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Basketball 101: How Many Periods Are In A Basketball Game? NBA vs NCAA

NBA and NCAA Men’s games each have a different number of periods that last for varying amounts of time. There are even more differences when you start looking at WNBA and NCAA Women’s games.

Here, we break down the differences in basketball game structure between the collegiate and professional levels. So, how many quarters are in a basketball game? And how long do they last?

How Many Periods In An NBA Basketball Game?

The NBA’s 48 minute games are broken down into four 12-minute quarters. Each quarter is separated by a two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half minute break. The halftime break is much longer, lasting 15 minutes. 

LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony of LA Lakers
Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Although NBA games have been like this for a long time, they were not always designed this way. 

When the league was founded in 1946 as the Basketball Association of America, matches were made up of two 20-minute halves. In 1951, this was changed to four 10-minute quarters. 

Three years later, the format was changed again to four 12-minute quarters. It has stayed this way ever since. 

The NBA is famous for the wear and tear players experience over the busy season. Because of this, there has been a lot of discussion about whether 48-minute games are too long. 

The league did experiment with a 44-minute game during the 2014 preseason, but the format didn’t stick. At the time, many coaches said shortening the season, instead of games, was the only way to reduce wear and tear.

How Many Quarters In WNBA Basketball?

WNBA games are broken down into four 10-minute quarters.

Just like the NBA, the WNBA began with games played over two 20-minute halves. This was the case from the league’s founding in 1996 up until 2006, when it was decided to change games to a four quarter format. 

Since this time, there have been four quarters, each 10 minutes long. There is a 15-minute break at halftime.

Minnesota Lynx player Cecilia Zandalasini attempts a 3 point shot
Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

The main benefit of changing from halves to quarters is that the team foul count is reset every 10 minutes. In the WNBA, this meant games sped up and that less scoring came from the free throw line.

Overall, this made WNBA games more exciting to watch. 

How Many Periods In NCAA Men’s Basketball?

NCAA Men’s games are broken down into two 20-minute halves.

Basketball was invented by a man called James Naismith. In his original rule book from 1891, Naismith wrote that basketball games should be made up of two 15-minute halves with a five minute rest in between. 

In 1905, this was upped to two 20-minute halves along with a 15-minute break for halftime. 

The NCAA experimented with adopting the popular four period structure in the 1951-52 season, but this didn’t last. The NCAA reverted back to the original two 20-minute halves for the 1954-55 season, and this has been the format for NCAA Men’s basketball ever since.

There’s one main benefit to playing halves instead of quarters. Long halves are thought to give the game a steady pace and flow. This means games between teams are closer and more exciting. 

Slam dunk by Syracuse vs Western Michigan
Image credit: Chad Cooper/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Changing the format now would cause some problems. The biggest being it would reduce the number of TV timeouts that occur during a match. 

With the current format, there are four media timeouts per half. The four quarter system only allows three to be taken over two quarters. This would see the NCAA Men’s advertisement revenue decrease. It may even make it harder for the NCAA to strike media deals with television networks. 

How Many Periods In NCAA Women’s Basketball?

NCAA Women’s games are made up of four 10-minute quarters. This has been the case since the 2015-2016 season. Before this time, women’s NCAA games mirrored the men’s by having two 20-minute halves. 

Now, with four 10-minute quarters, the NCAA Women’s game follows the same structure as the WNBA, with halftime also lasting 15 minutes. 

As with the WNBA, these changes were made with the goal of making the games better to watch.

Brad Duckworth, the NCAA Women’s basketball rules committee chairman, explained this to The New York Times: “In all honesty, that was a major piece of our conversation in Indianapolis during rule changes last year: How do we have our game have more flow and be more presentable?”

Candace Wiggins driving to the basket at the 2008 NCAA Women's Division
Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

These changes seem to be working. In 2023, around 10 million people tuned in to watch the NCAA final between LSU and Iowa. That’s nearly 7 million more than the 2013 championship game. 

How Long Are Basketball Games?

NBA shot clock
Image of NBA shot clock: Wikipedia Commons

One of the reasons basketball games in the NBA and NCAA have a different number of periods is because NBA games are longer than NCAA games. 

Since 1954, NBA games have lasted for a total of 48 minutes. On the other hand, NCAA Men’s games only last 40 minutes. WNBA and NCAA Women’s games are also 40 minutes long.


The NBA, WNBA, NCAA Men’s, and NCAA Women’s games all follow the same procedure if the teams are tied at the end of regulation: a five minute overtime period. 

If the scores are tied at the end of the overtime period, another five minute overtime is played. This pattern repeats until there is a winner. 

For more on the NBA, check out our articles on The Average NBA Player Height and The Players With The Most NBA Rings.

Lead image credit: Wikipedia Commons

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