On the biggest stage in college basketball and in one of the craziest championship finishes you’ll ever see, Villanova had just one more trick up its sleeve than perennial powerhouse North Carolina during the NCAA championship game on Monday night.
It took two weathered Tar Heels storms and one buzzer-beating, heart-breaking triple, but after 40 minutes of hard-fought play, the underdog Wildcats were the ones to hoist up the national title trophy.
The championship-clinching shot came after Tar Heel star senior Marcus Paige connected on a deep three that knotted up the game at 74 with just a few ticks remaining on the clock.
But Villanova wasn’t done yet. Guard Ryan Arcidiacono took the ball up the floor, and dished it to his right, to a waiting Kris Jenkins. Jenkins grabbed the ball, cocked his right arm back, and let it fly – putting up and nailing the biggest shot of his life to the roar of tens of thousands of fans.
"Kris told him he was going to be open, Arch made the perfect pass," Wildcats head coach Jay Wright said. "Kris lives for that moment."
The 77-74 win marks Villanova’s second national title, and its first in the last 30 years.
While North Carolina was the – close – favorite coming into the contest, its advantage in the first half came from what many had considered its Achilles heel. While this squad has the unfortunate honor of being one of the worst three-point shooting teams in program history, veterans Justin Jackson and Joel Berry caught fire in the early going, combining to go 6-of-6 from deep through intermission.
Their accuracy from long-range helped create some much-needed space for the heavily pressured post players, whom the Wildcat defenders were swarming from tipoff.
Largely thanks to the early podium performance from Berry – 6-of-7 from the field, 15 points at the half – North Carolina entered the break with a five-point advantage, 39-34.
But it was a different story when the second half kicked off. Playing with added urgency – and regaining their patented marksmanship from deep – Villanova quickly rode their high-velocity, high-accuracy stroke to a tie-game. Then to a lead. Then to a bigger lead.
It was an unlikely source -- Phil Booth – who revved the run up before standout guard Arcidiacono regained his early touch. The two combined for nearly half -- 36 -- of the team's total points, and at the 5:29 mark, Villanova led 67-57.
But then North Carolina woke up, and began to chip away at that newfound Nova lead. Two free throws, one put-back slam, and an exclamation point of a ring-wing triple from none other than Berry brought the Tar Heels back with three, 67-64, with 3:44 remaining. And after the Wildcats extended their advantage to six once more, a huge Marcus Paige trey from the right corner sliced lead in the half. Three-point game.
And although Paige soon hit another triple -- this time with just six ticks left, from even deeper, with a defender diving toward his feet -- Jenkins' heroics rendered the Tar Heel floor general's late sharpshooting moot.
Both teams shot exceptionally from beyond the arc -- while Villanova drilled threes at a 57.1 percent clip, North Carolina connected on 64.7 percent of its attempted triples. The Tar Heels also ran circles around the Wildcats on the boards, out-rebounding them, 36-23, and racked up 10 more assists to boot.
With much of the box score leaning the Tar Heels' way, it seems that the matchup came down to the intangibles. Hustle, heart, health -- all those things you can't put a number or a finger on, all those aspects of the game that lead to those ever-important extra possessions. Like the one that ended up in Jenkins' hands.
It turns out, the scouting report was right: The Wildcats did their ultimate damage from behind the arc. It was all too fitting that a wild three-pointer was what sealed the deal, sending the streamers down from the rafters and sending the Wildcats players into each other's arms in celebration.
Score the final basket to No. 2. Give that assist to No. 15. And hand the trophy to the umpteen student-athletes donning deep, Villanova blue, who just did what they do best when it mattered more than ever.