Nets cut, hats crowned, trophy awarded and 30 years of anguish had been lifted off Villanova’s shoulders in the form of a buzzer beater.
An instant classic.
After two straight blowouts in the Final Four, the highly-anticipated National Championship matchup between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Villanova Wildcats lived up to the hype.
“I also want to start by saying that was one of the great college basketball games we’ve ever been a part of,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “We all have great respect for North Carolina. We didn’t just beat a great team, which this team is, but a great program, classy program.”
With only 5:29 left in the game, Phil Booth would knock down a jumper for two of his career-high 20 points to give Nova a 67-57 lead.
After 34 and a half minutes of battling, the Wildcats secured the largest lead of the game.
The supposed David versus Goliath matchup was actually a battle of two basketball giants.
Then, UNC began to hit its stride. The Tar Heels would nail their shots and limit Villanova to only a field goal and five free throw attempts in their closing 17-7 run.
Carolina’s Marcus Paige (21 pts, 5 reb, 6 ast) would go on a rampage, scoring eight points in the final minute and a half of the game- including a double-clutch 3-pointer that tied the game with five seconds left.
“I was dumb enough when we were down 10, I promised ’em, if they do what I said, we’d come back and we’d have a chance to win the game at the end,” North Carolina head coach Roy Willams said. “I said that because I trusted them and believed in them. We let Villanova have the ball last.”
Off the ensuing inbounds pass, Most Outstanding Player of the tournament Ryan Arcidiacono (16 points) took the ball from the opposite end of the court, rushed to the arc and found his trailer, Kris Jenkins, (14 pts) for the three.
“We drew up a play, we knew what play we were going to at the end of the game, because we work on it every single day in practice,” Arcidiacono said. “If I could get a shot, I was going to shoot it, but I heard someone screaming in the back of my head. It was Kris. I just gave it to him and he let it go with confidence.”
Jenkins would break the heart of millions of Tar Heels fans everywhere.
“But when the shot went up, I saw Kris shoot it, his follow-through looked great,” Williams said. “It was helpless. It was not a good feeling.”
Villanova at the buzzer, 77-74.
From the start, the electricity in NRG Stadium gave the 74,000 fans in attendance an early notice that something special was bound to happen.
Both teams traded buckets from the go, and there was a roar after every made basket from each team’s respective part of the building.
In an odd twist of fate, North Carolina struggled to get inside while Villanova found success down low, outscoring them 18 points to 12 in the paint in the first.
The Tar Heels would keep themselves alive by the 3-point line. The same team that didn’t make a three in over 30 minutes against Syracuse outshot the Wildcats 78% to 43% from behind the arc.
Even though no team could get real separation, UNC controlled the majority of the first half by dominating the rebounds and winning the assist battle.
In the closing minutes of the first, UNC looked to have exposed the Wildcats with a 12-3 run and went up 39-32 with 38 seconds left in the half.
After a missed shot by the Wildcats, Carolina’s Justin Jackson went on a fast break to extend their lead to nine before the break.
A chase-down block by Josh Hart followed by a buzzer-beating layup on the other end by Phil Booth showed that Villanova wasn’t going anywhere.
“The first half, we didn’t play Villanova basketball,” Jenkins said. “But for us to make the adjustments that coach told us to make, for us to just go out there and compete, man, we played hard.”
The Wildcats would ride that moment into the second half and look like the team that faced Oklahoma in the Final Four. They shot 58% from the field in the second and were lights-out, 5-7, from the 3-point line.
On the other end, the Tar Heels struggled to score in the second, shooting 34% from the field and knocking down only four 3-pointers.
Despite great games from Joel Berry II (20 pts, 4 ast), Brice Johnson (14 pts, 8 reb) and Marcus Paige, it just wasn’t enough to get them their first championship since 2009.
“As bad as you want anything in your life, you don’t know how much our team wanted this game,” Paige said. “We just came up a little bit short.”
The three decade long drought for Villanova was finally over, and the newly-constructed Big East received its first championship in only three years of existence.
“You know, it is still surreal,” Wright said. “I don’t think I’ve really digested this yet. […] I hope the power five schools can see that we’re really important to college basketball, the league.”