HOUSTON – Eight seconds. That’s what it took to make this the greatest championship game ever played, or at least put it on the short list.
Eight seconds to have the new Big East come of age. Eight seconds to remind us why March (and April) are so special. Eight seconds to display the possibilities of college basketball.
How can Monday night’s finish not have been one of the finest ever, all things considered? How could it have been any more compelling, more dramatic, more drop-your-jaw shocking, those eight seconds?
In the end, the ball seemed to almost stop in the air, the last shot in the last tick of a season that had never seemed to run out of magic.
“It was like it was in slow motion,” Villanova’s Daniel Ochefu would later say.
Kris Jenkins’ 22-foot dagger was still floating up there as the lights lit on the backboard, signaling time had run out, and the moment of truth had arrived. Overtime, or shot for the ages?Now we know. Now we know the Villanova Wildcats are national champions, with a 77-74 last chapter that was half-fairy tale, half-Hollywood. Now we know the North Carolina Tar Heels must endure a pain that will take a long time to heal, if ever.
Now we know the NCAA Tournament ended with a moment that will be replayed and relived forever, and ever, and ever. We know it. Rare that you can say that about a play, and be so absolutely sure.
What does it feel like to have been on the right side of such a thing? “We’re immortal now,’’ Darryl Reynolds from the Villanova locker room. “As much as this earth can give you, we’re immortal now. This moment will be cemented in history forever.”
What does it feel like to have been the coach on the wrong side? “The difference between winning and losing in college basketball is so small. The difference in your feelings is so large,” Roy Williams said. “But that's the NCAA Tournament.”
What does it feel like to have been an opposing player, watching that shot swish, so softly, so mercilessly?
“The fireworks go off,” Marcus Paige said. “You want that to be your moment, as bad as you want anything in your life.”
What does it feel like to have been a teammate, seeing a championship come like that?
“I’m still trying to grasp what is happening here,” Ochefu said. “I was lost. I walked around in a circle for about five minutes.”
What does it feel like to have been the guy that actually took the shot and won the championship, and delivered the dream?
“I think every shot is going in,” Jenkins said. “And this one was no different.”
Or as Reynolds said, “He is legend now.”The last national championship to be won at the buzzer was North Carolina State over Houston in 1983, on Lorenzo Charles’ rebound of an airball, and dunk. Before that, 1963, when Loyola of Chicago upset Cincinnati on a putback.
But this was different. This was buzzer-beating missile from the 3-point line, and the last turn of fate in a frantic finish. All that had come before – the wild regular season, the upset-laden first rounds, the past Saturday’s blowouts, the nine lead changes and nine ties Monday night – were but a preamble to those eight seconds.
Countdown to a classic:
At eight seconds, North Carolina’s Paige had the ball nearly stolen, righted himself, then double-clutched a 3-pointer to tie. Had things turned out better for the Tar Heels, it would been his shot that lived forever.
Reynolds: “I was like, no way in the world he’s going to have the presence of mind to pick this up and get it off. That was crazy.”
Paige: “I just wanted the ball in my hands in that situation.”
At 4.7 seconds, the score now inexplicably 74-74, Villanova called a timeout.
In the North Carolina huddle, they talked of one more stop.
Paige: “I told my team when I made the shot, we go to overtime, and this game is ours . . . We just needed 4.7 seconds of defense.”
In the Villanova huddle, coach Jay Wright called for the play the Wildcats had often practiced, with Ryan Arcidiacono getting the ball, speeding up the court, making a move, and either taking the shot or finding a teammate. The decision would be in the hands of the senior who has loved Villanova basketball his whole life.
Josh Hart: “Marcus hit a crazy shot. We looked at each other and said `Attitude.’ We knew we had 4.7 seconds left.”
Reynolds: “We thought, whatever it takes. If it takes 40 minutes or 45 or 50 or 55, however long it was going to go on, we were down for whatever.”
Ochefu: “I remember in the huddle, I looked to Arch and I just mouthed, `Shoot it.’’’
Mikal Bridges: “Coach Ash (Ashley Howard) was sitting next to me. He saw that I was nervous and how nervous everybody else was. He said `Why are you guys so nervous? We practice this every day.”’
At two seconds, Arcidiacono had pushed across the 10-second line and was starting to make a move. Coming up behind was Jenkins, and Arcidiacono shoveled him the ball, and opportunity to be the hero.
Wright: “Ryan knows the play is to put people in positions where the man with the ball knows exactly where everybody's going to be, and then you trust. You have to have a guy that you trust to make the right decision, not be selfish, want to be the star himself. And that's Ryan.”
Arcidiacono: “I was going to shoot it, but I heard someone screaming in the back of my head. It was Kris. All I heard was, `Arch, Arch, Arch.’’
Jenkins: “I was able to get in his vision. I was open, so I was screaming at him. For him to be so unselfish and give up the ball, you know, it just shows what type of teammate he is, what type of person he is.
“This team, everybody has the confidence to catch and shoot. So when Arch threw me the ball, one, two step, shoot 'em up, sleep in the streets (Wright’s motto for fearless shooting).”
Ochefu: “Arch could’ve easily taken the shot and anyone in the whole gym would have been happy with it. Anyone in our program would have been happy with it.
He could say, `I want the biggest shot of my life and I can take it.’ But he gave it up to his teammate.”
With less than one second left, Jenkins let it fly. Wright: “Kris Jenkins lives for that moment.”
Hart: “I’m giving him that shot 10 times out of 10.”
Williams: “It was helpless. It was not a good feeling.”
North Carolina’s Nate Britt: “He basically walked right into the shot. That’s like a layup for him.”
Tar Heel Justin Jackson: “I went to the basket and it went in, and then confetti came down. It hurt.”
The night was over, hit by lightning. Over. An absolute epic eight seconds. The Villanova team that had blown through five NCAA Tournament opponents by 24 points a game, had won in the closest way possible. The Wildcats had Michael Jordaned Michael Jordan’s alma mater.
Phil Booth: “You couldn’t ask for a better way to go out. That’s better than a blowout any day for me.”
Reynolds: “To me this is better than Christian Laettner. This is the greatest shot in NCAA history.”It was a grand moment that came with so many plots, as timeless drama must. Arcidiacono’s unselfishness, playing his last game for his parents’ school that has been close to his heart since childhood. Paige’s anguish, after he had seemed to save his last day as a Tar Heel. Jenkins, the once-chubby freshman who has dropped dozens of pounds at Villanova.
There was the family affair. Britt’s parents are Jenkins’ legal guardians, so that was his brother who gunned down his and the Tar Heels’ dreams.
Britt: “I’ll be happy for him for that. At the same time this hurts. It makes it worse (that it was his brother). It’s bragging rights probably for the rest of our life.”
There was the new Big East’s true arrival, in its third year, trying to earn its niche in a football world.
Wright: “I hope the Power Five schools can see that we're really important to college basketball.”
Commissioner Val Ackerman: “For the conference, it’s a shining moment. This is kind of what everybody hoped for.
“All these things were set in motion with this end in mind, and now it’s here. I don’t think probably any of us can put into words what this means.”
How did the normally stoic commissioner react when Jenkins’ shot went in?
“I did the 3-point gesture. I was a ref.”
There was the pain of Roy Williams, so close to his third championship at the age of 65, and a title that would have meant so much after two years of personal trial.
What went wrong?
Williams: “We let Villanova have the ball last.” That, and nobody guarded Jenkins, possibly the most dangerous outside shooter on the floor.
There was the Wildcats’ recent shaky springs. They once carried the label of underachievers, and March flameouts. They knew what disappointment felt like, and bad-news scoreboards looked like, and ridicule sounded like.
But not anymore.
They have no more questions, except maybe this one:
Can you move over a little, 1985 Villanova? Those Wildcats are famous for not missing hardly any shots on championship night. These Wildcats, winning with 1985 coach Rollie Massimino in the house, will be famous for making one.
Reynolds: “We can’t replace them, but we’re up there with them now.”
But most of all, Monday is about a memory. Eight seconds. And in the end, one play.
There was someone in NRG Stadium Monday night who understands what that means. The Laettner basket for Duke against Kentucky that lives on in highlight history was set up by a pass from Grant Hill, who was helping call Monday’s game.
“I was involved in a play that was similar but different; It wasn’t for a championship,” Hill said. “It’s something that’s remembered. Twenty-plus years later, they still talk about it. So 20, 30, 50 years later, they’ll still talk about this play, and that shot by Jenkins. These guys – Arcidiacono and Jenkins -- will be linked together for the rest of their lives."
Only a great game can do that. Or at least eight great seconds.
What a season.
What a last act.