There is the Elite Eight. The Final Four. And the championship. This, March Madness fans know.
But long ago, in a basketball galaxy far, far away, there was a third-place game in the NCAA Tournament. A bronze medal. A Final Four participation trophy.
When did the third place game start? And why did it end?
That’s part of Big Dance lore that not many fans know. Additionally, the Virginia basketball program played a part in the odd history of the consolation game.
Third-place game was part of March Madness until 1981
The first NCAA Tournament kicked off in 1939, and, seven years later, the tournament debuted its third-place game. What’s interesting about that third-place game is that it wasn’t actually the first third-place game in tournament history. That distinction went to the West Region, which added a third place game to its regional championship when the tourney started in ’39.
Then, in 1941, the East Region joined the consolation-game trend. In reality, a third-place game in the regional finals made a lot of sense back in 1941. The NCAA Tournament was a small affair. There were eight teams and two regions. In essence, the tourney basically started with the Elite Eight.
With four teams in each region and only three rounds of games, adding a third-place game gave teams a chance for redemption in an all-too-short tournament. Fans got the added bonus of a pair of additional games, too.
That strategy seemed to work, and the NCAA adopted a third place game just a few years later in 1946. The tournament still had only eight teams. However, by 1946 it had a pair of third-place games in the regional battles, along with a third-place game for the semifinal losers.
The first third-place winner? Ohio State. The team ousted California 63-45, gaining a metaphorical bronze medal.
What happened in 1981?
For 34 years, the third-place game held its own in the tournament. Although its significance paled in comparison to the Final Four and the championship, it hung on to its prominence like a Cinderella team hanging on by an overmatched thread against a superior squad.
But in 1981, all that changed. On March 30 of that year, President Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt in Washington, DC. March 30 was also the day the third place game and championship game were slated to commence in the tourney.
The harrowing events of that day put the two games in limbo. Start times were pushed back. However, once it was known that the president was out of danger and survived, the games were a go. The Ralph Sampson-led Virginia Cavaliers beat the upstart LSU Tigers by a score of 78-74. Later that night, Isiah Thomas led the Indiana Hoosiers past the North Carolina Tarheels in the championship game, 63-50.
Some have incorrectly asserted that the third-place game was canceled that year because of the Reagan assassination attempt; this is not true.
The most likely explanation may be that the NCAA launched the women’s tournament the following year. Running two simultaneous tournaments required immense planning. The NCAA may have viewed the third-place matchup as an extraneous game with so much going on.