March Madness is probably more famous for the big upsets than the wild finishes. Grab a team t-shirt to root for the winning team, and then let’s check out the top 10 biggest March Madness upsets of all time.
8. Santa Clara (15) vs. Arizona (2)
The #2 ranked Arizona seed was considered underseeded that year. It was 1993, and they had six future NBA players. They managed to lose only three games during the regular season, but were on a 19-game win streak on their way to crush the conference championship.
Meanwhile, Santa Clara was only 4 games over .500. They also ended up losing to the last place team in the Pac-10 by almost 30 points, an intimidating fact when you realize that Arizona had won the Pac-10 conference and only lost a single conference game. But Santa Clara won their conference tournament to get into March Madness.
But Santa Clara had something that Arizona’s six NBA players never saw coming. Santa Clara had this ex-soccer player from Canada named Steve Nash. And Steve Nash, with incredible defense and a solid performance, led the Santa Clara team to knock off Arizona by 3 points in the closing minutes of the game. It’s a true testament to the power of having one superstar on your team who can pull the team together with some leadership, even when you’re facing seemingly insurmountable odds.
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7. George Mason (11) vs. UConn (1)
By the time George Mason took the court against the tournament’s #1 seed UConn, UConn should have been quite worried about the opposition. Despite ranking #11 in the tournament, George Mason had knocked off strong Michigan State and North Carolina teams in order to reach the Elite Eight regional final.
UConn got up by a dozen points and had a decent lead for most of the game. But George Mason, emboldened by a couple wild finishes in previous rounds of the tournament, never counted themselves out. They ended up beating UConn by 2 points late in the game, becoming one of only a few double-digit seeds to reach the Final Four.
6. Mercer (14) vs. Duke (3)
Blue teams like Duke and North Carolina have some iconic jerseys. These powerhouse teams wield their logos and colors like weapons, intimidating the opposition. That means that to beat a team like Duke, you usually have a few players who are fearless.
Mercer brought their players ready for the fight. Mercer showed up with five players who all scored double digits.
Sometimes, having the best atmosphere in your stadium can really carry you through college basketball. While all the games are technically played at neutral locations, sometimes one team's fans will show up in force in a way that they don’t usually. But in this game, it didn’t matter. Duke was playing in their home arena in North Carolina for this game—and Mercer beat them by 7 points in front of a home crowd. The team was blue, the arena was blue—but Mercer took the “W”.
5. Villanova (8) vs. Georgetown (1)
If you were told that Villanova attempted 28 shots in the game and that Georgetown attempted 53 shots a game, you might assume that Georgetown won by a dozen points.
But in this 1985 contest, Villanova shot an incredible 79% from the field. To put that in context, that percentage is better than all of the individual percentages from any of the Georgetown players—it’s also a higher percentage than Georgetown shot from the free throw line. Yes, in this contest, Villanova had a higher shot percentage from the field than Georgetown had from the free throw line.
Even with the field goal percentage, Villanova managed to win by only 2 points. They toppled a Georgetown team that starred Patrick Ewing.
4. Florida Gulf Coast (15) vs. Georgetown (2)
Florida Gulf Coast got nicknamed “dunk city” during the 2013 March Madness tournament, after they started their miracle run as they tossed the ball over a Georgetown team that seemed completely unprepared for that style of college basketball.
The FGC team toppled Georgetown by 10 points in the opening round of the tournament, completely stunning the Georgetown audience. Georgetown has had some of the best players in the history of college basketball, but this game, that didn't matter. FGC won by being more athletic and by going to the hoop in dominant ways.
3. Richmond (15) vs. Syracuse (2)
Before Richmond stepped onto the court against Syracuse, a #15 seed had never knocked off a #2 seed. The Richmond team played hard against the Syracuse Orange (which depending on your perspective, could be one of the best or worst college mascots). Richmond got up to an early lead and was ahead going into halftime. Syracuse rallied and made the game close, but Richmond was able to top them by 4 points later.
2. NC State (6) vs. Houston (1)
While a #6 seed topping a #1 seed might not seem like nearly the upset that some of these other games represent, the nature of the #1 ranked team here is key. The Houston team put together a magical season on the shoulders of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, future NBA superstars.
The NC State team picked up a lead heading into halftime, but lost it in the second half. But the game ended up tied with only a couple minutes left. Teams battled back and forth before the NC State center was able to dunk the ball as time expired.
1. The Only Winning #16 Seed
A #16 seed has only knocked off a #1 seed one time in the history of the March Madness tournament. When UMBC took the court, everyone had a bracket that listed Virginia as the winner. When UMBC left the court, nearly everyone in the March Madness tournament had a busted bracket. #1 seeds had defeated #16 seeds a total of 135 times in the history of March Madness, and had never lost. The Virginia team was also more than just a #1 seed--they had the best record in the nation and were considered the team most likely to win the tournament. They had only lost one game in 2018 by the time UMBC stepped to them.
The leader of the UMBC team, Jairus Lyles, put up 28 points in the contest. And the UMBC team destroyed Virginia 74 points to only 54. They didn’t just beat the top team by a couple points, like most of the upsets on this list. They handed it to them by 20 points. Grab some team accessories! That’s the kind of upset that deserves to be celebrated.