History of the NCAA Tournament’s 15 vs 2 Matchup
After 15 seed Saint Peter’s shocked the 2nd seeded Kentucky Wildcats to begin an unbelievable Elite 8 run in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, it got me thinking about other 15 seeds that were close to pulling off that monumental first round upset but fell just short. After the Peacocks win, 15 seeds are now just 10-138 all-time in the first round, winning just 6.75% of the time. The first 15 seed to pull off an upset of a 2 seed was the Richmond Spiders, taking down Syracuse 73-69 in the 1991 NCAA Tournament. Other memorable upsets include Steve Nash’s Santa Clara Broncos taking down Arizona in the 1993 tournament, Coppin State’s domination of South Carolina in 1997, the 2013 FGCU aka “Dunk City” run, and of course the magical performance by Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor to bring Oral Roberts to the Sweet 16 in 2021. There has been only one year in which multiple 15 seeds won a game, which occurred in 2012. Led by future NBA lottery pick C.J. McCollum, the Lehigh Mountain Hawks shocked Duke on the same day that Norfolk State stunned the Missouri Tigers.
Closest 15 vs 2 upset bids that never came to fruition:
Villanova 73 Robert Morris 70 in OT*
2010 NCAA Tournament- Providence, RI
After a Karon Abraham three gave the Colonials from the Northeast Conference an 11-9 lead with 14:37 left in the 1st half, they wouldn’t trail again for the next 34:51 of game action. Leading by 8 points going into the final TV timeout of regulation, the Robert Morris upset bid seemed more than promising. Unfortunately for them, Villanova was led by the experience of upperclassmen including star guard Scottie Reynolds, who would help spark an 11-3 run to force the game into OT and eventually come back for the 73-70 victory. With the higher field goal percentage for the game (40% to Nova’s 35.3%) and a 46-32 rebounding advantage, foul trouble is what ended up hindering Robert Morris. All five starters would record at least 4 fouls, including two disqualifications. As a result, Villanova would shoot 40 free throws, scoring 31 of their 73 points from the line, which turned out to be the difference in the game.
Duke 71 Belmont 70
2008 NCAA Tournament- Washington D.C.
College basketball fans remember the Lehigh and Mercer upsets or the Eric Maynor (VCU) game winning shot that all sent the Blue Devils home much earlier than anticipated. In the 2008 NCAA Tournament, the Belmont Bruins were just one possession away from joining that illustrious list. In just the 9th season as a Division 1 program, and with no NCAA tournament wins in school history, the Bruins from the Atlantic Sun would hold a 1 point lead with under 15 seconds to go. Gerald Henderson’s layup with 0:13 left put the Blue Devils back on top and was ultimately the deciding factor in ending Belmont’s valiant upset bid. The 18,400 fans that filled the Verizon Center in D.C. that night held their breath as the small school from Nashville had multiple opportunities to win the game on the final possession. The Bruins finished the game with a higher team FG%, 3-PT%, had more assists and less turnovers; yet the Blue Devils were still able to escape with the victory.
Wisconsin 76 Texas A&M-CC 63
2007 NCAA Tournament- Chicago, IL
The final score might not indicate that the Badgers were on upset alert, but for most of the game they certainly were. Texas A&M-CC, in their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, was able to jump out to a 10-0 lead by the first TV timeout. With one of the worst first half performances by a 2 seed in tournament history, Wisconsin would trail 25-7 with just five minutes left until the break. Ending the half on a 12-2 run, they cut the deficit to just 8 points headed into the 2nd half. Still unable to seize control for much of the 2nd half, the Islanders would push the lead back to 12 before Wisconsin was able to rally for their first lead of the game at the 9:35 mark. Eventually the Badgers, led by Big Ten POY Alando Tucker, would pull away and be too much for the Islanders down the stretch.
Tennessee 63 Winthrop 61
2006 NCAA Tournament- Greensboro, NC
Tennessee, the SEC East regular season champions, would never get comfortable in this tightly contested first round matchup with the Eagles from the Big South. A true back and forth game, neither team would establish a lead of more than 6 points at any time and there would be eight lead changes in the 2nd half alone. Led by Coach Gregg Marshall, Winthrop would hold a 1 point lead in the last three minutes. Facing the suffocating defense of the Eagles, Tennessee would make just two field goals in the final ten minutes before star guard Chris Lofton hit a contested fadeaway shot from the corner in the final seconds to give the Volunteers the win. If that shot didn’t go in, the game would have been headed to OT, and who knows what would have transpired.
Wake Forest 76 East Tennessee State 73
2003 NCAA Tournament- Tampa, FL
Led by ACC POY and future 1st Round NBA draft pick Josh Howard, the Demon Deacons and their star forward had to survive a legitimate scare from the feisty Buccaneers of Johnson City, TN. Despite leading by 7 at the break, the ACC Regular Season Champions could never take complete control of the game, allowing East Tennessee State to hang around for much of the 2nd half. Down 72-64 with 1:35 left in regulation, ETSU’s star guard Tim Smith took the game into his own hands, connecting on a pull-up three to cut the lead down to 5. On the ensuing Bucs possession, he got to the line and made both FTs, then stole an inbounds pass and completed his own personal 8-0 run by drilling another 3-pointer to tie the game up. Josh Howard was eventually fouled with 21.6 seconds and made both free throws, giving Wake Forest a lead they wouldn’t relinquish again. Hats off to ETSU, led by Smith (22 points) and Zakee Wadood (20 points, 14 rebounds, 7 steals), for pushing the Demon Deacons to the brink.