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Ten moments that defined March Madness (plus two the NCAA won’t show you)

Mar 19, 2013, 3:00 PM EDT

photo: Michigan State/Collegiate Images/Getty Images Getty Images

If you have come recently to the love of college basketball, you may know the term “March Madness”, but have no real grasp on what that vague notion really means. There are some signature moments that have happened over the years that codified the unpredictable beauty of this time of year, and I aim to share a few of them with those who might not know the rich history of college hoops and the NCAA tournament.

The first ten moments I chose are canon. They can be viewed by visiting the NCAA’s video gallery of great moments selected by their staff. Not content to parrot the party line, I’ve added two more at the end that don’t show up on that list.

First, the Ten:

1. Magic vs. Bird (1979): As the inestimable Seth Davis chronicled in his book When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball, this was the moment that the NCAA Tournament became a true national spectacle. The perfect storm of national television coverage (35 percent of all American TVs were tuned to the final game) and two incandescent stars forming a lasting rivalry was like a match to dry grass. It was symbolic even beyond that: Earvin Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans were “Magic”, and Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores were led by the “Hick from French Lick”. The David vs. Goliath subplot became an enduring pillar of the March Madness pantheon.

2. Danny Ainge goes coast-to-coast (1981): The game-winning deep shot happens often, and involves several players facilitating the final outcome. One player taking the ball from end-line to end-line is very rare, and Ainge did it in legendary fashion to help Brigham Young defeat Notre Dame. It happened again when UCLA’s Tyus Edney knocked Missouri out in 1995, but Ainge defined the genre.

3. Jordan and Worthy (1982): Two of the NBA game’s all-time greats got their start in short, short (indecently short, really) pants. Michael Jordan hit one of his trademark floating-on-air jumpers to give North Carolina the lead over Georgetown, but the Hoyas had time left on the clock. As G’town raced downcourt to set up a potential game-winning shot, Fred Brown accidentally passed the ball to his opponent, James Worthy, who dribbled out the clock and set off a massive celebration for Dean Smith’s Tar Heels.

4. Valvano’s Wolfpack shock Phi Slama Jamma (1983): You may have seen video of Jim Valvano racing around the court, searching for someone to hug. The play that precipitated his joyous scramble was no less iconic. Dereck Wittenburg launched a deep, deep desperation shot that fell well short of the mark, seemingly ending N.C. State’s hopes of upsetting the Houston Cougars of Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwan. But alert teammate Lorenzo Charles caught the airball and dunked it with microseconds to spare, sparking one of the most memorable title-game upsets of all time.

5. Keith Smart catches fire (1987): Indiana appeared to be out of the running for the national title, with Syracuse and the deadly zone sapping the Hoosiers’ collective energy. Then Keith Smart took it upon himself to be the zone-buster, hitting shot after shot and scoring twelve of his team’s final fifteen points to bring about the comeback. This is about moments, so we’ll focus on the final 16-footer that dropped in with one second left on the clock – that one came off of Smart’s fingertips as well.

6. Bo Kimble’s lefty free throws (1990): Loyola Marymount attracted positive attention before the tournament began, playing a run-and-gun style that routinely resulted in NBA-like scores. Then came the sad moment, when star forward Hank Gathers collapsed and died during the WCC tournament. His teammate Bo Kimble – a natural righty – shot his first free throw of each game thereafter with his left hand in tribute to his fallen friend. Kimble got his team all the way to the Elite Eight that season, and made every one of his four tribute lefty free-throws. Mention Kimble or Gathers to anyone who saw it, and you’ll see the goose bumps rise.

7. Laettner’s shot (1992): Honestly, if it were just the shot that Laettner dropped in to take Duke past Kentucky, it would have been a pretty big deal. What makes it legendary is the dribble. Laettner was the epitome of cool under fire, gathering in Grant Hill’s three-quarter-court football pass with two seconds left on the clock and taking a moment to bounce it off the court before turning and drilling college basketball’s most iconic game-winning shot.

8. Bryce Drew (1998): Every crazy three-pointer from an underdog to knock out a power-conference foe will forever be compared to this shot. Much like Laettner’s effort, this one involved a long, long pass from under the opposite basket (the one that belonged to Ole Miss), but this one went down the wing to Valparaiso shooting star Bryce Drew, who calmly put it up and watched it fall in, just moments before being buried beneath ecstatic teammates. The shots of his father, good-guy coach Homer Drew, smiling with pride on the sidelines give this one a little extra glow.

9. Mario’s Miracle (2008): Again, last second shots happen often in basketball. What makes this one – a game-tying shot – amazing is that it came on a broken play. Kansas was trailing Memphis with two seconds left, and entrusted the ball to sophomore point guard Sherron Collins. Collins was to hand the ball off to the team’s best shooter, Mario Chalmers. Instead, he stumbled and flipped the ball backward to Chalmers, who was double-covered. Not only did Chalmers catch the ball cleanly, but he splashed it to force overtime, which led to a title for the Jayhawks.

10. Butler’s near-miss (2010): The Butler Bulldogs overcame massive odds to reach the Final Four, which happened to be held in their hometown of Indianapolis. They nearly walked the NCAA trophy down Broad Ripple Street, but Gordon Hayward’s last-second heave was just off the mark, and Duke escaped with yet another bauble to stuff in a corner at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was a miss, but the shot itself was so full of possibilities and hope that it will never be forgotten. At least until a similar one goes in.

Bonus Section

11. Chris Webber’s phantom time-out (1993): There are a couple of reasons the NCAA site won’t show you this one. First, I’d imagine they don’t want to define their game by an epic fail. Second, and more meaningful, they disassociated themselves from Webber’s achievements (and errors) after an investigation into booster payments that stripped Michigan of several wins and individual honors. The fact is, Webber was an amazing player, and his exploits on the court did happen, no matter who tries to tell us they didn’t count. Sadly, Webber will always be best remembered for losing his head in the big game against North Carolina (never mind that he traveled long before he made that second mistake).

12. Eric Maynor and The Dagger (2007): And so began the national love affair with VCU basketball. Rams point guard Eric Maynor, little-known on the national stage prior to this first-round game, booted the Duke Blue Devils with a cold-blooded stroll down the court to paydirt.

This play is partly famous because the victim of Maynor’s knife attack was much-hated-upon Duke, but also because broadcaster Ian Eagle spontaneously named it “The Dagger”. If your play has a name, it’s part of history.

Here’s hoping 2013 gives us a couple more mind-bending moments we can tell our grandkids about.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

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