On the day that what would have been the beginning of the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, CBS Sports is taking a look back at some of the most memorable games in Elite Eight history. The goal was not to pick the definitive all-time “best” games from the Regional Finals, which would have been a nearly impossible exercise given the NCAA Tournament’s illustrious history and the subjectivity of the criteria for “best.”
Rather, with the input of CBS Sports basketball writers, the best games since 1985, when the bracket expanded to 64-teams, have been selected for their historical significance, individual heroics, dramatic endings or any combination of the three.
2006: No. 11 George Mason 86, No. 1 UConn 84 (OT)
“By George, the dream is alive!” That was the call from Verne Lundquist on CBS when UConn’s Denham Brown missed a 3-pointer at the overtime buzzer and George Mason became just the second No. 11 seed in NCAA Tournament history to make the Final Four.
The Patriots’ first three victories in the NCAA Tournament all came against higher seeds and brought ample drama. But this was the game that cemented the team in history. Connecticut, a No. 1 seed, entered as one of the most-successful teams of the Jim Calhoun era with a 30-3 record and a leading scorer in Rudy Gay who was selected No. 8 in the NBA Draft just a few months later.
Gay was just a sophomore, but the Huskies’ next five leading scorers were all juniors and seniors who had won a national championship two years earlier. It was a talented, veteran group with sights on another title until its run-in with George Mason.
The Patriots had to fight until the finish to advance as UConn erased a four-point deficit in the final 10 seconds of regulation to force overtime on a buzzer-beating layup from Brown. George Mason led by five in overtime until Marcus Williams hit a 3-pointer with 10.1 seconds left. After a missed free throw, Brown and the Huskies one last shot. But it was off, and the Patriots danced on to the Final Four.
2005: No. 1 Illinois 90, No. 3 Arizona 89 (OT)
This week marks 15 years since one of the most remarkable comebacks in NCAA Tournament history. The Fighting Illini were 35-1 and had not faced a double-digit deficit all season. But their backs were against the wall after Arizona took a 15-point lead with four minutes left.
Then, the Illinois guard trio of Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head outscored the Wildcats 20-5 over the final 3:52 of regulation to force overtime. Williams and Head also combined for eight of the team’s 10 points in the extra period. Arizona had a chance to win it at the end, but Hassan Adams missed a shot at the buzzer and Illinois advanced.
Williams, Brown and Head combined for 12 3-pointers and 57 points in the game. The trio also finished with eight steals as Illinois ramped up its defensive intensity in the final minutes of regulation to complete the improbable comeback.
“It’s heart man, it’s just heart,” Brown said at the time. “The whole time I was saying ‘If it was meant to be, it was meant to be.’ And I guess it was meant to be that we go to the Final Four.”
2019: No. 1 Virginia 80, No. 3 Purdue 75 (OT)
It would have been hard to fathom beforehand how Purdue could be involved in a game any more dramatic than its 99-94 victory over Tennessee in the Sweet 16 two nights before.
But a showdown with Virginia in the Elite Eight delivered as one of the all-time greats with the Cavaliers somehow overcoming a barrage of 10 3-pointers from Purdue’s Carsen Edwards to win in overtime.
Just getting to overtime required a frenetic buzzer-beating sequence for the Cavaliers. They trailed by three with 5.9 seconds left as Ty Jerome went to the free-throw line. He made the first and missed the second. Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite jumped for the rebound and tipped the ball backwards. But it sailed over the heads of two Virginia guards. Kihei Clark ran nearly to the opposite 3-point line to retrieve it and unleashed a baseball pass to Diakite, who released the game-tying jumper just before the buzzer.
Virginia was finally able to contain Edwards in overtime, though his 42-point outing still earned him the South Region’s Most Outstanding Player award. The Cavaliers went on to win the national championship.
1992: Duke 104, Kentucky 103 (OT)
Everyone knows this game because of Christian Laettner’s iconic overtime buzzer-beater. But the previous 44 minutes and 58 seconds brought some pretty epic basketball, too.
The backdrop of two blue-bloods playing each other with a spot in the Final Four at stake set the stage for a timeless showdown, as did Kentucky’s unique circumstances. The Wildcats were back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1989 after enduring a postseason ban for violations committed under Eddie Sutton.
That made this team and its group of seniors that stuck around through the turmoil especially meaningful to the Wildcats faithful. And it made Laettner especially villainous when he hit the game-winner after having received a technical foul in the first half for stepping on the chest of a Kentucky player.
Four players who participated in this game are currently Division I head coaches, and nearly 30 years later the game is still revered as one of the best in college basketball history.