Five of the Most Inspiring March Madness Team Runs

By Jennifer Hassan in March Madness
| April 13, 2020 12:24 pm PDT
Villanova Wildcats and George Mason Patriots Logos

In every NCAA men’s basketball tournament, you’ll get teams that you expect to bow out early from the competition, sometimes in the first round, sometimes in the second.

Occasionally, one of these lower-seeded teams will squeeze into the Sweet Sixteen, but really, expectations don’t have them going much higher than that.

But sometimes, just sometimes, one of these teams will turn the brackets upside down. They’ll win when you thought they would lose, they’ll beat a top seed, and they’ll continue to progress through the tournament to the ecstasy of their fans.

Here are 5 of the best team runs in March Madness history, the fan favorites that quickly come to mind from the grand tradition of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

I’ll start this survey of the best team runs in March Madness history—and spend the most time discussing—with the one run that comes most quickly to the minds of college hoops enthusiasts: LSU 1986, when an 11th seed blossomed and then took over the garden.

LSU Tigers, 1986 – Run to the Final Four

The 1986 LSU Tigers knew they were going to March Madness, but they had no idea they’d be going all the way to the Final Four.

Let’s begin at the beginning. That year, LSU was an 11th seed; they’d started off their season well, but then languished after a couple of players were expelled from the roster.

Unfortunately, one of those players was 7-foot-plus Tito Horford, who reportedly had trouble coming to practice and who then went AWOL from the team. This left the team without the center they had counted on to elevate their stats.

Fake It ‘Till You Make It, LSU vs. Purdue

So, LSU approached the NCAA tournament feeling some trepidation and with a smaller roster than would be ideal. Their first opponent was Purdue. Despite their diminished roster, the Tigers took control of the game early, showing no lack of confidence on the court.

Strong rebounds on behalf of LSU quickly turned defensive plays in this game into offensive runs. The Tigers triumphed against 6th seed Purdue with a confidence-boosting score of 94-87.

However, that was only the first round. LSU knew it had a tough row to hoe as it faced stronger opponents on up the bracket.

Tiger Terror, LSU vs. Memphis State

Now it’s Tigers vs. Tigers as LSU faces the 3rd seeded Memphis Tigers. It was one thing to beat 6th seed Purdue, but a top team like Memphis was going to take a different strategy.

The men of Memphis State (now called the University of Memphis) began this game like the champs they were, starting off the scoring with a basket by Andre Turner that was so effortless it was insulting.

To be honest, the Memphis players looked like an NBA team out there, while LSU looked like a college team that was trying its best to justify its presence at the tournament.

However, LSU didn’t quit. Team Captain Don Redden sunk a basket and a free throw, and 14 minutes into the game, they were actually leading Memphis by one point. In the second half, LSU trailed again, getting into double-digit territory when Memphis gained a ten-point lead on a free throw.

Memphis was playing with power forward Baskerville Holmes, who later went into the NBA when he was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks but ended up playing in European leagues.

Then LSU caught a lucky break when they committed an offensive foul, but the ref saw it the other way and called a defensive foul. However, it seemed as if Memphis’ Andre Turner couldn’t miss a basket. Early into the second half, this game already looked over, in favor of Memphis.

Totally Foul

Both teams were fouling hard, left and right. It felt like half of the game was played at the free throw line, with most of the players lined up sedately and waiting to claim an ineffective shot.

LSU didn’t seem fazed by the point deficit; they were pushing hard, attempting steals and going to the ground when necessary.

Memphis’ William Bedford was levied a fourth personal foul and came out to the bench. LSU’s Baskerville Holmes was not accepting any kind of early defeat; he continued to press for an advantage, and soon it was a four-point game at 65-61 with Memphis in the lead.

The Final Five

There were five minutes left in the game. LSU had made a solid effort, but Memphis led. Of course, the lead was only two points after LSU’s John Williams sunk a shot, but Memphis didn’t look fazed. The outcome was a given, at least to their way of thinking.

John Williams sunk another shot in a fast “who’s got the ball now?” play. Suddenly, the game was tied up at 77-77, with minutes to go on the clock. LSU fouled, and Memphis went to the free throw line. And missed both! The crowd went wild!

Don Redden of LSU sunk a gorgeous shot right after Memphis missed one. The tables turned. Memphis had lost its professional look, but they sunk a shot to tie it again, 79-79. Then Redden scored two more points for LSU, but Memphis answered that and tied it up again.

One second on the clock, and LSU took a shot and made the buzzer beater to defeat the much higher-seeded Memphis Tigers! Final score, LSU 83-Memphis 81.

A Bad Seed at the Sweet Sixteen, LSU vs. Georgia Tech

So the LSU Tigers had beaten a 6th seed and a 3rd seed and made it to the Sweet Sixteen, putting them up against 2nd seed Georgia Tech. The game was in Atlanta, giving Georgia Tech a home court advantage. Would LSU’s luck hold?

Rather than the blowout that Georgia Tech fans expected, the game was evenly matched, and soon, there were only five minutes left on the clock, with LSU trailing by two, at 54 to Georgia Tech’s 58.

Georgia was running down the clock, which was fine, except LSU stole the ball and sunk a shot and then another to tie up the game. Another LSU shot gave them the lead at 64-60. Until they made another basket. And some free throws. LSU won 70-64 in a jaw-dropping victory in the heart of Georgia over high-ranking Georgia Tech.

The Elite Meet, LSU vs. University of Kentucky

LSU made it to the Elite Eight and was paired up with number one seed and basketball powerhouse the University of Kentucky’s mighty Wildcats.

Everyone agreed that LSU had been heroes to get this far. An 11th seeded team decimating a 6th seed, a 3rd seed, and a 2nd seed is the stuff of legend. But now they’re facing number one. It’s about to get real.

This game went down very much like the game vs. Georgia Tech. The team favored to win just couldn’t establish a significant lead, and LSU just kept it up.

Kentucky called a time out with five seconds to go. They did not look happy over on that bench. They were number one, gosh dang it!

Stupidly, Kentucky fouled LSU with three seconds to go. LSU cheerleaders appeared to be praying at the sidelines, on their knees and heads bowed.

LSU missed the free throw, but no matter. At one second to go, Kentucky threw a Hail Mary, and it bounced off the rim, giving the LSU Tigers yet another unbelievable win, 59-57.

The Final Final, LSU vs. Louisville Cardinals

Louisville was a number two seed, which was no longer as intimidating to the Tigers as it would have been if they hadn’t received such challenging opponents on their way up the bracket.

In every game that LSU won on its way here, to the Final Four, the team came alive at the end, in a hot chase. Here, however, they were leading by a decent margin. What would this mean for their latter half play? Would they relax or fire the afterburners?

LSU’s John Williams played his heart out, scored well, and then came out with exhaustion. Louisville’s Tony Kimbro fell to the floor in pain (after injuring himself attempting to slam an LSU player in the head) and came out of play.

Louisville finally came into the lead with less than 13 minutes to go, then went up ten points, showing that when the pressure’s on, the Cardinals could meet it and beat it.

But LSU was playing to win, not taking “defeat” for an answer. Despite Louisville’s aggressive man-on-man approach, LSU made it a four-point game.

But with five minutes left, Louisville created a 10-point lead. LSU valiantly narrowed it to five points, but Louisville’s consistent scoring, including a slam dunk with 16 seconds left on the clock, made it an 11-point game. Four seconds on the clock and a gap too big to bridge turned LSU into a resigned-looking team. LSU cheerleaders were already crying.

To add insult to injury, Louisville scored again as the clock runs out. They gained the victory, and LSU’s run to the championship was ended. But the memory of this bracket-busting run lives on, proud and strong, to this day.

Kansas Jayhawks, 1988 – Run to the Championship Game Victory

If you look at a list of NCAA tournament winners, you’ll notice that it’s nearly always a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd seed who takes the trophy. Lower seeds can burn bright for a while but rarely make it to the final showdown, and it’s even more rare for a lower seed to claim triumph in the final championship game.

And yet, that’s what happened in 1988. Kansas is usually a major power in the college basketball world, but that year, the Jayhawks were seeded 6th. In the first round, they were set up against 11th seed Xavier. Lucky break. Kansas took a thirteen-point victory, as expected.

In the second round, the Jayhawks were up against the 14th seeded Murray State Racers, another lucky break. Remember that LSU, discussed above, had to face single-digit seeds throughout the tournament in a not-so-lucky break that they overcame anyway.

The Jayhawks did beat the Racers in this second-round game, but only by three points, 61-58. If they couldn’t trounce the 14th seed by a much higher margin, how long could they expect to last in the tournament?

Which brings us to the Sweet Sixteen game against 7th seed Vanderbilt. Kansas, at 6th seed, had a slight psychological advantage. That increased throughout the game as Kansas’ Danny Manning scored 38 points, 25 of them in the first half. That’s an intimidating statistic, and Vanderbilt folded into a 77-64 defeat.

The Yellow Brick Load, Kansas vs. Kansas

The Jayhawks were in the Elite Eight, up against Kansas State, a 4th seeded team which had just defeated number one Purdue.

This was the Jayhawks’ first significant challenge; they’d made it to the Elite Eight, Kansas State’s higher seed was going to have an effect, and it was Kansas vs. Kansas, so all the state’s eyes are on the game.

Kansas State was amped up, but their shots were missing the mark. All of the energy and flair in the world won’t make up for a missed basket.

Kansas maintained a pretty consistent two-point lead throughout the first half. Not enough to relax over, but enough to keep their eyes on the prize.

However, the Kansas State Wildcats made a push late in the first half. With less than a minute to go, the Wildcats took a sudden and startling seven-point lead, which the Jayhawks magically reduced to a two-point lead just moments later.

The urban centers of Kansas went wild. Kansans were glued to their televisions.

As the game wound to a close, the paint was starting to look like a free for all, arms flailing and heads whipping around, looking for the ball. Kansas led 57-50 with four minutes left on the clock. The scrambling was intense, but shots were just not meeting the net.

But with less than two minutes on the clock, Kansas finally led by a double digit: eleven points over State. At one minute on the clock, it was a 14-point lead.

Kansas State began throwing wild shots, making every impossible arc toward the net as the seconds ticked down. State made a three-pointer at the eight second mark, but it wasn’t enough.

The crowd counted down the final seconds on the clock. The Jayhawks had done it again, 71-58, and advanced to the Final Four.

Getting Uppity, Kansas vs. Duke

Kansas was up against number two seed Duke. Duke was expected to annihilate Kansas. Yeah, Kansas beat those other teams, but this is Duke!

Just minutes into the game, Kansas led 12-0. Clearly, this game was not going to be a cut and dried victory for Duke, a team that’s used to having wins handed to them on a plate.

Kansas’ Scooter Barry played with focused energy, and Duke was having trouble keeping up. In fact, the Jayhawks as a whole seemed more energized than the Blue Devils. In addition to the intensity, Kansas looked like a well-oiled team, while the Blue Devils were looking a bit like five individuals.

Duke sunk a lay-up right before the halftime buzzer sounded, but they were still trailing by 11 points, more than they had in their entire season.

The second half had Kansas leading 44-28 just five minutes in. Whenever Duke tried to shoot, there was a forest of Kansas arms to block the shot. At one minute left in the game, it was 63-56 in favor of Kansas.

Duke finally had some clear shots at goal and attempted a couple of three-pointers which could have made this game a real contest, but the shots bounced off the rim, breaking hearts on the Duke side of the stadium. At three seconds to go, Duke FINALLY sunk a three-pointer! That could have made all the difference just one minute before, giving them time and confidence to sink another and have a real shot.

But time was up. With a final score of 66-59, the Jayhawks were heading to the championship game.

Sooner Than What? Kansas vs. Oklahoma

And then it came down to the final championship game, with Kansas up against the Oklahoma Sooners, playing under coach Billy Tubbs (“You can’t trick us; we’re not smart enough”). Oklahoma was the number one seed, and they knew it.

How did Kansas get this far? There were a lot of great players on the Jayhawks that year, including Danny Manning, a player who went on to a long NBA career with the Los Angeles Clippers.

In fact, Manning would go on to score 31 points in this game and be responsible for 18 rebounds. Compare this to the highest-scoring Sooner, Dave Sieger, at 22 points in the game. At the end of the first half, the teams were tied, 50-50, to the shock and surprise of Oklahoma.

During the first half, the field goal percentage for Kansas was more than 70%, and Oklahoma was playing at slightly less than 50%. In the second half, the Jayhawks were shooting about 20% less effectively, while the Sooners were making about 10% fewer successful shots.

With eight minutes to go, Kansas was leading, but only by one point. Kansas was playing in a cohesive manner, not getting rattled. Oklahoma, however, was scurrying around like ants under a magnifying glass.

Sixteen seconds left on the clock, and Kansas brought Scooter Barry to the free throw line. The Sooners looked miserable. Barry sunk the first shot. Then Danny Manning sunk two free throws.   

It’s a four-point game, 81-77, with 12 seconds left on the clock. The Sooners went for it and quickly sunk a shot! It was a two-point game, and they had a shot; a time out was called because this is serious business.

The Sooners had a chance with one basket needed to tie and seven seconds to do it. But they looked dejected, rather than amped to have this last-second opportunity. And a couple of successful Jayhawks free throws took it right back to a four-point game. The Sooners raced down court and tried for a wild three-pointer and missed, which was probably for the best, since a successful three-pointer would still count as a loss, and a heart-breakingly close loss at that. Final score, 83-79.

The Kansas Jayhawks were national champions! What a crazy March Madness run!

Villanova Wildcats, 1985 – Run to the Championship Game Victory

What’s amazing about Villanova’s 1985 run up the ranks is that it was only the second time the team had ever made it to the Final Four, and their first time ever to the championship game. A perfect storm of variables created a truly surprising win, and certainly one of the most memorable in the history of college ball.

Rollie Massimino was the short, lovable, roly-poly coach of the Wildcats, a man known for having the team over to his house for dinner more often than not. They were seeded 8th going into this tournament, and their opponent in the first round was the 9th seeded Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. Thus, Dayton would have a home court advantage.

Dayton was leading Villanova at the end of the first half, 23-21. Villanova reasserted themselves in the second half, scoring 30 points to Dayton’s 26, to squeak through to a 51-49 victory over the hometown team.

But now Villanova was set to meet 1st seed Michigan in the second round—an intimidating matchup to face so early in the tournament. Everyone knew that Villanova’s tournament play would end with this game. However, the scores in this game were a flip-flop of Villanova’s play against Dayton.

Massimino’s Wildcats scored 30 points in the first half to Michigan’s 26 points, to the surprise of all. Both teams scored 29 points in the second half, for a final score of 59-55 in Villanova’s favor. Michigan high scorer Roy Tarpley made 7 field goals for 14 game points, but it was Villanova guard Dwayne McClain who scored 20 points for his team, easing them into the next bracket.

In the Sweet Sixteen round, Villanova was paired against 4th seed Maryland Terrapins. Having just beaten a first seed, Villanova was full of confidence. At halftime, however, Villanova trailed Maryland by one point, at 20-19. They weren’t dominating, but they weren’t being dominated, either. At the beginning of the second half, both teams had a pretty equal chance at a win.

That all changed quickly as Villanova scored and scored in the first several minutes of the second half. It even inspired me to a few lines of poetry:

If you must ask it,

Villanova didn’t let Maryland

Anywhere near the basket.

Suddenly, Villanova had a ten-point lead over the Terrapins, who hadn’t been allowed to score at all in this first part of the second half. Now the score was 30-20 in favor of the Wildcats. The Terrapins were never able to catch up, and Villanova took the win at 46-43.

Now the Wildcats were off and running to the Elite Eight, where they’d face 2nd seed UNC Tar Heels. To make a long story short, it wasn’t even a close game, and Villanova took the triumph, 56-44. Villanova did trail by four points at the end of the first half but zoomed back in the second half to score an outrageous 39 points to UNC’s 22.

That took them to the Final Four, the Big Leagues, the games that everyone tunes in to watch. Villanova was up against the Memphis Tigers, a 2nd seed team. By now, everyone was watching to see what tricks Villanova was going to pull out of the hat. Both teams ended the first half with a score of 23. The tension mounted.

Andre Turner and Keith Lee, the Tigers’ top scorers of the game, made only 11 and 10 points, respectively. That was never going to work. The Wildcats’ top scorers, Dwayne McClain and Ed Pinkney, made 19 and 12 points, respectively. Final score: Villanova 52, Memphis 45.

Unbelievably, the Villanova Wildcats had made it to the championship game.

Hoya Paranoia vs. The Irresistible Force

So, Villanova was on a high. Their fans were beside themselves with excitement. College basketball enthusiasts knew they were watching history in the making.

Now 8th seed Villanova would be going up against the most terrifying team in the nation: number one seeded, street-brawl-style, “terrorize your way to number one” Georgetown Hoyas. The Hoyas were playing under coach John Thompson, who had led the Hoyas to become tournament champions the year before.

The Hoyas, playing with future New York Knicks Patrick Ewing and Michael Jackson and future Indiana Pacer Bill Martin, were unconcerned by the threat posed by Villanova. Until the end of the first half, which had the Wildcats up by one point.

The second half ended the same way, with Villanova scoring 37 points, one more than the Hoyas’ 36. Hoyas’ David Wingate scored 16 points in the game, and Patrick Ewing brought 14 points to the table. But Villanova’s Dwayne McClain and Ed Pinckney made 17 points and 16 points.

That’s only three points’ difference, but with a final score of Villanova 66, Georgetown 64, that was all that was needed to make Villanova the conference champions. Fans still remember the incredulous look on the faces of the Hoyas as they were forced to accept defeat.

George Mason Patriots, 2006 – Run to the Final Four

Coach Jim Larranaga had already been at Mason for a decade when the out-of-nowhere 2006 March Madness run happened to him, with him, and through him. The Patriots had never been considered a “top” team, but in the 2005 regular season, they won 23 games, a school record at the time.

George Mason entered March Madness as an 11th seed and was set up to play 6th seed Michigan State. Mason came in as a serious underdog because many thought they weren’t a good enough team to even be invited to the tournament.

George Mason outscored Michigan in the first half by 10% to create a 33-30 lead at halftime. In the second half, the Patriots ramped up their shooting success and scored 42 points in the second half to the Spartans’ 35. The naysayers shut the hell up; Mason did belong in the tournament. And now, with this 75-65 victory, the Patriots would proceed to round two.

The Spartans were a 6th seed, but now in the second round, the Patriots were up against 3rd seed UNC Tar Heels. By any statistical reckoning, the Tar Heels should have crushed the Patriots underfoot. But that’s what makes college ball so great: youth has surprise and resilience on its side.

At the end of the first half, UNC held a seven-point lead, 27-20. Soon, these upstart Patriots could turn around and go home. Of course, that’s what King George III’s British redcoats thought about the American colonial uprising…which turned into a British ass-whupping and resulted in a new country. Kind of like this 2006 Patriots run into March Madness.

In the second half of the game, the Tar Heels scored a very respectable 33 points; unfortunately, the Patriots scored 45 points in the second half and took the victory, thanks in large part to the shooting of guard Lamar Butler and the 18 points he pulled in for the team. Final score: 65 George Mason Patriots, 60 UNC Tar Heels.

That was a big win for Mason, but there was still more to come. Now in the Sweet Sixteen, the Patriots were up against 7th seed Wichita State. Although the Wichita State Shockers were not as famous as the UNC Tar Heels on the national college basketball circuit, their seed was four levels higher than Mason. However, Mason had just beaten UNC…

Wheat Just Happened?!

The Patriots ran over the wheat, with 35 points at halftime to the Shockers’ 19. The second half had Wichita State scoring more than Mason, at 36 points to the Patriots’ 28, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the first half lead by Mason. Mason took the victory, 63-55.

So Mason made it to the Elite Eight, facing number one seed UConn. Mason was outclassed, trailing by nine points at halftime. However, the Patriots had a resounding second half, making 40 points to UConn’s 31, tying up the game. The 11th seed had tied with a 1st seeded team!

The game went into overtime, and Mason scored 12 points to UConn’s 10. The Patriots had beaten the number one seed, 86-84! This initially badmouthed team had made it to the Final Four. What a spectacular run by Mason.

Now Mason was up against the number three seed Florida Gators. Mason put up a fight, scoring 26 points in the first half and 32 in the second, but it didn’t compare to Florida’s 31- and 42-point halves. The Gators took the win, 73-58.

But George Mason was now on the basketball map. I’ll keep an eye peeled for them to show up again for sure, especially when I place my March Madness bets online.

Loyola Chicago, 2018 – Run to the Final Four

This 11th seeded team beat 6th seed Miami in the first round. A three-pointer put Loyola ahead by two, and they maintained the lead until the final buzzer. Score: 64-62. Now the 11th seeded Loyola Ramblers would face 3rd seed Tennessee in the second round.

The victory against Tennessee was a hard-won game, played in Dallas at American Airlines Center. Loyola led at halftime, 29-25, but trailed in the second half, 37-37, giving Loyola the win in the 63-62 game, but just barely. Aundre Jackson, a reserve player for the Ramblers, was the star of the game, bringing in 16 points to create the winning score.

At the Sweet Sixteen, the Ramblers faced the 7th seed Nevada Wolf Pack in another one-point game, taking the victory at 69-68. At the Elite Eight, Loyola was up against 9th seed Kansas State, where they took the victory easily, 78-62, a pretty crushing 16-point loss for Kansas State.

Loyola proceeded to the Final Four, to the ecstasy of their team’s fans and to the delight of fans of any significant March Madness upset. The Ramblers faced 3rd seed Michigan.

This was the first time Loyola had made it to the Final Four in more than 50 years. Michigan’s Wolverines had been in the Final Four just a few years previously. Furthermore, Michigan was on a 13-game win streak. Confidence was high in the Wolverines camp.

However, Loyola outscored the number three seed in the first half, 29-22. Something happened to the Wolverines at halftime break, though, because they bit and fought their way to the top in the second half, scoring 47 points to Loyola’s 28. Michigan took the game and ended Loyola’s run, but it’s still one to remember.

Sister Jean, a nun and the team chaplain for the Loyola Ramblers, played high school basketball before becoming a nun. Fun Fact: she has her own bobblehead. That’s how popular she is.

During this run up the brackets in 2018, she told the Loyola Ramblers, “You’re good at everything.” Was this the mantra that won the team so many impossible matchups?

We hope to see another power streak by Loyola in the next few years; they’re an old and storied team, and people just like when they triumph.

In Conclusion

Well, this is a temporary conclusion, at any rate. Because March Madness will continue to bring us surprises, shocks, and inspiration. We’ll see more Cinderella stories, and we’ll also see more “Wicked Step-Mother” stories, wherein established monarchs of college hoops take home another title. The only consistent element in March Madness is the sheer inconsistency of it all.

And we love it!

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