March Madness: Championship Game Biggest Upsets

Of all the Disney movies that have ever been made, nearly everyone will associate only one of them with March Madness: Cinderella.

And the story couldn’t be more fitting.

Cinderella the underdog, long-shot choice to make it to the Big Dance.  Cinderella who was written off as inferior but who then became the Belle of the Ball.  The idea of an underdog as a “Cinderella story” has long been associated with college basketball’s Big Dance.  So, to help celebrate Tournament Season, here are an abbreviated few (of the many) Cinderella stories, and Championship Game upsets, that have been written during the NCAA’s Big Dance:

N.C. State (+7.5) over Houston, 54-52, in 1983

In 1983, legendary coach Jim Valvano (aka Jimmy V) and the N.C. State Wolfpack played so many close games that they were given a nickname: the “Cardiac Pack”.  The Cardiac Pack earned that moniker fully with a 2-point victory over Pepperdine in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.  N.C. State would go on to reach the NCAA Championship game, with a 1-point victory over UNLV and another 1-point victory over Virginia in the Elite 8 along the way.  Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Cougars entered the National Championship game against the Cardiac Pack as 7-and a half point favorites.  But there were only seconds left when the score was tied, and Dereck Whittenburg’s half-court lob-pass to Lorenzo Charles for a dunk at the buzzer, followed by Coach Jimmy V’s celebratory (but frantic) run around the court, are images that have gone down in college basketball history.

Connecticut (+9.5) over Duke, 77-74, in 1999

Entering the 1999 season, Coach Jim Calhoun and the UCONN Huskies had spent decades on the outside looking in on the Final Four, and had never earned the right to be called National Champions.  But in ’99, behind the efforts of eventual 7th overall NBA pick Richard Hamilton, the Huskies fought their way through their Big East schedule, and to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.  The Huskies reached the Final Four, and then remained standing with a win over Ohio State to face Coach K and the Duke Blue Devils (also a #1 seed).  Then, in St. Petersburg, Florida, despite being 9-and a half point underdogs, “Rip” Hamilton and the UCONN Huskies won their first ever National Championship, 77-74 over Duke.  Hamilton was the Tournament’s top scorer with 145 points, and was also named the NCAA’s Most Outstanding Player.

Texas Western (+6.5) over Kentucky, 72-65, in 1966

The 1966 basketball season, for future Hall of Fame Coach Don Haskins and the Texas Western (now Texas, El Paso or UTEP) Miners was a struggle from start to finish.  Both on the court as well as off of it.  The long-shot, underdog Miners overcame adversaries on other teams, as well as adversaries in the general community, over racial issues. But the Miners came together to overcome their adversaries and reach the National Championship game.  At Cole Field House, on the campus of the University of Maryland, the Miners entered the Championship game against the #1 Kentucky Wildcats.  The 6-and a half point underdog Miners faced a stiff test against a formidable Kentucky team, but had overcome stiff tests all season, and would go on to defeat Kentucky 72-65, finishing the season as National Champions with a record of 28 wins and only one loss.  Coach Haskins and the 1966 Texas Western team would later be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007; and the story of the Miners’ struggles (and persistence) also sparked the book, then in 2006 , the film, Glory Road.

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