The 10 biggest comebacks in NCAA men's basketball tournament history
It’s not over until it’s over, at least in the case of these epic NCAA tournament comeback victories. We rank the 10 largest comebacks in March Madness history.
There is more to March Madness than just the current year's tournament. In March Madness history, we can discover some of the most unforgettable moments in sports, including the best Cinderella stories in March Madness and the biggest upsets in March Madness history. The thrill of this tournament is genuinely unmatched, and revisiting just the final seconds of these games can elicit goosebumps in anyone. Looking back, it's remarkable to consider some of the significant moments that have happened throughout the tournament's history.
The biggest comeback in NCAA tournament history was staged by BYU in a game against Iona You’ll find it on this list, and while its 25-point total doesn’t quite match the largest overall comeback in college basketball’s regular-season history (a 34-point deficit overcome by Drexel vs Delaware in 2018), it’s still a momentous achievement.
Here are some of the best comebacks the tournament has ever seen, including two of the biggest comebacks in the history of the title game. The Jayhawks’ historic comeback in 2022 gave Kansas the NCAA men’s basketball championship, but was it big enough to earn them the No. 1 spot on this all-time list?
Ranking the Top 10 Biggest Comebacks in NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament History
- No. 7 West Virginia Mountaineers vs. No. 4 Louisville Cardinals -- 2005 Albuquerque Regional Final
Largest deficit: 20 points
Final score: Louisville 93, West Virginia 85
The Louisville Cardinals shot poorly over the first 20 minutes of the 2005 Albuquerque Regional Final and found themselves trailing the seventh-seeded West Virginia Mountaineers by 13 points at halftime. Things got worse early in the second half when the gap between the two teams was stretched to 20, but Louisville refused to quit.
The Cardinals went from scoring 27 points in the first half to a 50-point second half, rallying back from the 20-point deficit to force overtime and eventually run away with the win by an eight-point margin. The 20-point deficit the Cardinals overcame at The Pit in Albuquerque is the fourth biggest comeback in March Madness history.
- No. 4 Michigan Wolverines vs. No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks -- 2013 Sweet 16 (South Regional Semifinal Game)
Closing NCAAB betting lines: Michigan Wolverines +2
Largest deficit: 14 points
Final score: Michigan 87, Kansas 85
Trey Burke’s second-half performance for Michigan in this Sweet 16 game vs. the No. 1-ranked Kansas Jayhawks was magical. Burke had not scored a single point in the first half, and the Wolverines -- who had trailed by a 14-point margin during the game -- appeared headed for the exits in Arlington, Texas.
Burke came out on fire in the second half and scored 23 points -- including a deep 3-pointer late in the game -- to help Michigan force overtime. After fighting their way back into the game, the Wolverines sealed the win in the extra period to reach the Elite Eight. This is one of the best March Madness games on this list in terms of individual performances because Burke's heroic effort almost single-handedly sent the Jayhawks home.
- No. 7 Nevada Wolf Pack vs. No. 2 Cincinnati Bearcats -- 2018 South Regional Round 2
Closing NCAAB betting lines: Nevada +8.5
Largest deficit: 22 points
Final score: Nevada Wolf Pack 75, Cincinnati Bearcats 73
The Nevada Wolf Pack came into their second-round matchup against the Cincinnati Bearcats as an underdog and found themselves chasing the game early.
The Bearcats jumped out to a 10-0 lead, setting the tone and seemingly controlling the flow of the game throughout. Midway through the second half, Cincinnati had extended its lead to 22 points and seemed to be on cruise control. That was before the Wolf Pack turned their play up a notch and fought their way back into the game.
Nevada’s comeback was led by a 25-point performance from future NBA talent Cody Martin, who was playing alongside his brother Caleb. With less than a minute remaining in the game, Nevada tied the score. Then, with just 10 seconds to go, Josh Hall’s jumper gave the Wolf Pack their first lead of the game on their way to the comeback win at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
- No. 14 BYU Cougars vs. No. 14 Iona Gaels -- 2012 West Regional First Four Play-In Game
Largest deficit: 25 points
Final score: BYU 78, Iona 72
The 2012 First Four game between BYU and Iona saw the steepest comeback in NCAA tournament history. BYU found itself trailing by 25 points after Iona enjoyed a 55-point first half in the teams’ bid to enter the 16-team West Region bracket.
The Cougars never threw in the towel, however. Led by a Noah Hartsock performance that saw him score 16 of his 23 total points in the second half, BYU mounted the greatest comeback in the history of the tournament at UD Arena in Dayton, Ohio.
After the game, BYU coach Dave Rose said he could see in his players’ eyes that they were locked in and ready to make that historic comeback. When the final buzzer sounded, the Cougars had surged all the way back from 25 points down to win by a six-point margin.
There have been bigger comebacks in college basketball during the regular season, but BYU’s feat is a record for the NCAA tournament. In second place is Duke, which came back from a 22-point deficit at the 2001 Final Four.
- Loyola Chicago Ramblers vs. Cincinnati Bearcats -- 1963 National Championship Game
Largest deficit: 15 points
Final score: Loyola Chicago 60, Cincinnati 58
The 1963 Loyola Chicago story is special for multiple reasons. The Ramblers became the first team to win a national championship with five African-American players in their starting lineup, and their tournament run had a significant impact on the push for racial integration in college basketball.
The comeback itself adds to the mystique of Loyola Chicago’s success at the 1963 tournament. Down 15 points in the tournament final, the Ramblers were led by Les Hunter and Jerry Harkness as they rallied to get back into the game. Rebounding from a 15-point deficit in a championship game is an impressive feat, particularly since Loyola Chicago did it in an era with no 3-point line.
- No. 3 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. No. 2 UCLA Bruins -- 2006 Sweet 16 (Oakland Regional Semifinal Game)
Largest deficit: 17 points
Final score: UCLA 73, Gonzaga 71
UCLA’s comeback against Gonzaga in 2006 might not involve the largest deficit on this list, but the way it unfolded makes it one of the most stunning outcomes in March Madness history. College basketball fans will no doubt recall the famous image of Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison laying on the hardcourt crying tears of disbelief as the UCLA players celebrated their win.
Gonzaga was in total control of this game for all but its final three minutes. The Bulldogs’ biggest lead came late in the first half, as they ran out to a 37-20 advantage and were still up by 13 points at halftime.
UCLA couldn’t seem to get within striking distance, and with three minutes left, Gonzaga still led by eight points. However, the leaders suddenly stopped scoring and would be shut down for the rest of the game. The Bulldogs’ 71-63 lead became a 73-71 loss, as UCLA went on an 11-0 run when it mattered the most.
Luc Richard Mbah-a-Moute, who scored the go-ahead bucket with 10 seconds remaining at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, later described it as the best game he’d ever experienced as a player.
- No. 1 Illinois Fighting Illini vs. No. 3 Arizona Wildcats -- 2005 Elite Eight (Chicago Regional Championship)
Largest deficit: 15 points
Final score: Illinois 90, Arizona 89 (OT)
Illinois’ 2005 Elite Eight victory over Arizona at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill., included one of the most unpredictable finishes to a March Madness game I have ever seen.
With just four minutes left on the clock, the No. 1 Fighting Illini found themselves trailing a competitive Arizona Wildcats team by 15 points. What followed were a couple of clutch 3-pointers and a steal that led to a runaway layup that gave Illinois some momentum. Despite their effective scoring and a key offensive rebound, the Illini were still behind by eight points with barely a minute left on the clock.
A monumental surge -- rounded out by a 3-pointer from Deron Williams -- tied the game at 80-80 and forced overtime, where Illinois would eventually pull out a thrilling 90-89 win.
- No. 1 Duke Blue Devils vs. No. 11 Maryland Terrapins -- 2001 Final Four
Largest deficit: 22 points
Final score: Duke 95, Maryland 84
Duke’s 2001 tournament run almost ended abruptly at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, where a terrible performance had them trailing by 22 points in their Final Four matchup against underdog Maryland.
The Blue Devils were the top seed facing an impressive No. 11 seed that had managed to reach the Final Four. With his team down by 22 points, legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski told his players that they ”couldn’t play any worse” and went on to ask them “what are you worried about, losing by 40?”
Duke found its rhythm, and the Blue Devils rallied themselves not only into the lead, but also to an eventual nine-point margin of victory and a berth in the national championship game. Shane Battier, college basketball’s Player of the Year that season, scored 25 points in Duke’s dramatic comeback.
Thanks to one of the greatest comebacks in college basketball history, Duke went on to beat Arizona and win the tournament for its third national championship.
- No. 14 Georgia State Panthers vs. No. 3 Baylor Bears -- 2015 West Regional Round 2
Closing NCAAB betting lines: Georgia State +10
Largest deficit: 12 points
Final score: Georgia State 57, Baylor 56
What a moment this was at the Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla. During the 2015 NCAA tournament’s second round, Georgia State faced Baylor as a heavy underdog, and when the Panthers fell behind by 12 points in a low-scoring game, it looked like their tournament run was over.
Desperate to turn the game around, the Panthers ran a full-court press and forced Baylor into crucial turnovers. It wasn’t enough at first. Georgia State was still behind by 10 points with less than two minutes remaining in a game very few gave them a chance of winning. However, R.J. Hunter, the son of Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter, scored nine straight points to bring his team within striking distance.
Trailing by two points and needing to foul, the Panthers sent Baylor's best free-throw shooter, Kenny Chery, to the line for a one-and-one. Chery missed the free throw. As the Panthers brought the ball up the court, it seemed certain they would go for the tie by driving inside the paint. Instead, R.J. Hunter had a different idea. With nine seconds left, he surveyed the floor, passed the ball off, quickly got it back, and knocked down a three from way downtown – putting the Panthers up by one. Those heroics made R.J.’s dad fall off his chair – literally. Georgia State’s fans couldn’t believe what they were watching.
This is one of my favorite moments from any comeback I have ever seen, and it’s one of the best Cinderella stories from recent March Madness history.
- No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks vs. No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels -- 2022 National Championship Game
Closing NCAAB betting lines: Kansas -4
Largest deficit: 16 points
Final score: Kansas 72, North Carolina 69
I could watch this game on repeat. It just had it all. The Kansas Jayhawks were a No. 1 seed and the favorites to win the national championship game against the eighth-seeded UNC Tar Heels at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans.
This game defied expectations from the start, The Jayhawks were down by 15 points at halftime, and UNC stretched its lead to 16 early in the second half. Kansas, however, had come out of the locker room with a point to prove, and after scoring only 25 points in the first 20 minutes, the Jayhawks put up 47 over the final 20. They had already pulled themselves into a tie with several minutes left to play.
The game’s final few minutes turned into a back-and-forth thriller for college basketball fans. The entire 2022 tournament was one of the very best in recent memory, and this classic was just the chef's kiss that topped it all off. Kansas’ victory came from an inspired team effort. Five Jayhawks players scored between 12 and 15 points, including Remy Martin, who came off the bench and shot 4-for-6 from 3-point range.
North Carolina had a chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer as time expired, but it landed off the mark, and the buzzer sounded to end the biggest comeback win in the history of NCAA basketball championship games.
Parameters for Ranking
These all-time great comebacks are ranked based on the nature of the comeback itself and its effect on the game. The game’s significance and relative placement in the tournament were also considerations. Some of the comebacks were completed early in the second half, while others ended more dramatically on a game’s final shot. The drama factor was also considered in the ranking.
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