NCAA

The Highest-Scoring Game in NCAA Tournament History—30 Years Later

Thirty years ago. March 18, 1990. The high-powered Loyola Marymount Lions defeated the defending national champion Michigan Wolverines 149-115 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The 264 total points still remains the record for the highest-scoring game in NCAA Tournament history. Here’s a look back at a contest that featured several intriguing story lines and numerous record-setting performances.

Hank Gathers dies days before NCAA Tournament

Loyola Marymount entered the second-round game with heavy hearts, just over a week removed from the tragic death of superstar Hank Gathers, who collapsed during the West Coast Conference tournament due to a heart condition. The previous season, Gathers became the second player in NCAA history to lead Division I in both scoring (32.7) and rebounding (13.7) in the same year. 

At the time of his death, which doctors identified as caused by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, Gathers averaged 29.2 points per game. Amazingly, Gathers’ average was second-best for the Lions offense behind Bo Kimble, who led the nation with an eye-popping 35.3 points per game average.

Kimble and Gathers, who were childhood friends, along with Jeff Fryer’s 22.7 points per game, combined as a team to lead the nation in per game scoring average at 124 points.

In memory of Gathers, the Lions wore No. 44 patches on their jerseys.

Michigan enters as defending national champion

Michigan coach Steve Fisher was wrapping up his first full season leading the Wolverines. A year before, Michigan athletic director Bo Schembechler fired then-coach Bill Frieder at the end of the season and replaced him with Fisher. 

Fisher and the Michigan Wolverines shocked the nation by winning the national championship that year. When Fisher’s Michigan squad faced Loyola Marymount, his teams were undefeated at 7-0 in NCAA tournament play.

The Wolverines came into the contest with a 23-7 mark, had finished third in the Big 10 regular season, and were led by four players—Rumeal Robinson, Terry Mills, Loy Vaught, and Sean Higgins—all who averaged more than 14 points per game.

The frenetic first half

The game, which was played at Long Beach Arena, just 30 miles from Loyola’s Los Angeles campus, started fast, just the way the Lions intended. Early on in the contest, each team averaged less than seven seconds before taking its first shot.

The emotional moment of the contest came past the midway point when Michigan fouled Kimble. The senior star stepped to the free-throw line, and in honor of his friend, the right-handed Kimble shot his free throw left-handed like Gathers always did when trying to correct his problems at the line. Kimble vowed to shoot his first free throw left-handed every time. He made it. The crowd erupted. Someone in the stands held up a sign that read – “Hank’s here.” 

At the end of the first half, Loyola Marymount led Michigan 65-58, a halftime score that, in many years, would be the final score of an entire game.

Record-setting second half

Loyola Marymount started the second half right where it left off the first, pressing the ball up the court and shooting threes, when available. Michigan tried to keep up. It couldn’t. 

The Lions methodically pulled away from the Wolverines, and in the process, began setting one NCAA Tournament record after another. With more than 11 minutes to play in the contest, Loyola reached the 100-point mark for the 27th time in 30 games that season, an NCAA record.

Five minutes later, Loyola set another record when it scored 129 points, the most ever in a tournament contest. The CBS broadcast crew marveled at the performance and then displayed a graphic that compared Loyola’s average game score for the season at 124 points with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors (116), Denver Nuggets, and Phoenix Suns (both 115).

What most don’t remember is with five minutes remaining and no shot clock used at the time, Loyola shifted into a four-corners spread offense. A team that put up record-shattering numbers throughout the year was deliberately trying not to score, but instead run out the clock. 

When the final seconds ticked off the clock, Loyola Marymount had taken down the defending national champion Michigan Wolverines by a lopsided 149-115 score. 

Highest-scoring NCAA Tournament game final numbers

The incredible box score, courtesy of Sports Reference.

Of all the statistics, the most impressive had to be Loyola Marymount’s performance behind the arc. The Lions finished 21-40 from 3-point land. Senior Jeff Fryer set an NCAA Tournament record converting on 11 threes. He finished the game with 41 points.

With Fryer lighting it up from deep, Bo Kimble had a typical Bo Kimble-like performance in the paint scoring 37 points. The two Lions players combined to score more points (78) than 22 of the 32 teams that made it to the second round of the tournament. 

The 264 points were the most in NCAA Tournament history, breaking the previous mark of 247 set in 1961 when St. Joseph’s (Pa.) beat Utah 127-120 in four overtimes. 

Loyola Marymount won its Sweet 16 matchup against Alabama before falling in the Elite 8 to eventual national champion UNLV, 131-101.

The Lions’ NCAA Tournament run was over, but the team had made its mark with the fans, and more significantly, in the record books.