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Top 10 Greatest Cinderella Stories in NCAA Tournament History

The Greatest Cinderella Stories in NCAA History!
Publish Date: 09/16/2023
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

The Greatest Cinderella Stories!

After the tournament we have seen so far this year, I am sure you can see why I thought this could be a good time to broach this subject. For this article, the “Cinderellas” will be limited to teams that made a trip to at least a Regional Final (Elite Eight).

10) 1999 Gonzaga Bulldogs 

People tend to forget that Gonzaga was once not a threat to do much in basketball. That all changed with the arrival of Dan Monson. The 1999 Zags were not seen as a danger, but ever since that tournament, they have been. In 1999 the Bulldogs started off with a win over Minnesota and followed it up with upsets over Stanford and Florida. They eventually fell to UCONN in the Regional Finals. Monson left the following season and up stepped Mark Few. The Zags can no longer be a Cinderella.

Video: 'The most ugly, beautiful shot': An oral history of Casey Calvary's tip in

‘The most ugly, beautiful shot’: An oral history of Casey Calvary’s tip in

9) 1978 Cal State Fullerton Titans 

Not many people remember these Titans, but they should, as they came so close to going to 1978 Final Four. CSF entered the tournament unranked and proceeded to beat the 4th rated New Mexico Lobos on the Lobos’ home floor. They also beat a top-10 team in the Bill Cartwright-led San Francisco Dons. CSUF then almost upset Arkansas in the West Regional Final, losing by 3 points. In each of the three games, the Titans overcame double-digit second-half deficits. In the Arkansas game, they cut a big deficit to 1 and had the ball with 14 seconds left. But Arkansas’ Jim Counce stole the ball from Keith Anderson (many observers felt Anderson was fouled) and drove down to hit a clinching layup.

8) 1984 Dayton Flyers

The Flyers were led by the exceptional play of their all-time leading scorer Roosevelt Chapman, who put the Flyers on his back and carried them to the Regional Final. Dayton’s road started with an upset of LSU and then a high-scoring win over highly-rated Oklahoma, a game in which Chapman scored 41 points. Next up came the favored Washington Huskies, and once again, the Flyers stepped up to advance to the Elite Eight, where they ran into eventual National Champions, the Georgetown Hoyas, and the Flyers fell 61-49.

Video: The 1984 Flyers: 30 Years Later

The 1984 Flyers: 30 Years Later

7) 1990 Loyola Marymount 

Who could forget Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble? Paul Westhead’s team averaged over 122 points per game in 1990. Unfortunately, tragedy struck when star Hank Gathers passed away suddenly during a game. Nobody expected much of LMU in the 1990 tournament and boy were they wrong. Behind inspired shooting from guys like Kimball and Jeff Fryer, the Lions upset New Mexico State in the first round and then soundly beat defending National Champion Michigan, scoring a record 149 points on them. They then upset Alabama in a low scoring game, winning 62-60. The road came to an end when they ran into eventual National Champion UNLV in the Elite Eight.

Video: The Greatest Offense You've Never Heard Of: The Story of Loyola Marymount

The Greatest Offense You’ve Never Heard Of: The Story of Loyola Marymount

6) 2011 VCU Rams 

The Rams had lost 5 of 8 headed into the tournament and were relegated to the First Four. From there, the Rams put on a show, winning 5-straight games to advance to the final four.

Video: VCU Basketball Final Four Run

VCU Basketball Final Four Run

5) 1981 St. Joesph’s Hawks 

The Hawks were given no chance to defeat the number one ranked Depaul Blue Demons. St. Joseph’s trailed the No. 1 seed DePaul by seven at about the midway point of the second half. However, with just 48 seconds left, the Hawks had rallied to within 48–47. Blue Demons’ guard Skip Dillard was fouled with 13 seconds left. Dillard was known as ‘Money’ for his superb free-throw shooting, but he missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity and St. Joseph’s got the rebound, then quickly passed the ball to the frontcourt without calling a timeout. Guard Bryan Warrick got the ball to freshman Lonnie McFarlan who was wide open in the right corner. McFarlan began to shoot until forward John Smith yelled “Please!” to him. McFarlan passed to Smith, who was open underneath the basket. Smith’s layup with two seconds left enabled the Hawks of coach Jim Lynam to stun the Blue Demons of Ray Meyer, 49–48. The Hawks eventually lost in the Regional Final to the Indiana Hoosiers, who would go on to win the National Championship that year.

Video: Saint Joseph's Upsets #1 DePaul in NCAA Tourney, March 14, 1981, 49-48

Saint Joseph’s Upsets #1 DePaul in NCAA Tourney, March 14, 1981, 49-48

4) 2018 Loyola-Chicago

The Ramblers defeated Northern Iowa, Bradley, and Illinois State to win the MVC Tournament. As a result, the Ramblers received the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. As the No. 11 seed in the South Region, they upset No. 6-seeded Miami (FL) on a last-second three-pointer. They defeated No. 3-seeded Tennessee in the Second Round to earn the school’s first trip to the Sweet Sixteen since 1985. They then defeated Nevada in the Sweet Sixteen and Kansas State in the Elite Eight to advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1963. Their Cinderella run ended with a loss to Michigan in the national semifinal.

Video: Loyola basketball: Top plays in 2018 NCAA tournament

Loyola basketball: Top plays in 2018 NCAA tournament

3) 2022 Saint Peters

The Peacocks, led by fourth-year head coach Shaheen Holloway, played their home games at Run Baby Run Arena in Jersey City, New Jersey, as members of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. At 22-12 and 14-6, respectively, in MAAC play, they finished second place overall and advanced to the MAAC tournament championship game, where they defeated Monmouth to claim an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011 as a No. 15 seed in the East region. As a result, they received their conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011 as The 15 seed within their region.

The Peacocks upset No. 2 seed Kentucky to become only the 10th No. 15 seed to upset a No. 2 in Tournament history. They defeated Murray State to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, becoming only the third No. 15 seed and the first MAAC men’s team to make it this far. They then beat Purdue, becoming the first No. 15 seed ever to advance to the Regional Final. After this triumph was shown live on Madison Square Garden’s jumbotron during an NHL game between New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins, unfortunately for them, it ended there as they fell against 8-seed North Carolina.

Video: Saint Peter’s 2022 NCAA Tournament Highlights (Cinderella Run)

Saint Peter’s 2022 NCAA Tournament Highlights (Cinderella Run)

2) 1979 Penn Quakers 

Penn’s most memorable season was in 1979 when the Quakers advanced to the NCAA Tournament Final Four. With players such as Tony Price, the Quakers stunned the nation with victories over Iona, North Carolina, Syracuse, and St. John’s to advance to the Final Four. The Quakers then faced Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Michigan State in the national semifinals in Salt Lake City, Utah, but ultimately were defeated, 101–67. This team seems primarily forgotten by basketball fans, but they shouldn’t be, as they made one of the greatest runs in tourney history.

Video: 3/22/1979 Penn Basketball Pep Rally

3/22/1979 Penn Basketball Pep Rally

1) 2006 George Mason Patriots 

The Patriots were a controversial selection by the tournament committee because the Patriots had lost twice in just ten days to Hofstra. The selection committee still chose George Mason over Hofstra, and even with all the public outcry, the Patriots proved the nay-sayers wrong. The Patriots took down some giants of college basketball in Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut. The Patriots were the first true Cinderella of the modern era to advance to the Final Four and until this year’s Loyola Ramblers team, George Mason was the unquestioned number one on this list.


“8 Years Past Midnight” (George Mason University Final Four Documentary)

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