What are the biggest upsets in March Madness history?


March Madness is upon us and every team is seeking their one shining moment. 

Every year teams capture America’s heart as they make their way through the 68-team bracket, often beating powerhouses along the way. Some upsets are more iconic than others.

Relive some of the most historic March Madness upsets of both the men’s and women’s tournaments below.

What are some of the biggest upsets of the men’s NCAA tournament?

No. 16 UMBC defeats No. 1 Virginia in the Round of 64 (2018)

It was the cardinal rule of men’s college basketball. In a tournament defined by upsets and Cinderella stories, 16-seeds just don’t beat No. 1 seeds. Along came the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in 2018 to upset Virginia under the most unlikely of circumstances.

The Hoos entered March Madness as the top overall seed. Despite being a well-established powerhouse in the ACC under head coach Tony Bennett, Virginia had only appeared in the Final Four twice -- both times in the ’80s -- and seemed poised to make a run for it. The 16.65% of brackets that picked the Cavs to win the Big Dance and 20.5-point spread agreed. 

Virginia was dealt a curveball when future NBA lottery pick De’Andre Hunter broke his wrist in the ACC Tournament, but that seemed like a down-the-road issue by most estimations. 

In the first half, the Retrievers proved they could contain the Virginia offense, entering the locker room tied at 21. The real show started in the second half.

UMBC opened the second half with a 17-3 run. With seven minutes remaining, Virginia closed the gap to eight and looked poised to finish the job. The Retrievers once again proved they belonged in the race with a streak of their own, eventually winning 74-54 and nearly covering the spread…for the wrong team.

UMBC wasn’t even the 16-seed team with the highest likelihood of pulling off an upset that year: 3.28% of participants in the Capital One Bracket Challenge Game picked Penn to beat Kansas, compared to 2.18% who picked the Retrievers. 

The Cavaliers eventually got their redemption arc when they returned the following year and won the whole tournament in heroic fashion, beating Auburn on free throws as time expired to advance to the finals and beat Texas Tech in overtime. 

No. 6 NC State defeats No. 1 Houston in the National Championship Game (1983)

You probably know the image better than the game itself -- NC State head coach Jim Valvano running onto the court to celebrate his team’s buzzer-beating dunk over Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Cougars. 

Houston entered the game on a 26-game winning streak, favored to win its first-ever NCAA Championship. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack barely snuck their way into the tournament, having trailed in the final minute of six of their last eight games heading into the title matchup. 

NC State built a healthy lead in the first half but quickly saw its momentum slip in the second half, giving Houston a window to capitalize. Tied at 52 with the clock winding down, NC State guard Dereck Wittenburg heaved a desperation shot that ended up in the hands of his teammate Lorenzo Charles en route to a game-winning dunk.

That championship run -- the second in Wolfpack history -- later became part of a bigger movement as Valvano battled cancer. Nearly a decade to the day after winning the National Championship, Valvano died at the age of 47. His parting message, “Don’t Ever Give Up,” became a rallying cry for many, and his legacy lives on through the V Foundation for Cancer Research and the Jimmy V Classic. 

No. 15 Richmond defeats No. 2 Syracuse in the Round of 64 (1991)

Every couple of years a 15 seed seems to shake up the brackets with a big first-round victory, and that all started with the Spiders. It helped that Richmond was led by Dick Tarrant, a man who made a career out of conquering Goliath-like opponents.

Taking a note out of Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim’s book, Tarrant threw a number of different defenses at the Orange. With the Spiders holding a 10-point lead down the stretch, fans across America tuned in for what was then the biggest upset in March Madness history. This also happened to be the first time in the tournament’s 53-year history that all 63 games aired on CBS

In the 31 years since this game, eight more teams have joined the Spiders in the club of 15 seeds to win an opening-round game. Oral Robert was the most recent to do so, beating Ohio State in the 2021 tournament before eventually getting eliminated in the Sweet Sixteen. 

This matchup is unique in that it’s both relatively rare but just common enough that every year fans gamble on the upset. 

No. 8 Villanova defeats No. 1 Georgetown in the National Championship (1985)

The 1985 Final Four might as well have been the Big East tournament, with three of the four teams -- Villanova, Georgetown and St. John's -- hailing from the conference that was then a basketball powerhouse. This also marked the expansion of the tournament to 64 teams.

This Catholic school showdown saw the Wildcats deny the Hoyas their second straight championship. In the process they became the lowest seed to win the Big Dance. 

Five years prior, UCLA appeared in the championship as a No. 8 seed. However, that season was later vacated after members of the program were deemed ineligible by the NCAA. 

In the nearly four decades since, two more teams have reached the final as an 8 seed -- Butler in 2011 and Kentucky in 2014. While both teams fell short, Kentucky’s loss to seven-seed UConn was another notch for March Madness Cinderella stories. 

What are some of the biggest upsets of the women’s NCAA Tournament?

No. 5 Louisville defeats No. 1 Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen (2013) 

This one holds some personal significance as 13-year-old me was lucky enough to be in the arena to witness this upset in person. 

The Baylor Bears, led by the fiery player-coach duo of Brittney Griner and Kim Mulkey, seemed unbeatable, boasting a 32-win streak and all the tools to defend their national championship. Not even they could mount a response to the Cardinals’ shooting clinic, going 16-for-25 from beyond the arc. Louisville was led by the sister combo Shoni and Jude Schimmel and Antonia Slaughter, who lived up to her name, connecting on seven of nine three-point attempts. 

As ESPN’s Romana Shelburne pointed out, this upset was so unique in that it featured a fully loaded Baylor team with one player that up until that point was unstoppable.

Whether it was elite strategizing on the part of Louisville head coach Jeff Walz or a stroke of good luck, the undersized Cardinals held Griner to 14 points and 10 rebounds, a relatively unproductive night for the 6-foot-9 center. 

The Cardinals rode that momentum all the way to the finals, where they lost to UConn 60-93. 

No. 16 Harvard defeats No. 1 Stanford in the Round of 64 (1998)

What took the men’s tournament 33 years to achieve happened in just five seasons for the women’s tournament. 

The academic powerhouses brought their rivalry to the hardwood floor, and Harvard made history, beating Stanford on their home court to become the first 16 seed to win a tournament game -- men’s or women’s.

Stanford had two national championships and six Final Four appearances under its belt, but was missing All-American duo Kristen Folkl and Vanessa Nygaard who had both been sidelined with torn knee ligaments. Meanwhile, Harvard -- making only its third March Madness appearance -- capitalized by jumping out to a nine-point lead at the half and held on to punch their ticket to the round of 32.

No. 9 Notre Dame defeats No. 1 Texas Tech in the Round of 32 (1998)

More recent fans of women’s basketball might be shocked to see that Notre Dame was the underdog, but much of the program’s emergence as a blue blood can be traced back to this moment.

The Harvard-Stanford upset wasn’t the only major shakeup of the 1998 women’s tournament. In fact, this second-round matchup between the Irish and Red Raiders might be equally significant in terms of the long-term impact on women’s basketball. 

Texas Tech boasted a resume that included 10 tournament appearances, five of which made it to the Sweet Sixteen and one of which ended in a championship. Meanwhile, while Muffet McGraw and the Irish were on their fifth tournament appearance and coming off their strongest finish in program history, having been eliminated in the Final Four the season before, they were a far cry from the championship contender they’ve been for the last two decades. 

The game remained deadlocked until midway through the second half when Notre Dame forward Ruth Riley took over, leading the Irish to a 15-point victory. Riley scored all 23 of her points in the second half. While the Irish lost to in-state rival Purdue in the next round, this matchup marked a shift in the program. 

Notre Dame eventually got its one shining moment in 2001 when Riley and future head coach Niele Ivey were named to the All-Tournament team. They’ve since established themselves as a perennial contender, appearing in seven Final Fours from 2011 to 2019 and winning their second title in 2018.

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