North Carolina State, coached by Jim Valvano, won the national title with a 54-52 victory in the final game over Houston, coached by Guy Lewis. The ending of the final is one of the most famous in college basketball history, with Lorenzo Charles' dunk at the buzzer off a high, arching air ball from 30 feet out by Dereck Whittenburg providing the final margin. This contributed to the nickname given to North Carolina State, the "Cardiac Pack", a reference to their often close games that came down to the wire — in fact, the team won 7 of its last 9 games after trailing with a minute left in the game. Both Charles' dunk and Valvano's running around the court in celebration immediately after the game have been staples of NCAA tournament coverage ever since. North Carolina State's victory has often been considered one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history.
Hakeem Olajuwon of Houston was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, becoming the last player to date to earn this award while playing for a team that failed to win the national title.
The Louisville vs Houston semi-final was a matchup of the #1 vs. #2 team. The #1 ranked Houston Cougars (nicknamed Phi Slama Jama) vs. #2 the Louisville Cardinals (nicknamed "The Doctors of Dunk") was considered likely to produce the national champion. It featured two strong offensive teams that specialized in the slam dunk. Both teams put on a show of offense, with Houston winning out over Louisville 94-81. This would have been the biggest game of the tournament had it not been eclipsed by the North Carolina State win over Houston in the championship game.
Another historically significant game in this tournament was the Mideast Regional final between Kentucky and Louisville, in-state rivals that had not played one another in basketball since the 1959 NCAA tournament, and had not played in the regular season since 1922. After regulation time ended with Kentucky tying the game at the buzzer, Louisville dominated the overtime to advance to the Final Four. This result directly led to the start of the Battle for the Bluegrass annual basketball series between the two schools that November.
A historically significant run in the tournament was that of Georgia, who became the last team to date to advance to the Final Four in its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. But the N.C. State team led by Jim Valvano became the archetype of the "Cinderella team", the underdog that many fans look to as a possible spoiler over top-ranked teams. This label has, since then, been applied to many programs, including Villanova in 1985, Gonzaga in 1999, George Mason in 2006, Butler in 2010 and 2011, and VCU in 2011. Not only did N.C. State beat Houston to win the championship, but they also beat #1 seeded Virginia on their way to the Final Four.