The Final Four moments that typically linger in the public memory come from Championship Monday, but what about the Saturday semifinals that stand above the rest?
The envelope, please:
10 – STANFORD-KENTUCKY 1998
While this game might have lacked a measure of star power, it was never short on drama. Arthur Lee and Jeff Sheppard did not become prominent professionals, but they stole the show in San Antonio. Lee scored 26 points for Stanford and tied the game in the final 30 seconds of regulation, creating an overtime period between these evenly-matched sides. Sheppard scored 27 for Kentucky on 9-of-15 shooting. Two role-player pros emerged from this game: Stanford’s Mark Madsen snapped down 16 rebounds, while Kentucky’s Nazr Mohammed scored 18 to push the Wildcats into the national title game against Utah.
9 – MICHIGAN-ILLINOIS 1989
These opponents were naturally quite familiar with each other. Therefore, the fact that Michigan hit 47 percent of its shots and Illlinois 45 stands out as an impressive two-team achievement. Conference rematches in the Final Four (think of Wisconsin-Michigan State in 2000) can be ugly, but Michigan and Illlinois played a clean, close game in Seattle that was decided on a Sean Higgins putback for the Wolverines in the final seconds.
8 – LOUISVILLE-GEORGETOWN 1982
Unlike Michigan-Illinois, this was not a game with fluid offense and consistent scoring. However, it merits inclusion on the list of distinguished Final Four semifinals (games worth remembering as superb displays of high-level basketball) because it was that rare thing known as a “defensive classic.”
Billy Packer has said through the years that this was one of the most fiercely contested Final Four games he’s ever witnessed, and he had a courtside seat as a commentator from 1975 through 2008. As was the case in the Michigan State-Virginia Sweet 16 game this past Friday, Louisville and Georgetown choked off both passing and driving lanes all game long with uncommonly steady defensive energy. It was very hard to score in this game, which was ultimately won by Georgetown; the defenses established a very high standard in one of the Final Four’s overlooked semifinal gems.
7 – MICHIGAN-KENTUCKY 1993
Kentucky fans and Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford (who endured a poor shooting game as UK’s point guard, going up against Michigan’s bothersome length) might disagree, but this remains one of the Final Four’s more memorable semifinals. The 1993 Final Four involved three 1 seeds and a 2. This was the all-one-seed semifinal, and it largely lived up to the hype, with Michigan winning an overtime thriller.
This game, 21 years later, is remembered for the duel between Michigan’s Chris Webber (27 points on 10-of-17 shooting) and Kentucky’s Jamal Mashburn (26 on 10-of-18 shooting). What ultimately decided the game was Michigan’s ability to secure or tip in rebounds, especially off missed foul shots. The Wolverines won loose balls late in regulation and overtime, while Kentucky lost a few 50-50s out of bounds.
6 – KENTUCKY-MASSACHUSETTS 1996
In the first Final Four meeting between Rick Pitino and John Calipari (they’d meet again in the 2012 semifinal between Louisville and Kentucky), the Wildcats and Minutemen played the last national semifinal in a conventional arena. Every subsequent Final Four has been staged in a dome.
Mississippi State-Syracuse was the undercard semifinal in 1996 (a 5 seed against a 4), while this main event paired a couple of top seeds. It did not disappoint.
Kentucky hit 51 percent of its shots, and it needed every one of its made buckets to fight off a determined effort from UMass. Marcus Camby led the Minutemen with 25 points on 9-of-18 shooting, and teammate Donta Bright chipped in with 15. However, Kentucky’s depth won the day in New Jersey. The Wildcats’ bench outscored the Minutemen’s reserves, 24-10.
5 – UNLV-INDIANA 1987
The 1987 Final Four was the first one to feature the three-point shot, but Indiana and UNLV scored a lot because they pushed the pace and welcomed a game of racehorse basketball, played at an exhausting pace. This was a game with spectacular individual performances. Freddie Banks and Armen Gilliam of UNLV combined for 70 points (38 for Banks, 32 for Gilliam) and individually made more than 50 percent of their shots (12-of-23 for Banks, 14-of-26 for Gilliam).
They were on the losing side.
Indiana was more balanced. The Hoosiers did surrender 21 offensive rebounds to Vegas, but they hit 61.7 percent of their field goals, obviously minimizing the need to chase down their own misses. Steve Alford scored 33 points on 10-of-19 shooting, while Dean Garrett went for 18 (points) and 11 (rebounds) in a crucial supporting role.
4 – DUKE-UNLV 1991
This remains one of the foremost upsets ever recorded in a Final Four national semifinal. Duke was a No. 2 seed in 1991, but the Blue Devils were rocked by 30 points when they faced UNLV in the 1990 national championship game. Vegas’s juggernaut was not supposed to be threatened by Duke; the Runnin’ Rebels were a team filled with elite athletes, not just one or two superstars with some “glue guys” at other positions.
When one talks about the greatest players in college basketball history — not referring to the pros they eventually became, but only to the quality of their performances while in college ball — Christian Laettner is on the very short short list of all-time legends, and that identity was built largely on the back of this game on this evening in Indianapolis, 23 years ago.
3 – DEPAUL-INDIANA STATE 1979
This might be the greatest national semifinal that few people either remember or talk about. If you’re under 42 or 43 years of age, you need to study up on this game. It was and is a special part of the Final Four’s history.
Over a third of a century before Wichita State represented the Missouri Valley Conference in the Final Four, Indiana State carried the flag. The Sycamores — like 1991 UNLV, 1999 Duke, and this year’s Florida team — brought a winning streak of at least 30 games into the Final Four. They did so against the one Ray Meyer DePaul team that was able to avoid an early-round upset and make the Final Four. (That’s another part of basketball history for the young readers in the audience to brush up on; yes, DePaul used to be a college basketball powerhouse in the late 1970s and early 1980s. You could look it up.)
One reason Indiana State and DePaul aren’t talked about much is that the Indiana State-Michigan State national title game from the 1979 Final Four has acquired such a (deservingly) large and central place in college basketball history. Yet, this semifinal was a much better game.
DePaul played only its five starters and no one else. All five Blue Demons hit at least 50 percent of their shots on a day when DePaul made 54.5 percent of its field goal attempts.
It wasn’t good enough. That tells you how well Indiana State played to get the victory, which was sealed when DePaul star Mark Aguirre missed a contested 17-footer inside the final five seconds.
Before he played Magic Johnson two days later in Salt Lake City, Larry Bird of ISU had to get to the title game first. He scored 35 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, and handed out 9 assists. Pretty good game, right? It gets better: Bird hit 16-of-19 shots from the field, a Final Four display every bit as good as Bill Walton’s 21-of-22 dazzler for UCLA in the 1973 title game against Memphis State. Led by Bird, Indiana State hit 62.5 percent of its field goal tries. Had that percentage been under 60, the Sycamores would have lost.
That’s how great Trees-Blue Demons really was.
2 – LOUISVILLE-HOUSTON 1983
The game was not close at the end, with Houston pulling away. Yet, this game acquires an appropriately large place in college basketball history because of the way in which it changed the sport. Bird-Magic in 1979 gave college basketball a massive dose of publicity and national street cred, but the above-the-rim virtuosity on display four years later in Albuquerque ushered college basketball into the present day. The sport you see today is very much a product of what the Cardinals and Cougars developed 31 years ago in The Pit. The entertainment value of this game was enough to make it a classic; the impact it retains, even now, only elevates its place in the pantheon.
1 – UCLA-NORTH CAROLINA STATE 1974
This is, quite simply, the best Final Four semifinal of all time.
Top-tier superstars who were at their very best in college, as opposed to being really good in college and then greater in the pros? Check. Bill Walton (29 points) and David Thompson (28) enthralled the Greensboro Coliseum crowd and a national television audience.
Great teams, not just Final Four party crashers as surprise guests? Check. UCLA was UCLA, aiming for an eighth straight national title. North Carolina State won the 1974 ACC Tournament final against Maryland, one of the greatest college basketball games ever played.
Epic drama accompanied by an historically significant outcome? Check. North Carolina State, playing in its backyard while UCLA flew across the United States to contest this game in ACC country, needed two overtimes to dethrone the Bruins. The Wolfpack cemented their place as one of the great teams in history with this win. The loss pains Bill Walton and the rest of the Bruins to this day, but the defeat only magnified how remarkable the UCLA dynasty was, is, and will continue to be as long as college basketball is discussed.