We’ve reached the final of the 2023 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and have been blessed with (or cursed by, depending on your bracket) some of the most exhilarating upsets in recent years. Most notably, San Diego State’s insane run to the championship.
With one of the biggest possible upsets in championship history on our hands, we can’t help but think of some of the most magnificent upsets in vintage tournament history. From NC State sealing their cinderella story in 1983 to Gonzaga stunning Stanford in the 1999 tournament, here are the biggest upsets in vintage March Madness history.
Duke 79, UNLV 77 – 1991 Final Four
In March 1991, the University of Nevada Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels had a record of 34-0 and had not lost a game since February the prior year. UNLV were the defending national championships and with multiple future NBA stars on their roster in addition to the prolific coaching abilities of Jerry Tarkanian, they had all intentions of running it back.
It was the Final Four and the battle was being played out at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. The winner of the game would go on to face the victor of UNC and Kansas and fans everywhere were torn between wanting a massive rivalry to go down in the championship (Duke vs. UNC) or seeing UNLV continue its unbelievable streak.
With the game tied 77-77, Thomas Hil of Duke missed a shot that Christian Laettner was fouled trying to rebound. Laettner would go on to sink both free throws with 12.7 seconds left that went unanswered. A few days later, Duke trumped Kansas to take the 1991 National Championship.
NC State 54, Houston 52 – 1983 National Championship Game
Going into the 1983 National Championship Game, Houston was the top-ranked, #1 seed while NC State was 16th-ranked and holding down the #6 seed. This being the case, Houston was easily considered the favorite with a 7-point spread. However, there was something special about NC State’s tournament run that people couldn’t look away from.
The Wolfpack had to win the ACC Tournament just to get a bid to the Big Dance and it was by a hair against UVA. The nail-biters would only continue into March Madness with a double overtime win against Pepperdine in the first round and one-point games against UNLV and UVA. The latter of which was a bitter rematch of the ACC Championship that UVA still had hard feelings about. We’re guessing they didn’t feel much better after the loss - this time in the Elite 8.
Despite the drama, NC Prevailed and made it to the championship. The drama would continue up to the very last second of the tournament with a buzzer-beater, Alley-oop finish via a short shot by Dereck Whittenburg that was dunked by Lorenzo Charles.
Queue the confetti.
Gonzaga 82, Stanford 74 – 1999 Second Round
Let’s now rewind to the KeyArena in 19th-century Seattle. Number 10 Gonzaga was facing off against No. 2 Stanford in the second round of the 1999 tournament and at the time, Gonzaga was hardly considered to be a basketball school.
Many people even considered Gonzaga’s first-round victory to be a fluke due to the fact that Minnesota had four key players out on academic suspension. However, Gonzaga swiftly silenced the haters by dispensing with the number 2 seed by 8 points.
The key difference maker in this game was Gonzaga point guard Matt Santangelo who dropped 22 points, 3/3 three-pointers, six rebounds, and six assists. Gonzaga would go on to beat Florida in the sweet 16 but fall to Connecticut in the elite 8. Regardless, the tournament performance is considered Gonzaga’s “coming out party” as the years that followed consisted of multiple tournament bids and deep runs.
Coppin State 78, South Carolina 65 - 1997 First Round
If you haven’t heard about the 1997 Coppin State victory over USC, there is a chance you probably never heard of Coppin State at all. The small Baltimore, Maryland school has only been to the tournament four times with their one tournament win being this fateful game against the Gamecocks.
Going into the game, USC were 30-point favorites and looking to make a statement in their first tournament appearance in 8 years. It was a first-round game going down in Pittsburgh and USC thought things would be business as usual after finishing 15-1 in the regular season. However, the offensive abilities of Danny Singletary, who finished with 22 points, and the rebounding prowess of Reggie Welch, who finished with 15 boards, proved too much for the Gamecocks to handle.
In a post-game interview, Welch claimed that they “didn’t even know it was South Carolina out there” with the Eagles bench outsourcing South Carolina’s 40-17. Coppin State would then face a confident Texas team who just whopped #7 seed Wisconsin. Although UT pulled out the win, it was only by a point.
Santa Clara 64, Arizona 61 - 1993 First Round
Arizona in March 1993 was hot. Not only did they have 6 future NBA players, such as Khalid Reeves and Chris Mills, but they also finished the regular season 17-1 and won the Pac-10 by a wide 5-game margin. The Wildcats were undoubtedly feeling themselves going into the tournament but this is what ultimately proved to be their downfall.
Santa Clara was being led by a Canadian point guard by the name of Steve Nash who was quickly becoming a focal point in Men’s College Basketball. However, it was Pete Eisenrich who stood out in the game with 18 points, eight rebounds, and four blocks to Nash’s 10 points, seven rebounds, and four assists.
This game, however, was decided at the line with the Broncos missing 4 free throws in the last 10 seconds of the game while retaining a shaky 3 point lead. Fortunately for Santa Clara, Stoudamire bricked a three at the buzzer to seal the deal on this historic upset.