The first round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament is just four weeks away, and it can’t come soon enough!
Today we’re going to look back on the famous 5 vs 12 seed matchup, which since the field expanded to 64 in 1985 has produced upsets in 35% of the games, with the often mid-major 12 seed taking 51 of the 144 matchups.
One of the reasons people love cheering for the underdogs, especially if they’re smaller schools from smaller conferences, is that usually if they’re 12 seeds they’ve been able to do it a lot and make sure every tourney has some Madness in it. In fact, in the past 36 tournaments, only five times have all four of the bracket’s 12 seeds failed to win at least one game.
What really makes the 5 vs 12 seed games spectacular, though, is that they’re bound to have wild finishes when the underdog is not actually that much of an underdog but probably won’t win by 20 either. Let’s take a look at five of the greatest 5 vs 12 first round games of all time from oldest to most recent. I’m not going to say that these are definitively the five greatest, but they are definitely up there:
#5 Kentucky 85, #12 St. Bonaventure 80 2OT (2000)
UK’s played in three 5 vs 12 games (including one they won as the 12 in ‘85!), and this one’s gone down as one of their most thrilling first round victories as any seed as Tayshaun Prince scored 11 of their last 12 regulation points, including a game-tying 3 with seven seconds to play to knot it up at 63. The Bonnies found themselves in the same position as the clock wound down in the first OT, but David Messiah Capers tied it 76-all after getting fouled on a three just before the buzzer and hitting paydirt at the charity stripe despite being just a 57% free throw shooter. Finally in the 2nd OT the ‘Cats laid it in to go up three with less than ten seconds left and the Bonnies’ 3-ball rimmed out and Kentucky escaped to the Round of 32 in a game that had it all.
#12 Creighton 83, #5 Florida 82 2OT (2002)
Down eight with two-and-a-half to go, Creighton tied Billy Donovan’s Gators 69-all in the final minute and scored a tie-breaking tip-in at the OT buzzer but a tad too late—it was waived off and they went to the 46th minute. The ultimate finish was the greatest part of the upset: with 30 seconds to go and Florida inbounding up two, the Gators turned it over on a five-second call and the Bluejays had a chance to tie or take the lead. With ten to go the ball rolled out of bounds in a mad scramble for it but off a Florida hand, and Terrel Taylor hit one of the biggest shots in school history to stun the Gators at the buzzer for an all-time classic 83-82 double-overtime 12-seed upset.
#12 Western Kentucky 101, #5 Drake 99 OT (2008)
If you thought nothing could top the last two games, you won’t believe your eyes when you watch this video! The Hilltoppers had the game in the bag up eight with just over two minutes left, but then gagged away the lead, let the Bulldogs force overtime, and trailed 96-97 with 20 seconds left before getting fouled and using the free throws to go up one. Drake missed a jumper with seven on the clock, but in the scramble for the ball WKU fouled the Bulldogs’ Jonathan Cox and gave the lead right back! 5.7 seconds to go, trailing 98-99, the Hilltoppers brought it up the court and launched a last-second heave while being triple-teamed.
Swish. 101-99 WKU.
#12 Arkansas-Little Rock 85, #5 Purdue 83 2OT (2016)
One of my favorite upsets of any first round game, mostly because Purdue blew a 14-point lead with 4:57 to go and Little Rock hit of the one-in-a-million 3-point shot from the corner that hit the far edge of the rim, went straight into the air, and fell right down in. And that was before the two overtimes! Hitting clutch basket after clutch basket, the Trojans survived two untimely misses from the charity stripe and Purdue’s run at the basket and their one-point lead to escape 85-83 for just their second-ever tournament win.
#5 Auburn 78, #12 New Mexico State 77 (2019)
One of the narrowest of narrow escapes for the Tigers, who would run all the way to the Final Four but came a hair away from getting bounced at the very beginning. New Mexico State trailed by four with 30 seconds left and drained a deep three to cut it to one. Auburn made one free throw of their own, and the Aggies launched from deep again, this time with two seconds left. Miss! But wait! A foul on the shot and three free throws for the team down two with two seconds left. I still cannot fathom how Auburn won this, because after that foul NMSU made just one free throw but the ball went off Auburn out of bounds to give them the ball back right under their own basket, found a wide-open man...and airballed it. Luckiest escape for a Final Four-bound 5-seed ever, because Auburn tried harder to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory than the Atlanta Falcons.
I’m starting to see why we like 5 vs 12 games so much. Man, watching those highlights was fun—I’m ready for March!