There’s no such thing as a bad buzzer beater. It’s a simple, impeccable formula: The shot goes up … the horn goes off … pandemonium ensues. But as the famous tongue twister (that I just invented) goes, some buzzer beaters beat other buzzer beaters. As my colleague Nick Greene laid out in 2018, the difficulty of the shot matters. So do the stakes and the reaction on the floor.
Jalen Suggs’ game-winner for Gonzaga on Saturday night is hard to top by any of those metrics. Just watch this thing:
You don’t have to be a basketball historian or even much of a fan to understand that this is hoops transcendence. Suggs needs just two seconds and three dribbles to get across half court. He then pulls up from the edge of the Final Four logo—and just in front of an appropriately placed on-court star—as UCLA’s David Singleton raises his arms to contest the jumper. The horn goes off as Suggs’ shot arcs toward the basket, and it slams off the glass as the backboard lights up red. Suggs, following the flight of the ball, doesn’t stop running as it falls through the net. The broadcast turns away from Suggs just briefly to focus in on Gonzaga coach Mark Few. When we see Suggs again, he’s bellowing atop a courtside table, surrounded by his rapturous teammates. The game’s been over for just short of an instant, and the legend’s already being printed. Gonzaga 93 – UCLA 90, in overtime.
The best basketball mind in modern times, a man who has seen and done it all, processed that scene in real time and came back with this analysis:
At the risk of overcomplicating the issue, a few additional thoughts as we ponder whether this might be the greatest March Madness buzzer beater ever:
The greatness of the game elevates the greatness of the buzzer beater. If Michigan’s Franz Wagner had hit this shot to knock off UCLA in the regional finals, that game still would’ve been the pits.
But no matter what Suggs did in the final seconds, Gonzaga-UCLA was already a classic. Neither team ever led by double digits, and both shot well over 50 percent from the floor. The Bulldogs’ Drew Timme took a last-second charge to send the game to overtime, and the Bruins’ Johnny Juzang made a bucket to tie things up just before Suggs’ winning heave. All that buildup paid off in those last three blissful seconds.
The greatness of the player elevates the greatness of the buzzer beater. Suggs, a freshman point guard, should be a top 3 pick in this year’s NBA draft. The 2021 tournament has only burnished his reputation. He’s a crazy good defender, a brilliant passer, and he can score in the lane and from deep. In any other game, his two-play sequence in the final minutes of regulation—blocking Cody Riley’s dunk, then bouncing it to Timme on the fast break to set up the Gonzaga center’s own slam—would’ve been unmatchable.
But Suggs’ third shining moment was a supernova, and we’ll be marveling at its brilliance for a very long time, as we’ll likely be marveling at Suggs’ performances in the pros well into the 2030s.
He made the shot from just inside half court off the freakin’ backboard in the Final Four. Let’s not forget the basics. It was far. It hit glass. It went in. Gonzaga is going to the national championship game.
Jalen Suggs’ banker wasn’t the longest game-winner in NCAA Tournament history. U.S. Reed’s bomb in 1981 is the shot, it’s been said, that transformed the tourney into March Madness. You’ll believe it when you see it: It came from just beyond half court, and gave Arkansas the victory over defending champ Louisville.
Notwithstanding U.S. Reed’s heroics, Arkansas lost its next game, in the regional semis. It was a great shot, but not an important one.
And let’s not forget Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson, who crammed in his own off-the-backboard hoist from beyond half court in a first-round matchup against Texas in 2016.
Actually, let’s do forget Paul Jesperson, because two days later Northern Iowa succumbed to Texas A&M in the most insane comeback-slash-choke job I’ve ever seen.
It’s also worth remembering Gordon Hayward’s shot for Butler against Duke in the 2010 title game, which would’ve bested Suggs in every category—higher degree of difficulty, greater stakes, the world tilting off its axis in paroxysms of Duke-beating joy—if, small caveat, it had gone in.
If you’re willing to move further inside the half-court line, there are scores of other candidates for best March Madness buzzer beater. If you’d like to do a full scientific assessment, the Washington Post just put together a compilation of all-timers, from Tyus Edney’s coast-to-coast layup to Valparaiso’s Sykes to Jenkins to Drew.
A good argument can be made that Lorenzo Charles’ buzzer-beating dunk, which lifted underdog North Carolina State over Houston for the 1983 national championship, is the quintessential March Madness highlight. But it’s more a great moment than a great shot—an airball followed by a putback followed by a coach looking for someone to hug.
In my view, only three other feats can compare to the one Suggs just pulled off.
Christian Laettner, Duke, 1992. “There’s the pass to Laettner. Puts it up. YES!!!”
Charlotte Smith, North Carolina, 1994. The Tar Heels were down by 2 with 0.7 seconds left in the title game when Smith caught an inbounds pass, launched from 3, and won her team a championship
Kris Jenkins, Villanova, 2016. The Wildcats were tied with North Carolina with less than 5 seconds to go when Ryan Arcidiacono dribbled up court and pitched it back to the sweet-shooting Jenkins for the title-winning 3-pointer.
All three of these shots have something to recommend them. With regard to pure aesthetics, Laettner’s turnaround against Kentucky is impossible to top, and capped off what’s probably the best game in NCAA Tournament history. Smith’s is the only one of these that took a team from defeat to victory in the championship game. Jenkins’ 3 won a title too, plus it came off a full-court sprint and instigated a confetti shower.
And what about Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga, 2021? It didn’t come in a title game and, given that the game was tied, it didn’t rescue the Bulldogs from certain defeat. What it did have was spontaneity. Laettner, Smith, and Jenkins all scored coming out of timeouts. Watch those shots go in, and you’re seeing plans coming together. Suggs’ winner was a flash of improvisational genius, a star player taking the game into his hands and winning it with a flick of his wrist. That’s basketball at its best. And on Saturday night, Jalen Suggs did it better than anyone ever has.
Update, April 4, 11:45 a.m. ET: Arike Ogunbowale’s 2018 title winner for Notre Dame deserves to be on this list, too. Like Laettner, Smith, and Jenkins and unlike Suggs, Ogunbowale made this shot out of a timeout. But the degree of difficulty was … outlandish.