Perfect shots forever: 40 years of men’s NCAA tournament buzzer-beaters

The clock shows 0:00, the ball remains airborne, and the term “buzzer-beater” has long since joined the lexicon of an eccentric land. And that ball’s destination can affect the jobs of coaches, the legacies of players, the lifetime statistics of programs, the coveted chance to remain in the bracket for at least a few more days, all of it.

Some of the plays transpired almost precisely as drawn or conceived. Others unfolded as if beholden to the magic of a child’s scribbling. And some proved so implausible that no child on Earth could have scribbled them. They’re the shots that sent the benches scrambling, the broadcasters screaming and the winners escaping, shots that have dotted the batty fabric of March Madness through the past four, bracketed decades.

[How the NCAA tournament built its ‘bubble’ in Indianapolis]

All resulted out of exercises in geometry. From the unplanned simplicity of U.S. Reed’s heave for Arkansas against Louisville to the planned simplicity of Villanova’s play for Kris Jenkins’s shot against North Carolina and back to the carefully devised and highly difficult Sykes-to-Jenkins-to-Drew of Valparaiso against Mississippi and the uncontrollable madness of Dereck Whittenburg to Lorenzo Charles, they’re a reminder that the geometric possibilities of five people vs. five people in 94 feet by 50 feet really are endless.

The graphic below shows the 37 game-winning buzzer-beaters — shots that landed with no time left on the clock — in the past 40 years of the NCAA men’s tournament.

Buzzer-beaters have been launched from as far away as 50 feet and as close as the air above the rim. Here are some of the most memorable from each range.

Hail Marys

Image without caption
Image without caption

Hail Marys are shots of desperate last resort that never find the hoop until — holy moly, did you see that!? — once in a while they do. Twice, 35 years apart, players have hit game-winners from beyond the half-court line.

“It was almost like a reenactment of a childhood dream,” Paul Jesperson said last year of his roughly 50-footer in 2016 that is the longest buzzer-beater in NCAA tournament history. “You’re in your driveway shooting around, and you let something go … and it goes in.”

[2021 March madness bracket]

Paul Jesperson

2016: West Region, round of 64, Oklahoma City
Northern Iowa 75, Texas 72
Time at start of play — :02.7

Anyone viewing this replay repeatedly might note that as the 6-foot-6 Jesperson makes his way from the sideline to the middle with one dribble and one left-footed step and two defenders smartly trying not to foul, Jesperson appears almost to lollygag as if at a family reunion or company picnic. So the ball, flung without apparent stress, travels upward, lands in the square and caroms in as if Jesperson remains in his childhood backyard in Wisconsin.

Image without caption

Texas’s first season under Coach Shaka Smart ends right there. “If you could have that play back, you try to make it tougher on him,” Smart said. “But the kid made a shot from half court, so you’ve got to give him credit.”

There’s a wacko postscript to this one: The shot sent Northern Iowa toward one of the most haunting losses in the history of the tournament, the second-round, double-overtime marvel against Texas A&M after the Panthers led by 12 with 44 seconds left in regulation and by 10 with 30 seconds left.

U.S. Reed

1981: Midwest Region, round of 32, Austin
Arkansas 74, Louisville 73
Time at start of play — :05
Arkansas' U.S. Reed makes the game-winning shot in a 1981 NCAA tournament game against Louisville.
Arkansas’ U.S. Reed makes the game-winning shot in a 1981 NCAA tournament game against Louisville. (James D. Smith/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

A funny thing about the hardest game-winner in NCAA tournament history — by a nose over Jesperson’s — is that on video it appears Ulysses Cleon “U.S.” Reed, not a defender, is the one who makes the shot so difficult. He dribbles with a hopeless clunkiness near half court. Two unworried Louisville players hang nearby. Reed had taken the inbounds pass, gone slightly left, veered slightly right. He hadn’t gone much of anywhere, this 6-foot-2 senior guard from Pine Bluff averaging 13 points per game.

Image without caption

Yet you could argue with the tournament already at age 42, Reed dropped the curtain on madness as the country knows it — sorry, Madness — when his shot swished furiously through the basket and NBC’s Marv Albert called: “It’s in! It’s in! U.S. Reed! Let’s see. Do they say it counts? It’s all over!’ ”

Long-range jumpers

Image without caption
Image without caption

In the olden days, no NCAA tournament shot, no matter how long, counted for more than a layup. That 49-foot heave by U.S. Reed in 1981? Two points. Jeff Hornacek’s 25-footer in 1986? Ditto. Then, in 1987, the men’s three-point line debuted, 19 feet 9 inches from the center of the hoop, and within a few years, the risky-but-rewarding shots became a staple of game strategy. The line was moved a foot farther away in 2009, and in 2019 it went to the international distance of 22 feet 1¾ inches.

Jamie Sykes to Bill Jenkins to Bryce Drew

1998: Midwest Region, round of 64, Oklahoma City
Valparaiso 70, Mississippi 69
Time at start of play — :02.5
Valparaiso Coach Homer Drew, left, watches his son Bryce enter tournament lore with his 1998 buzzer-beater against Ole Miss.
Valparaiso Coach Homer Drew, left, watches his son Bryce enter tournament lore with his 1998 buzzer-beater against Ole Miss. (J.PAT CARTER/AP)

The play titled “Pacer” had been one of those plays that — sound the chorus! — rarely work in practice. As a player, in this case Bryce Drew, said of a coach, his father, Homer Drew, “We run those plays every day, and we’re like, ‘Coach, why are we running this stuff?’ ”

Image without caption

Bryce Drew often gets the credit because of his winning, 23-foot three-pointer that started No. 13-seeded Valparaiso toward the Sweet 16 on one of the tournament’s cherished Lilliputian runs. Life often goes to the shot maker. Yet the other two O’s are just as crucial in outfoxing the X’s: Jamie Sykes’s pass flew as if possessing eyes across half court to Bill Jenkins, whose catch, dexterity and flip to Drew on his right would be the most important of the three tasks, if we had to choose. Luckily, we don’t.

[2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament bracket]

Kris Jenkins

2016: National final, Houston
Villanova 77, North Carolina 74
Time at start of play — :04.7

At the core of the tournament, men with wee ages such as 22 make decisions in front of football-stadium crowds such as 74,340, plus national TV audiences. They make them willingly based on childhood lessons, game experience, tiresome drills and split seconds. They make them in a rush while so young as a big chunk of the country fixes to remember them until they’re old.

Image without caption

Barely had everyone begun to comprehend Marcus Paige’s astounding, hanging, pumping, tying, three-point shot when, after a timeout, Villanova senior Ryan Arcidiacono dribbled downcourt in the play Coach Jay Wright had used since his Hofstra days, called “Nova,” as Luke Winn detailed it in Sports Illustrated. Arcidiacono sensed resistance for himself up ahead. He quickly quashed his thought to shoot. He opted to shovel it back to the trailing hero warded off from Tar Heels defenders by Arcidiacono’s push. That hero, Kris Jenkins, also then 22, having assured teammates of the size of his intestines, caught the ball, landed, jumped, launched from 24 feet and livened up the rest of all their lives.

[The perfect bracket to win your March Madness pool]

Mid-range shots

Image without caption
Image without caption

You would think two-pointers would tend to be a little calmer — fewer elbows than the chaos under the hoop, less fling-and-a-prayer than the long stuff. But lack of distance does not mean lack of drama, especially when the clock is nearing zero. For instance, Brian Kellerman’s 15-footer in 1982 bounced three agonizing times on the rim before falling through the net, sending Idaho past Iowa and into the round of 16. And Christian Laettner’s famous shot? It was barely longer than a free throw.

Christian Laettner (but not that shot)

1990: East Region final, East Rutherford, N.J.
Duke 79, Connecticut 78 (overtime)
Time at start of play — :02.6

So stunning was the best individual career in the history of the NCAA tournament, that of Christian Laettner — four Final Fours, three title games, two titles, two game-winning shots in region finals — that he is sitting around with an overlooked game-winner that brought a Final Four berth.

Funny enough, he inbounded the ball on this one (from the half-court set). Funny enough, Connecticut didn’t guard the inbounds pass; it worried more about Duke seniors such as Phil Henderson and Alaa Abdelnaby. Funny enough, Connecticut had reached the game only through a length-of-court pass with one second left to Tate George, whose ensuing shot had shocked Clemson.

Image without caption

So Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski called out, “Special!” — the name of a Duke play both simple and lovely. So Laettner threw a short inbounds pass to his chum Brian Davis, who hurried the ball back to Laettner, who dribbled once, wriggled through some defenders and let go of a shot so big-time it would take something towering to top it.

[Top 100 NBA players 2020-2021]

Christian Laettner (the shot)

1992: East Region final, Philadelphia
Duke 104, Kentucky 103 (overtime)
Time at start of play — :02.1
Duke's Christian Laettner hits the winning shot in overtime over Kentucky's Deron Feldhaus for a 104-103 victory and a 1992 Final Four berth.
Duke’s Christian Laettner hits the winning shot in overtime over Kentucky’s Deron Feldhaus for a 104-103 victory and a 1992 Final Four berth. (Charles Arbogast/AP)

Concerning the onerous art of television production of the script-less theater called sports, here’s to Craig Silver, the producer on the CBS broadcast of the best game in college basketball history. That broadcast caught — and dwelled upon — a telltale rarity: a player sobbing after his team just won.

Thomas Hill cried because crying was the only adequate response after all the wonder amassed in a game in which mastery kept topping mastery, a game that spent its last 33 seconds going from 98-98 to 100-98 (Duke) to 101-100 (Kentucky) to 102-101 (Duke) to 103-102 (Kentucky) to 104-103 (Duke).

Image without caption

Laettner’s famous shot wasn’t just an absurd dribble with a ridiculous turnaround with a preposterous degree of difficulty for a player who shot 10 for 10 from the field and 10 for 10 from the line. It wasn’t just a question of whether Kentucky should have guarded the inbounds pass from Grant Hill, who, as Verne Lundquist masterfully pointed out in his play-by-play call, was born the same week his father, Calvin Hill, threw a game-winning, halfback-option touchdown pass for the Dallas Cowboys. No, it was brilliant theater piled atop brilliant theater piled atop brilliant theater.

Layups, putbacks and a monster dunk

Image without caption
Image without caption

Thanks to pressure, adrenaline and extremely motivated defenses, there are no easy buzzer-beaters. Each shot is simply a different kind of difficult. Outside shots require finesse and fortune; close-in ones require the strength and downright sneakiness to emerge from a sometimes literal scrum. In the past 40 years, only one buzzer-beater has been a slam dunk — and it won a championship.

Lorenzo Charles

1983: National final, Albuquerque
North Carolina State 54, Houston 52
Time at start of play — 0:44

Madness began to warrant its capital “M” here; this play made zero sense, such that any drawing of it would have to resemble something etched in a pub — at 3 a.m. Three seasons before the NCAA located the judgment to install a shot clock, this play spent much of its 44-second existence looking inept, quaking with dangerous passes and hovering in the exurbs of the basket near midcourt.

Image without caption

It’s striking to see again that Houston’s Clyde Drexler, later of three NBA Finals, one title and one Dream Team, almost plucked a steal with 12 seconds left. Finally, the ball wafted out to N.C. State’s Dereck Whittenburg, whose 35-footer with four seconds left became an air ball the offense richly deserved. Of course, then Lorenzo Charles caught it in front of the basket. Charles dunked it. Wolfpack subs took the floor and began hugging. Confusion loomed. CBS play-by-play man Gary Bender, after an understandable goose bump of a pause, exclaimed, “They won it!”

Tyus Edney

1995: West Region, round of 32, Boise, Idaho
UCLA 75, Missouri 74
Time at start of play — :04.8

Here’s the all-timer in two genres: the end-to-end blur and the early-round buzzer-beater that bails out a winner found many rounds later still playing on the final night. (See Michigan’s Jordan Poole vs. Houston, 2018.)

Image without caption

In the mind’s eye, Edney blasts down the right side of the court in his long and successful trip saddled with a 74-73 deficit and a soaring season fixing to expire at a glum 26-3. In the tape, always slightly more reliable than the mind’s eye, UCLA’s senior point guard starts left of center after the inbounds pass from Cameron Dollar. He uses a behind-the-back, left-to-right dribble. He takes his 5-foot-10 self to his spot on the low right block amid large Missourians. He banks in his hanging throw. He says in the news conference at one point, “Everything was in slow motion.” Upon this kind of mad, inexplicable end-to-end drama hinged one title and a horde of reputations. Who in the world lives like this?

Looking forward

Most NCAA tournaments feature at least one game-winning buzzer-beater, according to this list compiled by, which includes those that leave a bit of time on the clock. Whether in the round of 64 or the national final, those shots dominate highlight reels and office jabber, and everyone wants to hear from the hero du jour.

“When you hit a shot like that, whether it’s three from the wing, a layup or a half-courter, it tends to stick in people’s minds,” said Jesperson, who says people still try to bet him that he can’t reenact his Hail Mary. (Spoiler: He almost certainly will decline to try.)

Should one (or more) of this year’s players be lucky enough to drain a buzzer-beater, he has a suggestion:

“They should just turn their phone off for the first 48 hours after they hit their shot and focus on their next game.”

Source: WP