Bryce Drew, Christian Laettner, Arike Ogunbowale, Kris Jenkins — all are names etched into March Madness lore. Their buzzer-beating shots will be replayed in montages and documentaries for decades to come. Their legacies are fixed on lists of the greatest moments in sports.
But what about their peers in the other NCAA championships, whose achievements were just as spectacular but created less spectacle?
Here, Champion catalogs the best of the rest. We started by setting the ground rules: No Division I men’s and women’s basketball, where feats are well-chronicled. The contest must have occurred during an NCAA championship, in any round. Only sports with an NCAA championship could be considered. (Sorry, Football Bowl Subdivision.) And for the sake of equity (and our sanity), we looked back only as far as 1982, when the NCAA began conducting women’s championships.
Did we miss any? Quite possibly, despite scouring the archives and enlisting the help of college athletics’ yeomen, sports information directors, to unearth hidden gems. So peruse these stories of close finishes, team efforts and, yes, buzzer-beaters — and let us know if we overlooked any that should be unforgettable.
2018 Division III Men’s Indoor Track and Field Championships //
2018 Division III Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships
Mount Union 41, North Central (Illinois) 40 // Mount Union 36, North Central (Illinois) 35
March 9-10, 2018 // May 24-26, 2018
Birmingham, Alabama // La Crosse, Wisconsin
National championship in the balance, AJ Digby and his prosthetic blades cut through soupy spring air. With every stride, the Mount Union sophomore erased a bit more of the 10-meter distance between him and Wesley’s anchor, Thomas Kalieta Jr., who sought to maintain the lead his 4x400-meter relay teammates had gifted him.
As the pair reached the final straightaway, Digby drew up on Kalieta’s right shoulder, catching him with about 5 meters to go. Digby crossed the finish line a step ahead, knowing he had won the race but unsure whether a win was good enough. Exhausted, Digby fell to his hands and knees as teammates rushed to his side, patting his heaving shoulders. Between gulps of air, he lifted his head and turned to anyone who would listen: “Did we do it?”
It in this instance meant the 2018 Division III Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Mount Union had entered the 4x400, the last of 21 events over the three-day meet in La Crosse, Wisconsin, down 4 points to North Central (Illinois). To clinch the championship, the Purple Raiders needed to not only win, but also for the Cardinals to finish fourth or worse.
Even having that slim of a chance at a national title had seemed improbable only 20 minutes earlier. The meet’s penultimate event, the 5,000-meter run, featured five North Central runners and none from Mount Union. With the Purple Raiders holding only a 1-point advantage before the long run, it seemed the rout was on — so much so that Mount Union coach Kevin Lucas took a walk outside the stadium during the race because he couldn’t bear to watch North Central put the trophy out of reach. Soon, though, texts from his assistants beckoned him back to the track. North Central’s runners were languishing. The Cardinals picked up only 5 points during the event, setting the stage for a showdown in the 4x400 and Digby’s surge to the finish line.
Digby and teammates James Roth, Tyler Neff and Clark Etzler set an event record, yet still won the race by only 16 hundredths of a second. Meanwhile, North Central crossed the stripe more than three seconds behind them — in fourth place. When coaches and teammates pulled Digby from the ground, he saw the final tally: Mount Union 36, North Central 35. We did it, he realized — again.
Yes, remarkably, the finish was a mirror of one that had taken place at the Division III Men’s Indoor Track and Field Championships nearly three months earlier. In that meet Mount Union’s 4x400 runners needed only to erase a 1-point North Central margin, though they took the track unsure of the deficit. Unwilling to ratchet up the pressure, Lucas hadn’t told his runners the results of the high jump, which was wrapping up as the relay team took their positions. Mount Union posted a 3:13.77 in the final’s first heat, setting the bar North Central would have to eclipse in the second. The Cardinals came three-quarters of a second short, earning 8 points in the event to Mount Union’s 10 and cementing the Purple Raiders’ 41-40 win. “It’s truly a team championship,” Digby says. “Every single point matters.”
While Digby and the rest of the 4x400 runners clinched both championships, he is quick to note they wouldn’t have been in a position to do so if not for strong showings from teammates ranging from those who earned points for the Purple Raiders in the championship meets to others who didn’t even qualify for the NCAA event, but pushed their peers every day in practice.
“If you win a national title, with track especially, the planets have to align,” Lucas says. “So many things have to go right along the way to be in position to even have a chance at it. … But 2018 treated us pretty good.”
1984 Division II Football Championship Final
Troy State 18, North Dakota State 17
Dec. 8, 1984 // McAllen, Texas
With starting quarterback Jeff Bentrim sidelined with an injury and North Dakota State trailing Troy State (now known as Troy) by 1 point, fifth-year backup Dale Hammerschmidt guided the Bison on a 78-yard drive. In the end, though, North Dakota State would need 80. The Bison stalled at the Troy State 2-yard line and settled for a 19-yard field goal. The Trojans took over with 1:36 left, driving to the Bison 33-yard line with 15 seconds on the clock. With no timeouts remaining, Troy State’s field goal unit scrambled into position. Freshman Ted Clem launched a 50-yarder as time expired. The make was the longest in program history and secured the Trojans’ first national title.
Arizona’s Marisa Baena hit the approach shot of a lifetime. Hans Gutknecht / NCAA Photos
1996 Division I Women’s Golf Championships
Arizona 1,240 (+88), San Jose State 1,240 (+88) (Arizona wins in playoff)
May 22-25, 1996 // La Quinta, California
Seventy-two holes of golf were not enough to separate Arizona and San Jose State, so the teams tackled the 18th hole at the Dunes Course for a fifth time to determine a champion via a playoff. Five players from each team played the hole, discarding the highest score from each and tallying the rest. Arizona’s Marisa Baena ensured the math would be simple: Her second shot, taken with an 8-iron 147 yards from the pin, took one hop on the green and bounced into the cup, sealing the title for the Wildcats. “It’s probably the most clutch shot in the history of golf,” Arizona coach Rick LaRose told Champion in 2008. “From that distance, it was incredible.”
1996 College World Series
LSU 9, Miami (Florida) 8
June 8, 1996 // Omaha, Nebraska
LSU erased a four-run Miami (Florida) lead and entered the ninth inning with the game tied. But the Tigers surrendered a run in the ninth and found themselves in a hole with only three outs separating them from elimination. Enter Warren Morris, a junior second baseman who had battled a wrist ailment all season before finally having surgery in April to repair it. Just hours before the decisive game, Morris let coach Skip Bertman know that he finally felt back to full strength. In the ninth inning, he proved it: With a man on and two outs, Morris flicked Miami pitcher Robbie Morrison’s offering over the right field wall, giving the Tigers a walk-off win. It remains the only walk-off, two-out, championship-clinching home run in the event’s history.
1999 Division II Football Championship Final
Northwest Missouri State 58, Carson-Newman 52 (4 ot)
Dec. 11, 1999 // Florence, Alabama
Down 17 at halftime and by 15 with only three minutes to play, Northwest Missouri State refused to buckle. J.R. Hill caught a pair of touchdown passes in the final three minutes, the second of which was followed by a 2-point conversion. That set up a four-overtime bonanza in which Hill snagged what went on to be the winning score.
Cara Gabage tallied three game-winners in the 2000 NCAA tournament. Suzanne Ouellette / NCAA Photos
2000 Division III Women’s Soccer Championship Final
The College of New Jersey 2, Tufts 1
Nov. 19, 2000 // Medford, Massachusetts
With the score tied 1-1 in the game’s waning seconds, The College of New Jersey unleashed a barrage on Tufts goalkeeper Randee McArdle. She batted a dangerous cross and then made a save when a shot came her way off the rebound. But the ball went skyward after that second save, clock precariously close to reaching all zeros, when The College of New Jersey sophomore Cara Gabage sprinted in and headed it into the net with only three seconds left on the clock, silencing what had been a boisterous Tufts home crowd. “It was like the life went out of the whole stadium,” The College of New Jersey coach Joe Russo told Champion in 2008. “The fans were ranting and raving for the previous 10 minutes or so. Then it just went dead silent.”
Minnesota Duluth won 31 games in the 2002-03 season. David Ballard / NCAA Photos
2003 National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Championship Final
Minnesota Duluth 4, Harvard 3 (2 ot)
March 23, 2003 // Duluth, Minnesota
In only the third National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Championship, Minnesota Duluth left the home crowd of more than 5,000 in a state of delirium. Harvard took a 3-2 lead in the second period, but the Bulldogs eventually forced overtime. Four minutes into the second extra period, Nora Tallus fired home the game-winner, securing the Bulldogs’ third consecutive national title. Harvard may have notched three goals, but Minnesota Duluth keeper Patricia Sautter saved 41 shots across the five-period match.
2003 Division III Baseball Championship
Chapman 6, Emory 5
May 25, 2003 // Grand Chute, Wisconsin
Chapman split the first two games of the eight-team, double-elimination event. With the Panthers down 5-2 in the bottom of the ninth against Emory, it appeared they would be knocked out of competition long before they had a chance to play for the program’s first championship. Then second baseman Alex Taylor found himself in the type of situation that kids dream of when they pepper balls around backyards: Bottom of the ninth. Based loaded. Two outs. If Taylor struck out, the Panthers would have gone home. Instead, he guided a single up the middle, cutting the lead to 5-3. Next catcher Matt Graves stroked a double to left center, plating all three Panthers who were on base and sealing a walk-off 6-5 win. After dispatching Emory, Chapman rallied to win its final three games — outscoring opponents 36-11— en route to the national title.
2003 Division III Women’s Soccer Championship Final
SUNY Oneonta 2, Chicago 1 (ot)
Nov. 30, 2003 // Oneonta, New York
One minute. One minute remaining …
More than 15 years later, Tracey Ranieri still can hear the public address announcer’s voice. She took over the SUNY Oneonta soccer program in 1991, and despite a long string of conference successes and NCAA tournament appearances, hadn’t yet attained the ultimate prize. The public address announcer’s warning reminded her that she and the Red Dragons were only a few seconds removed from missing out on that goal yet again.
Down 1-0 to Chicago, which had knocked the team out of the tournament the year before, SUNY Oneonta was able to push the ball down the right sideline, encouraged by a boisterous home crowd packed tight in bleachers and on a low hillside that surrounded the field. That drive drew a foul, and that foul led to a quick free kick into the box before Chicago had time to get set. Ranieri had stressed moving with urgency on free kicks all year long. “I didn’t have to scream to play the ball fast,” she says. “We had always trained for fast restarts, and it just played out in the most magnificent fashion.”
That quick free kick led to a scramble in front of the goal. From the right side of the goal area, SUNY Oneonta’s Brooke Davis was able to collect herself and fire a roller across the goalie’s face that found its way just inside the left post. With only 29 seconds remaining, the score was tied and the crowd, delirious.
The Red Dragons didn’t permit the moment’s euphoria to hinder their focus. Ranieri, now athletics director at SUNY Oneonta, doesn’t remember having to say much to her team during the short break between the end of regulation and overtime, trusting her veteran players to deliver the appropriate message.
They did. Only three minutes into the overtime period that followed, the ball caromed to Sanada Mujanovic’s feet. She was alone and just outside Chicago’s penalty area along the right flank. Instinctively, she tried to float a cross in toward the back post in hopes of finding a teammate’s head. Instead, the ball floated in the wind on a blustery day and feathered its way over Chicago keeper Andrea Przybysz’s head. Improbably, it settled into the side net, sealing the athletics program’s first — and still only — championship.
“It was one of those, ‘That’s a well-hit ball across the box, but … Oh my God it’s in the net!’” Ranieri says. “It was shocking.”
2005 Women’s College World Series
Michigan 4, UCLA 1 (10 innings)
June 8, 2005 // Oklahoma City
The Wolverines needed three games and three extra frames to secure the program’s first national title. As a tense 1-1 pitchers’ duel wound into the 10th inning, Michigan freshman Samantha Findlay stepped to the plate with two on and two out. Findlay ripped the third pitch she saw over the wall in left field. “Getting here was hard. Winning here was really hard,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said after the game. “For us to be the champion, I don’t think there’s a word for it.”
2006 National Collegiate Men’s Water Polo Championship Final
California 7, Southern California 6
Dec. 3, 2006 // Los Angeles
Hail Marys are typically reserved for the gridiron, but California asked for its prayers to be answered in the pool. The Golden Bears held a two-goal lead with 2:40 to play and seemed poised to capture the program’s first championship since 1992 — against a rival, no less. But the Trojans struck twice inside of three minutes, the most dramatic moment coming when Southern California’s Thomas Hale flicked home a tricky left-handed shot to knot the score at 6 with only two seconds remaining. That left California with enough time for one pass and a last-second shot. Junior Jeff Tyrrell secured teammate Spencer Warden’s quick pass, but still found himself a full 10 meters from goal — a long way when you’re treading water — with a defender draped over him. No time to think, he turned and fired a bullet that ricocheted off a Trojan defender’s hands and just under the crossbar as the clock struck zero.
2007 Division II Men’s Basketball Championship
Barton 77, Winona State 75
March 24, 2007 // Springfield, Massachusetts
Winona State hadn’t lost in 57 consecutive games and held a 7-point lead with only 45 seconds remaining in the championship game. Win No. 58, it seemed, was assured. But in those final fleeting 45 seconds, Barton senior guard Anthony Atkinson put on one of the most astounding individual performances in the history of college basketball. Atkinson scored inside the paint to cut the lead to 5. After a subsequent foul and a Winona State missed free throw, Atkinson nailed a jumper to cut the lead to 3. Then Barton stole the inbounds pass and Atkinson notched another basket, trimming the lead to 1. After Winona State converted a free throw after another clock-stopping foul, Atkinson tied the game with a reverse layup. Teammate Bobby Buffaloe chipped in on the ensuing possession, stealing the ball near midcourt and pitching it to Atkinson, who barreled toward the goal and dropped in the game-winning layup at the buzzer. He finished the contest with 29 points, including his improbable 10-point spree. “I told him in the huddle that it was time for him to take over the game,” Barton head coach Ron Lievense said after the win. “How do you put into perspective what Anthony Atkinson has meant to Barton College?”
2009 Division I Men’s Lacrosse Championship Final
Syracuse 10, Cornell 9 (ot)
May 25, 2009 // Boston
When Cornell’s Roy Lang netted an unassisted goal to put the Big Red up 9-6 with 5:31 to play, the Orange’s eight-game win streak and national championship aspirations seemed bound to be snuffed out. But two quick Syracuse goals set up one of the most harrowing finishes in the event’s history.
With only 18 seconds remaining, Cornell seemed positioned to run out the clock, but the Orange forced a turnover near midfield. Stephen Keogh scooped up the loose ball, flicking it upfield behind his back to Matt Abbott. Abbott then made a nearly identical behind-the-back pass while absorbing a pummeling from the defenders around him. The ball landed cleanly on the stick of Kenny Nims, who found himself near the goal with only the keeper to beat. Nims dove to his right and fired — only four seconds hung on Gillette Stadium’s clocks when his shot made the net billow.
“To be honest, I never did think we were going to lose,” Nims said after the game. “Our guys never give up.”
Despite the odds, he was right: Junior Cody Jamieson snaked the game-winning goal through a trio of defenders with 2:40 remaining in the first overtime period, securing the Orange’s second consecutive national title.
2011 Division III Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships
Denison 500.5, Kenyon 499.5
March 23-26, 2011 // Knoxville, Tennessee
The longest championship streak in NCAA history was felled by a 0.32-second margin. Entering the 2011 event, Kenyon had won 31 consecutive Division III Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships, and the Lords wouldn’t release their grip on the sport without a fight. Denison entered the final day of the four-day meet down 35 points to Kenyon. Strong performances throughout the day capped by a pair of divers, gave the Big Red a 9-point lead entering the meet’s final event: the 400-yard freestyle relay. Kenyon entered the race as the top seed after the preliminaries and was expected to win, so Denison needed to finish no worse than third to ensure it would dethrone the Lords after a three-decade reign.
Kenyon touched the wall first, as expected, but all eyes were fixed on the battle for third place. Denison freshman Spencer Fronk finished a mere 32 hundredths of a second ahead of Emory’s Justin Leemis, pushing the Big Red’s score to 500.5 points — 1 more than Kenyon and the narrowest margin in the event’s history.
“The whole experience was just incredibly intense for both teams,” Denison coach Gregg Parini said after the win. “This was the closest meet in the history of college swimming at any level and every swim, every stroke, every hundredth of a second mattered.”
2012 Division III Women’s Basketball Championship Third Round
Illinois Wesleyan 70, Mount Union 69
March 9, 2012 // Alliance, Ohio
Mount Union entered the contest 28-1 and hadn’t lost at home since December — of 2010. Suffice to say, the Purple Raiders were expected to continue cruising deeper into the NCAA tournament. But Illinois Wesleyan played Mount Union tough from the opening tip, setting the stage for a tense seesaw battle that featured seven second-half lead changes, the last of which came when Illinois Wesleyan senior Olivia Lett caught a pass in the paint and eluded a trio of Mount Union defenders. The resultant runner kissed the glass, then fell through the net as time expired. The riveting road upset set the stage for the Titans’ run to the national title. After knocking off Mount Union, Illinois Wesleyan mowed through Carthage, St. Thomas (Minnesota) and George Fox to capture the first national championship in program history.
Emotions spilled over after Syracuse knocked off Florida and secured its second consecutive come-from-behind NCAA tournament win. Syracuse University photo
2012 Division I Women’s Lacrosse Championship Quarterfinal and Semifinal
Syracuse 17, North Carolina 16 // Syracuse 14, Florida 13 (2 ot)
May 19, 2012 // May 25, 2012
Syracuse, New York // Stony Brook, New York
Syracuse’s run to its first championship game appearance may have triggered a few heart palpitations among the Orange faithful. First, Syracuse toppled North Carolina 17-16 in the quarterfinal. The Orange found themselves down two goals with only three minutes to play but notched a trio of late scores, including a pair from Michelle Tumolo. She scored the decisive goal, a bounce shot off a spin move, with only five seconds left on the clock.
That nail-biter would prove tame compared with the subsequent semifinal showdown with No. 1 Florida, in which Syracuse found itself in an even bigger hole: At one point in the game, the Gators’ lead reached seven.
Down five with fewer than seven minutes to play, Syracuse stormed back, finally tying the game on a free position shot from Sarah Holden with only 30 seconds remaining. The barrage gave way to a pair of quiet overtime periods before Holden again struck with two minutes remaining in the second overtime, sending Syracuse on to a showdown with Northwestern in the final. The Wildcats ultimately took the championship with an 8-6 win, but Syracuse’s pair of improbable comebacks endures.
2018 Division III Women’s Ice Hockey Championship Semifinal
Elmira 3, Plattsburgh State 2 (2 ot)
March 16, 2018 // Northfield, Vermont
Elmira found itself in one of the most foreboding positions imaginable: Down two goals to four-time defending national champion Plattsburgh State entering the final period. Rather than wither in the face of such a challenge, the Soaring Eagles — ahem — well, soared. Three minutes into a desperate final period, junior forward Shannon Strawinski drove home a one-timer. With only four minutes remaining in the game, Strawinski struck again, this time redirecting a teammate’s shot into the net.
“I felt like I was just getting warmed up,” she says.
Prescient analysis. After the third period expired with the score knotted at two, the teams played 35 minutes of scoreless — and exhausting — hockey, spread over two overtime periods. With five minutes left in the second overtime, Strawinski struck again, netting a shot in the top corner off a feed from teammate and United Collegiate Hockey Conference Player of the Year Sarah Hughson.
The befuddled broadcast team immediately called the contest “legendary,” noting Strawinski’s high-stakes hat trick was one for the ages. But after 95 minutes of battle, Strawinski wasn’t thinking about her place in history. She was just happy to have a chance to finally send everyone home.
“I remember thinking as my linemate dropped the puck to me and the Plattsburgh defender went down that this was it — I can finally end the game now,” she says. “Then, next thing I know, I was at the bottom of the pile with all my teammates on top of me, screaming.”
Elmira’s run was stopped just short of a title the next day, when the undoubtedly fatigued Soaring Eagles fell 2-1 to Norwich in the final.
2018 National Collegiate Women’s Gymnastics Championships
UCLA 198.0750, Oklahoma 198.0375
April 21, 2018 // St. Louis
Christine Peng-Peng Lee, a sixth-year UCLA senior, didn’t need to be perfect in the final event of her college career, but had to come pretty close. Ultimately, she wouldn’t settle for close.
Entering the championship’s final rotation, two-time defending national champion Oklahoma held a .175-point advantage over UCLA. After her teammates had tackled the balance beam, Lee needed to post a 9.975 performance on the notoriously fickle 4-inch-wide apparatus — only she didn’t know it.
“I had no idea what kind of score we needed,” Lee said after the meet. “I didn’t even know we had a chance at winning. At that point, I said I’m going to perform my heart out … because this is the last time that I can perform and do the thing that I love.”
After she stuck the landing and blew a kiss to the crowd, her perfect 10 — her second of the day after earning a perfect mark on the uneven bars — flashed on the scoreboard. The Bruins realized they had unseated the defending champions and captured the seventh title in program history.
“I looked at the scoreboard, and my jaw dropped,” she said, fighting back tears. “We knew we were going to grind until the very end.”
2018 Division I Women’s Track and Field Championships
Southern California 53, Georgia 52
June 6-9, 2018 // Eugene, Oregon
After four days of competition, a mere 0.07 seconds separated a championship title from second place. That was the margin by which the Trojans’ 4x400-meter relay team won the meet’s final event after anchor leg Kendall Ellis erased a massive Purdue lead and clipped Boilermaker runner Jahneya Mitchell at the finish line. Second place in the race would have meant 8 points for the Trojans, one shy of tying Georgia for the national championship and two short of standing on the podium alone. But Ellis’ remarkable surge ensured the entire team would go home happy. “I’m still trying to recover,” Southern California director of track and field Caryl Smith Gilbert said after the heart-stopping finish. “I’m so proud.”
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Champion magazine.