If it weren’t for March Madness, the conference tournaments would be the greatest time of the year. But the journey to the tourney is the perfect precursor to the insanity of the Big Dance, and it’s back.
Thirty-two conference tournaments will begin and conclude between tomorrow and Selection Sunday, realizing the NCAA Tournament dreams for 32 teams. To get you ready for the madness before the madness, here’s a look back at some classic conference tournament moments.
10 Memorable Conference Tournament Moments
Evan Turner Ends Michigan’s Season (2010)
Ohio State entered the 2010 Big Ten Men’s Tournament with the top seed and a bye to the second day. After defeating Iowa, 59-52, on the first day, Michigan earned an opportunity in the quarterfinals to tank its arch rival’s seed and a sliver of hope to win the conference tournament, the only path for that team to see the Big Dance.
The Buckeyes held a 51-38 lead with 10:28 left in the game, but Michigan roared back, clawing its way back into the game and eventually taking a two-point lead with 2.2 seconds remaining off a Manny Harris pull-up jumper.
Michigan provided little resistance on the game’s final play, as no one guarded Turner or the inbounder, and nobody tried to stop the ball until it was too late. Even still, Turner’s shot was a miraculous one and adds to the lore of the 2010 Naismith College Player of the Year and is one of the memorable conference tournament moments ever.
Isaiah Thomas Punches Washington’s Ticket (2011)
Washington had probably done enough to get in the tournament before this, but Isaiah Thomas decided there shouldn’t be a question.
With the game tied with 19 seconds to go in the 2011 Pac-10 Men’s Tournament Championship, Thomas walked the ball up the floor. He let the clock run down until the last few seconds, then made his move, darting left, stepping back and rising up for a deep two. He created enough space to get a good look at the rim, and he took advantage.
Thomas had already solidified himself as a premier guard in the country before this game, but this shot is the lasting image of his college career and was the exclamation point of his time at Washington.
Cal State Bakersfield Earns 1st Tournament Trip (2016)
New Mexico State has been the boss in the WAC, but in 2016, Cal State Bakersfield made itself king.
With 10.7 seconds remaining, the Roadrunners turned to Dedrick Basile to break the 54-54 tie in the 2016 WAC Men’s Tournament Championship. He dribbled around the perimeter for almost eight seconds, using a high ball screen to get the switch he wanted. The guard used his quickness to crossover right, doing just enough to put his defender on skates. With the newly created space, Basile pulled up for the win.
The rest speaks for itself.
Georgia Makes the Impossible, Possible (2008)
Georgia entered the 2008 SEC Tournament with a 13-16 record. An at-large bid was out of the question, and its only path forward was to win four straight for the conference’s auto bid.
One tornado, two overtime games and plenty of upsets later, the Bulldogs pulled off one of the biggest underdog runs in college basketball history after ending the run with a 66-57 win over Arkansas in the championship game.
The Bulldogs were given a No. 14 seed in the 2008 NCAA Tournament and lost in the first round to No. 3 Xavier in lopsided fashion, but nothing can ever take away the miraculous show they provided the country in the conference tournament.
Randolph Childress Tells North Carolina NO! (1995)
The 1995 ACC Tournament Championships pitted two of the best teams in the country, let alone conference, against one another, with regular-season champs and No. 7 Wake Forest in one corner, and third-seeded No. 4 North Carolina in the other.
The Demon Deacons would win, 82-80 in overtime, on the back of Randolph Childress heroics. He went off for 37 points, including 17 of his team’s final 19, securing the third ACC Tournament title in Wake Forest history.
Two plays in particular from Childress stood out: with the six-minute mark of the first half approaching and the game tied at 19, Childress slowly dribbled to the left wing. He quickly spun right, then crossed back left, leaving his defender on the ground in a heap. But that wasn’t enough. Before he pulled up to shoot, he motioned to the helpless Tar Heel to get up, then drilled a dagger, executing one of the most beautiful, disrespectful and poetic plays in college basketball history, let alone one of the most memorable conference tournament moments of all time.
With time running down in overtime and the score tied, everyone in the building knew the ball would go to Childress. He got it with eight seconds to go, and immediately drove the lane, beating the oncoming double team. He pulled up at the elbow, his momentum forcing his jump forward, and with four seconds on the clock, he gave his team a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Cardiac Kemba (2011)
How could you leave this out?
Kemba Walker and Connecticut’s success in 2011 was unprecedented and won’t be replicated for a long time: an 11-game winning streak to win the Big East Tournament and NCAA Tournament, all in the matter of weeks. It’s easy to forget, but this team was 21-9 (9-9) heading into the conference tournament, having lost four of its last five to close the regular season. It’s one of the most unbelievable runs in sports history.
But no play stands out more than this one. After winning two games in two days to earn a date with regular-season champs Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals, Connecticut needs one last basket to make it three for three. Walker got the inbound with 12 seconds remaining, and a quick switch on a high ball screen gave him a mismatch against sacrificial lamb Gary McGhee.
“Got a mismatch,” color commentator Fran Frascilla announced as Walker stalked his prey.
The first stepback made McGhee hesitate, but the second one sent him sliding into the lane. Walker collected himself right in front of the three-point line, fired and hit the net as time expired to give UConn the 76-74 win, the iconic play for an iconic team in college basketball’s legend.
Connecticut & Syracuse Play More Than 3 Halves (2009)
This wasn’t just one a classic conference tournament moment: this was one of the greatest basketball games ever played.
In the 2009 Big East Tournament, back when it was still 16 teams, Syracuse and Connecticut met in the quarterfinals for the right to play West Virginia in the semis. The game tipped slightly after 9:30 p.m. EST and didn’t end until 1:22 a.m. the next morning.
Referred to colloquially as the “six-overtime game,” there’s nothing left to say about this game that hasn’t already been said. Just watch the video and enjoy one of the best conference tournament moments and games this sport has ever seen.
Half-court Heave Keeps UConn Alive (2016)
In the 2016 AAC Tournament, former Big East foes Connecticut and Cincinnati matched up in the quarterfinals. Nobody knew four overtimes were on the horizon, let alone how they would come.
First, UConn big man Amida Brimah made a block at the end of regulation to save the game for the Huskies and send it into overtime tied at 62.
Then in the second overtime, Cincinnati scored to go up two with 15 seconds to go. But Connecticut guard Jalen Adams drove the ball on the other side of the floor and put up two to tie it at 75 with 5.5 seconds remaining before Cincinnati’s Troy Caupain’s deep three to win at the buzzer met iron.
Then the end of the third bonus period is when the ridiculousness took hold.
With the game knotted at 85, Caupain clanked a three from the top of the key with six ticks to go, but Octavius Ellis went up and grabbed a monster rebound for a second chance. He kicked it to Kevin Johnson on the wing, who launched and hit with with 0.8 seconds on the clock to put the Bearcats up three.
All hope appeared lost, then Adams chunked a prayer from two-thirds of the court away, and somehow banked it off the glass and in to forced a fourth overtime.
Truly one of the most unbelievable ending sequences of a game, and a treat to relive this every single time.
Darius Washington Jr. Comes Up Just Short (2005)
Memphis finished seventh in Conference USA in 2005 and with at-large hopes, needed a conference tournament championship for the auto bid. It made a run all the way to the championship, facing off against regular season champ and No. 4 Louisville for the trip to the Dance.
After Louisville went one-for-two from the line with 6.7 seconds to go, extending its lead to two, Darius Washington Jr. ran down the court with the ball and pulled up for a three for the win at the buzzer. As his momentum pushed him forward, Louisville’s Francisco Garcia collided into Washington Jr., giving the Memphis guard three free throws to tie or win the game with triple zeroes on the clock.
He would make the first and miss the next two, and Memphis lost 75-74, a crushing way to miss the NCAA Tournament for the Tigers and a difficult moment for Washington Jr. Bewarned before watching: something so emotional can be a tough watch, but that’s what makes it one of the most unforgettable conference tournament moments.
Peter Hooley Breaks Stony Brook’s Heart (2015)
Stony Brook was up 50-48 with 16.9 seconds and one free throw remaining, a shot at an almost insurmountable three point lead. But it kissed the front rim, and Albany had a chance.
A tough shot in the lane wildly banked off the top of the backboard and bounced from a sea of arms into the open ocean of the top of the key. Peter Hooley reeled in the ball and cast a prayer, catching nothing but nylon with 1.6 seconds left, solidifying the eventual 51-50 win.
The shot sent Albany to its third-straight NCAA Tournament and was immediately added to the list of heartbreakers for Stony Brook fans.
Princeton breaks Harvard’s back in one-game playoff (2011)
Hoffarber answers Minnesota’s prayers (2008)
Ray Allen vs. Allen Iverson (1996)
Doug Penno takes the Redhawks dancing (2007)