final) — An all-around excellent game to cap a wonderful redemption story.

  • North Carolina 75, Illinois 70 (2005 final) — The two best teams all season were tied at 70 with two minutes left.

  • North Carolina 77, Michigan 71 (1993 final) — The Chris Webber timeout game.

  • Syracuse 81, Kansas 78 (2003 final) — Hakim Warrick's block.

  • UConn 78, Duke 77 (2004 semifinal) — UConn came back from eight points down with three minutes remaining.

  • Virginia 63, Auburn 62 (2019 semifinal) — You remember the controversial foul at the end. You might forget Kyle Guy's clutch 3-pointer 11 seconds earlier to bring Virginia within one.

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