The best NCAA championship games of all time
It's an exceedingly difficult task to whittle down the most exciting championship games of this crazy competition we call March Madness. It earned that nickname for a reason, after all.
Since the tournament's inception in 1939, six title matchups have been decided in overtime, and 17 ended with a deficit of three points or fewer. Not every close game is equally exciting, of course.
Narratives build throughout the first couple weeks of the Big Dance, lending an extra layer of public interest to certain matchups. Some games are remembered for iconic moments -- whether they're a symbol of rousing success or gut-wrenching failure. And nothing gets a basketball fan's blood pumping like an old-fashioned buzzer-beater.
With that in mind, here's one fan's ranking of the five best college basketball championships of all time.
5. 1985: Villanova 66, Georgetown 64
The lowest-seeded team to ever win it all had to take down defending national champion and No. 1 seed Georgetown to do it. The Hoyas had won their first five tourney games by an average of 15.6 points behind future NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, but No. 8 seed Villanova shocked its Big East rivals on April Fool's Day.
In the last game in Division I history contested without a shot clock, the Wildcats took their time in crafting what would come to be known as the Perfect Game. They took just 18 shots in the first half, making 13 to stake a one-point lead heading into halftime. Their offense was even more deliberate in the second half, converting 9 out of 10 shots to shoot 78.6 percent overall for the game -- a tournament record.
Harold Jensen's jumper with 2:40 left put Villanova up 55-54, and after Georgetown turned it over on the ensuing possession, the Wildcats closed out the school's first title at the free-throw line. It was a fairy tale ending for the biggest Cinderella to ever be crowned the champions of the Big Dance, but points must be taken off for an agonizing pace of play and lack of any standout classic moment.
4. 2008: Kansas 75, Memphis 68 (OT)
This game is remembered for Mario Chalmers' buzzer-beating three at the top of the key -- or as Kansas fans refer to it, Mario's Miracle. But some might not remember that shot only tied the game to send it to overtime, where the Jayhawks rode the momentum by scoring the period's first six points to take control and coast to the finish line.
It was a stunning collapse by Memphis, which led by nine with 2:12 remaining in regulation. Leading up to that comeback, freshman Derrick Rose played like the No. 1 draft pick he'd become later that summer, capping a 14-point binge in eight minutes by nailing a ridiculous fadeaway that the play-by-play announcer instantly called "the shot of the tournament."
It wasn't. The Tigers -- ranked 339th of the country's 341 teams with 59 percent free-throw shooting, according to ESPN -- sunk just 1 out of 5 free throws in the game's final 90 seconds to open the door for the true shot of the tournament, courtesy of Chalmers.
3. 1982: North Carolina 63, Georgetown 62
The 1982 championship served as a reminder that even though college basketball features some of the country's premier athletes, these players are still young guys with somewhat limited game experience. In this instance, one of the most star-studded finals of all time ended in one of the most bone-headed plays to ever decide a championship.
After 19-year-old Michael Jordan hit a jumper with 17 seconds left to give UNC a one-point lead, Georgetown guard Fred Brown got confused when Carolina's James Worthy jumped into the backcourt and delivered the ball right to him.
With no three-point line enacted at the time, that should've been all she wrote for Georgetown. But Worthy, a future Los Angeles Laker legend, inexplicably missed both free throws to give the Hoyas another shot. It was wasted when a desperation heave fell short, as the Tar Heels clinched their first title under coach Dean Smith.
Poor Patrick Ewing. His college career was bookended by crushing title-game defeats in both his freshman and senior seasons, and he never won an NBA title despite becoming an icon for the New York Knicks. At least his Hoyas claimed a championship during his junior year.
2: 1983: N.C. State 54, Houston 52
Though the 1985 Villanova Wildcats were the lowest seed to ever win the NCAA Tournament, many (myself included) consider the North Carolina State Wolfpack squad from two years earlier to be the greatest underdog story in March Madness history.
Their opponents, the Houston Wildcats, were loaded with talent in the form of Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, who'd combine to make 22 All-Star teams in the NBA. "Phi Slama Jama" changed the way the game was played, ushering in an era of athleticism and highlight-reel dunks.
But it was the Lorenzo Charles of the "Cardiac Pack" who thundered home the most important dunk of the tournament, a game-ending alley-oop of sorts born from Dereck Whittenburg's desperate heave from 30 feet out. That provided perhaps the most iconic moment in tournament lore, sending coach Jim Valvano on a desperate quest to find anyone who'd hug him.
Jimmy V's bunch had endured several heart-stopping games en route to the championship -- a double-overtime win over Pepperdine in the first round, and a pair of one-point triumphs over UNLV in the second round and Ralph Sampson-led Virginia in the Elite Eight -- but none were greater than their last.
1. 2016: Villanova 77, North Carolina 74
It's not just recency bias. Last year's roller coaster of a game was the best title decider in NCAA basketball history -- and the only one to end on a three-pointer at the buzzer.
To set the stage: Villanova entered having stunned No. 1 overall seed Kansas in the Elite Eight, then demoralized Oklahoma and national player of the year Buddy Hield with the biggest blowout in Final Four history, a 95-51 laugher. Meanwhile, North Carolina won both the ACC regular season title and conference tournament before running roughshod through their side of the bracket, winning all five matchups by double digits with an average margin of 16.2 points to tie a record with their 19th Final Four (which they broke this year).
Senior point guard Marcus Paige led the Tar Heels on a furious comeback that cemented his place in Carolina lore, loss or not. Villanova led by 10 with less than five minutes left, but UNC cut that down to three on a trey from Paige with 1:30 left. A minute later, he rebounded his own missed layup to bring the Heels to within one. Then, on Carolina's final possession, he knocked down a miraculous, double-clutch three-pointer to tie things up.
The Wildcats came right back at the Heels, however, unfazed by the dizzying sequence. Ryan Arcidiacono dribbled down the court and shovel passed it to Kris Jenkins, who launched from well beyond the arc as time expired.
As Villanova coach Jay Wright coolly put it: Bang.