What Are the Largest Comebacks in March Madness History?
There is just something about March Madness. Major upsets, Cinderella stories, buzzer-beaters, and blowouts. The spread of talent in the NCAA Tournament is insanely large, with the top-seeded teams often blowing away the bottom-seeded teams by 30 or more points. But sometimes, things don’t always go as planned.
Even when a team takes a huge lead, whether they’re the favorite or the underdog, it’s just not safe in the tournament. Throughout history, we’ve seen many teams storm back against all odds and take a game that appeared to be nearly impossible to win. Let’s take a look at some of the teams who were also able to rally in the NCAA tournament and pull off incredible comebacks.
Honorable mention: Vanderbilt 80, Pittsburgh 74
Deficit overcome: 6 points
NCAA tournament: 1988
We had to throw out an honorable mention, because this wasn’t a comeback from a massive deficit. No. 7 seeded Vanderbilt took on No. 2 Pittsburgh in a second-round game, and the two teams played each other tough. The game was tied at 34 at the half, and Pittsburgh was only able to pull away late. They took a 6-point lead with 12 seconds remaining, looking like a sure-bet to move on. But Vanderbilt guard Barry Goheen hit a three-pointer, after two free throws from Pitt, hit another three at the buzzer to send the game to overtime. Vanderbilt pulled away in the final minutes for an 80-74 win.
Honorable mention: Kansas 75, Memphis 68
Deficit overcome: 9 points
NCAA tournament: 2008
Another honorable mention has to go to the Kansas Jayhawks for their win in the title game over Memphis and star guard Derrick Rose. The Tigers led the game, 60-51, with under two minutes to play. But Rose and his teammates couldn’t put the game away, even with an opportunity to do just that at the free throw line. Kansas was left with a three-point deficit and under 10 seconds left, and a three from Mario Chalmers tied the game. Memphis was stunned as the Jayhawks came away with a 75-68 win in OT.
8. Texas A&M 98, Northern Iowa 88
Deficit overcome: 12 points
NCAA tournament: 2016
Again, not a huge deficit, but this is probably the greatest late-game comeback in the history of the NCAA Tournament–and maybe the sport of basketball. No. 3 seeded Texas A&M was about to get knocked out in the second-round by No. 11 Northern Iowa, trailing 69-57 with under 40 seconds remaining in the game. All NIU had to do was hold onto the ball and make free throws, and everything would be fine.
They couldn’t. Northern Iowa just kept turning the ball over, and A&M kept scoring. The score ended up tied at 71-71 at the end of regulation, and two overtime periods were needed before the game could be decided–with Texas A&M coming away with a stunning 92-88 victory.
7. Illinois 90, Arizona 89
Deficit overcome: 15 points
NCAA tournament: 2005
The University of Illinois Fighting Illini were the best team in college basketball in 2005. They started the season 29-0 and rolled into the tournament with just one loss to their record. Many had the Illini pegged to win the National Championship. And while they would eventually lose the championship to North Carolina, they had an even bigger scare in the Elite 8. No. 3 seeded Arizona had the Illini down by 15 points with just four minutes remaining in their game, and things looked bleak.
But that’s when Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head got hot for Illinois. They finished with a 20-5 run over the final four minutes, including three three-pointers from Williams–and the big one that tied the game. Illinois came out with a 90-89 victory in overtime, allowing them to move on to the Final Four.
6. Western Kentucky 59, Mississippi Valley State 58
Deficit overcome: 16 points
NCAA tournament: 2012
There wasn’t a ton of hope for Western Kentucky University to do much in the NCAA Tournament in 2012. They were 15-18 in the regular season and playing against Mississippi Valley State for the right to lose to top-seeded Kentucky in the first-round. MSVU took a four-point lead at halftime and then eventually stretched it to 16 points, looking like the clear winner.
With just under five minutes to play, MSVU was up 53-37. WKU was just 2-for-16 from three-point range during the game, but got things done the hard way. Guard T.J. Price put in a layup for a three-point play to complete the comeback, giving WKU a 57-54 lead. They’d end up hanging on to win 59-58.
5. Ole Miss 94, BYU 90
Deficit overcome: 17 points
NCAA tournament: 2015
Another pair of teams playing for the right to get into the first-round of the NCAA Tournament were Brigham Young and Ole Miss. BYU took charge early, holding a 17-point lead at halftime over Ole Miss. But M.J. Rhett brought his school all the way back, shooting 9-for-11 from the field and making some clutch baskets in the second half to give Ole Miss the lead with 7:41 remaining in the game. When you consider that they ended up winning the game by four points, it was a 21-point turnaround in this game. As Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy would say after the victory, “Welcome to March Madness!”
4. UCLA 73, Gonzaga 71
Deficit overcome: 17 points
NCAA Tournament: 2006
Not only did UCLA complete a major comeback against Gonzaga in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, they also gave fans an amazing finish. Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo lead a massive comeback that got the Bruins to within three points of the Zags at around 20 seconds remaining in the game. Adam Morrison missed a jumper for Gonzaga, and they made a big mistake in fouling on the rebound.
That sent forward Ryan Hollins to the line for UCLA, and he promptly made both free throws to pull within one point, 71-70. After the ball was in-bounded to Morrison, Gonzaga lost control and turned it over to the Bruins–who scored with under 10 seconds remaining to take a 72-71 lead. This one was an absolute stunner, as UCLA won the game 73-71.
3. Louisville 93, West Virginia 85
Deficit overcome: 20 points
NCAA tournament: 2005
Louisville was a heavy favorite against West Virginia University in their Elite 8 matchup in 2005, which made it all the more shocking that WVU would build a 38-18 lead with just a couple of minutes remaining in the first half. Things were not going well for the Cardinals, who were looking like their season would come to an end. Larry O’Bannon and Taquan Dean led Louisville on a furious comeback, narrowing the game early in the second half. Dean, specifically, was huge in going 7-for-17 from three-point range during the game.
But even through the major comeback, they still found themselves trailing, 77-75, with just under a minute remaining. A driving basket by O’Bannon tied the game up at 77, sending it to overtime. He scored four points in the overtime period, ending up scoring 23 points in the second half and overtime after being held scoreless in the first half. Louisville pulled off the surprise comeback, winning 93-85.
2. Duke 95, Maryland 84
Deficit overcome: 22 points
NCAA tournament: 2001
The Duke Blue Devils were dead in the water during the 2001 National semifinal against ACC-rival Maryland. The Terrapins had completely outplayed the No. 1 seed and built a lead as big 22 points in the first half. When the teams broke for intermission, Duke found themselves in a 49-38 hole. But the second half was when the Blue Devils would rally.
Led by Shane Battier‘s game-high 25 points and Jay Williams‘s 22, the Blue Devils would flip the script on the Terrapins and outscore them 57-35 over the final 20 minutes. Despite a solid performance from Maryland star Juan Dixon, the Dukies proved to be too difficult to put down. This victory was Duke’s third win in their last four meetings with Maryland. The most memorable of the bunch came earlier in the year, when the Blue Devils would overcome a 12-point deficit in the final minute of the game. This would come to be known as the “Miracle Minute.”
This contest probably hurt the Terrapins more because it was for a berth in the 2001 National Championship game. The 95-84 victory in the Final Four, set the stage for Duke to face off against an extremely formidable Arizona team. In the end, it was all Duke, who would go on to cut down the nets after defeating the Wildcats 82-72.
1. BYU 78, Iona 72
Deficit overcome: 25 points
NCAA tournament: 2012
In a weird twist of fate, it was actually the BYU Cougars who recorded the largest comeback in NCAA tournament history. The epic rally came during their First Four contest in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, against the high-scoring Iona Gaels.
Despite getting significantly dominated, including giving up 55 points in the first half, the Cougars overcame a 25-point deficit on their way to a 78-72 victory. In a battle between two 14 seeds, it was BYU who exuded a remarkable amount of tenacity and grit. Behind Noah Hartsock‘s 23 points (16 of them coming after halftime), the Cougars outscored Iona 38-17 in the second half, on their way to the greatest comeback in NCAA tournament history.