college basketball

The greatest upsets in March Madness history

Profile Picture: Andrew Champagne

March 16th, 2022

In a single-elimination tournament, upsets are inevitable. One team doesn’t show up, the other starts stringing together runs, and soon enough, programs that have gone ignored all season wind up on SportsCenter.

We’ve compiled five of the most notable upsets in NCAA Tournament history. These moments didn’t necessarily decide national titles, but they are remembered every year when March Madness rolls around.

1. No. 16 UMBC 74, No. 1 Virginia 54 (2018)

We may as well start with the only 16-over-1 upset in Tournament history. Virginia came in at 31-2 and was a threat to win the national championship, while Maryland-Baltimore County needed a rally to defeat Vermont in the final of the America East Tournament.

UMBC ran the ACC power out of Charlotte’s Spectrum Center with a second-half barrage. A tie game at the halftime break turned into a laugher in the final minutes.

2. No. 6 NC State 54, No. 1 Houston 52 (1983)

NC State head coach Jim Valvano led the Wolfpack to the national title game, where it met by a Houston team known as Phi Slamma Jamma, for exploits above the rim. With a squad anchored by future Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, the Cougars were favored to bring a title to the Lone Star State.

It didn’t work out that way. NC State led at halftime in the national title game, and while Houston roared back in the second, the Wolfpack had the ball last with the scored tied at 52-52. Dereck Whittenburg airballed a three-point attempt, but Lorenzo Charles was there for the put-back dunk. He slammed it in as time expired, which sent Valvano into a frenzy.

3. No. 8 Villanova 66, No. 1 Georgetown 64 (1985)

Anchored by Patrick Ewing and coached by John Thompson, the Hoyas were considered America’s best team.

One thing they did not have, however, was an intimidation edge over Villanova. The upset-minded Wildcats played with Georgetown in the Big East and used their familiarity with the Hoyas to perfection. They played what some college basketball insiders called "the perfect game." Villanova made 22 of its 28 shots en route to a shocking, 66-64 victory.

4. No. 15 Norfolk State 86, No. 2 Missouri 84 (2012)

There were several 15-over-2 upsets we could have chosen, but this won out. Missouri won 30 games during the 2011-2012 season, and that included three straight victories by double-digit margins in the Big 12 Tournament. The Norfolk State Spartans survived a nail-biter against Bethune-Cookman to win the first MEAC title in program history.

The throngs who expected an easy Missouri victory, though, were shocked by what transpired. Kyle O’Quinn torched the Tigers for 26 points, including a three-point play that put the Spartans ahead for good in the final minute.

Missouri has not won an NCAA Tournament game since.

5. No. 10 Davidson 74, No. 2 Georgetown 70 (2008)

We’ll finish with the game that doubled as America’s introduction to a future legend. Georgetown built its squad around center Roy Hibbert, and the Hoyas were ranked in the top 10 nationally for most of the season. Davidson, on the other hand, won the Southern Conference, but appeared to be on its way to a tournament exit after it fell behind by 17 points just after halftime.

Enter Stephen Curry. After he scored just five points in the first 20 minutes, the sophomore erupted for 25 of Davidson’s 47 points in the second half. What was once a 46-29 deficit turned into a 74-70 lead when the clock hit zero. Curry led Davidson to the Elite Eight, where the Wildcats fell to eventual national champion Kansas.