After such an incredible start, the 2018 NCAA tournament came to a close with something of a whimper. All three Final Four games were decided by 12 points or more, a fact for which we can largely blame Villanova being one of the most dominant national champions we’ve ever seen.
One-sided contests that were over early in the second half shouldn’t be the way we remember a tournament that gave us so much over the preceding weeks. In that spirit, let’s relive the five best games of the 2018 Big Dance.
Keep in mind that we’re talking about “best” games not “most memorable” games. My apologies to both UMBC and Jordan Poole.
5. (7) Nevada 87, (10) Texas 83 (OT) (First Round)
The most competitive game of the tournament’s first Friday featured two teams the American public hadn’t seemed to put much faith in heading into the Big Dance. That fact didn’t seem to phase Nevada, which rallied from a 14-point second half deficit to top Texas in an overtime thriller.
Five players scored in double figures for the Wolf Pack, led by senior guard Kendall Stephens’ 22 points. In what we now know was his last college game, Texas freshman Mo Bamba notched a double-double with 13 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks.
Bamba picked up a controversial fifth foul in the closing seconds of regulation, which allowed Nevada’s Jordan Caroline to hit one of two free-throws and force overtime. The Wolf Pack’s Caleb Martin went 3-for-3 from beyond the arc in the extra period to help the program score its first NCAA tournament victory since 2007.
4. (7) Nevada 75, (2) Cincinnati 73 (Second Round)
This was the biggest “turn the channel, forget about the game, glance up at the little score box in the top right of the screen 20 minutes later, do a double take, turn the game back on” game of the entire tournament.
There was nothing through the first 32 minutes of this contest indicating that it was remotely possible that Cincinnati might lose. The Bearcats led by double-digits before the under-four timeout of the first half, and led by 22 points with less than 11 minutes to go in the game. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline began to absolutely dominate for Nevada, and everyone for Cincinnati completely fall apart.
It ended appropriately for the Bearcats.
The 22-point comeback for Nevada is tied for the second largest in NCAA tournament history, matching the deficit Duke came back from against Maryland in the 2001 Final Four. BYU rallying from 25 down to beat Iona in a First Four game back in 2012 is the most extreme March Madness comeback.
All three Nevada games could have realistically been on this list, but this is the last time you’ll see the Wolf Pack.
3. (11) Loyola-Chicago 63, (3) Tennessee 62 (Second Round)
For the second time in as many games, Loyola-Chicago advanced in the NCAA tournament by taking out a single-digit seed from a power conference with a clutch shot in the closing seconds. More on that first game in a second.
Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Clayton Custer played hero for the Ramblers in this one, hitting a last second shot that danced all over the rim before finally dropping through.
Former Cyclone Clayton Custer is clutch as can be!! pic.twitter.com/5UcOGfaTpy— Barstool ISU (@BarstoolISU) March 18, 2018
This was when you started to get the sense that Loyola’s March run might not be limited to the tournament’s opening weekend. Though the game came down to the final possession, Loyola was the better team against Tennessee for all 40 minutes, something you can rarely say in an 11 vs. 3 matchup.
2. (11) Loyola-Chicago 64, (6) Miami 62 (First Round)
A lot of times, March Madness buzzer-beaters are bad games with great endings. This was a great game with a great ending, which is why it’s on the list and Michigan-Houston isn’t.
Things really picked up between the Ramblers and Hurricanes about midway through the second half when the two teams refused to stop burying highly contested three-pointers.
The haymakers continued for the next several minutes, but Miami never gave up its lead. At least not until there were only 0.3 seconds left to play. That’s when Donte Ingram made the first of many Loyola March memories.
If that shot is just a little off to the left, then we never really get to know Sister Jean, we don’t get the next two last second shots by Loyola, we don’t get an 11-seed in the Final Four, and maybe it’s the Hurricanes who wind up coming out of the South Region.
March is cruel and unforgiving and beautiful.
1. (1) Kansas 85, (2) Duke 81 (OT) (Elite Eight)
The regional final and Final Four games all left so much to be desired this tournament, except for this one glaring exception.
In my eyes, this was the best game of March and No. 2 isn’t all that close. Two perennial powerhouse blue-bloods exchanging blows for 45 minutes, two Hall of Fame coaches on the sidelines, the only Elite Eight game featuring the region’s top two seeds; what else could you possibly want?
Grayson Allen coming tantalizingly close to sending his team to the Final Four? That’s what you wanted? OK.
Kansas abused the Duke zone by hitting 13 three-pointers and also out-rebounded the much larger Blue Devils by 15. The win helped KU head coach Bill Self avoid falling to 2-8 in regional finals and having to hear about it for another offseason.