One shining moment for Reynolds

DETROIT -- As the best game of this NCAA tournament tautly ebbed and flowed this past Saturday, two members of the Houston Rockets struggled to concentrate on the task at hand.

The task was demolishing the Los Angeles Clippers -- so, clearly, rigorous concentration wasn't completely necessary. But still, an NBA game is an NBA game, and if you're an assistant coach or a player, you've got to have your head in it.

Which is difficult when your old school, Villanova, is locked in a witheringly tense tussle with Pittsburgh for the right to play in the Final Four.

So Rockets assistant Brett Gunning, formerly of Jay Wright's staff at Villanova, was getting updates during every timeout from the Rockets' equipment manager. Up four … down three …

Gunning was passing those updates along to Rockets guard Kyle Lowry as best he could. Even during dead balls, Lowry would cut a glance to Gunning for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down update.

Finally, when Lowry was out of the game, the report came from the end of the bench: tie game, five seconds to go, Nova ball.

"We laughed," Gunning recalled. "I said, 'You know Scottie [Reynolds is] going to get a layup here.'"

Half a continent away, Reynolds' run made Gunning a prophet and Nova a Final Four team. It was a play so memorable that it's worth looking back one more time before looking forward to the Wildcats' game against North Carolina this Saturday.

Gunning and Lowry knew what was coming because they knew their old coach, Wright. They knew how much he drilled on end-game situations in practice and how he liked to keep them simple -- let the best playmaker do his thing.

"Coach Wright's thing is to put your guys in position at the end of the game to just make plays," Gunning said.

Funny thing is, this Villanova group never could get that buzzer-beating, full-court play to work in practice. These Wildcats kept screwing it up.

Until the entire season hung in the balance.

"It finally worked!" forward Dante Cunningham shouted when it was over.

Back in Houston, Gunning and Lowry wouldn't know until later how close the Wildcats came to throwing away that game.

Up two, inbounds passer Reggie Redding made a near-catastrophic mistake by winding up for a full-court touchdown pass to Cunningham. Redding threw it way too long, and it was all Cunningham could do to get his hands on it and try to save it on the far end. He wound up throwing it back in to Pitt guard Levance Fields, and then guard Corey Fisher compounded the error by jumping in and trying to take a charge from Fields near midcourt.

Fields, as clutch as they come, naturally made both foul shots to tie the game with 5.5 seconds left. In between the two shots, Wright called his final timeout to set up the winning play.

On their way to the bench, a mortified Redding said to Cunningham, "My bad."

Cunningham's response: "I don't know what you're talking about. What happened? Next play."

I didn't know who to trust [when first arriving at Villanova]. I didn't have a trust factor, and it takes a while for me to trust someone. It took a while for me to take pride in Villanova basketball. I was a part of it, but I wasn't into the bigger picture.

-- Scottie Reynolds

That was Cunningham's way of snapping Redding back to the present. He knew Redding needed to be focused on the next inbounds pass, not the last one.

In the huddle, Wright set the play -- getting the ball to Reynolds was the first option. On the court, Pitt took away that option by face-guarding Reynolds with two players and denying him the ball.

As Redding dithered on the baseline, looking for an option, it appeared for an instant that he was turning to his left to the official. To call a timeout. A timeout Nova didn't have.

That would have cemented Redding's place in Villanova infamy. But the junior didn't call time and insisted Thursday that he knew not to.

"It never occurred to me to call timeout," Redding said, then smiled. "I knew I had just made a not-good pass before that, and I didn't want to be the next Chris Webber and call timeout."

So Redding saw Cunningham flash to the free throw line and lobbed the pass to him instead. A high pass. Cunningham extended like Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone, pulling down Joe Montana's spiral.

"Incredible catch," Redding said.

Incredible, too, what Cunningham did with that catch. This has been the senior's breakout season, and his quick dish to Reynolds before coming down with the ball was the breakout move Nova needed to make the play work.

"We just made basketball plays," Cunningham said. "I made the catch and saw Scottie streaking."

Reynolds had left Pitt guards Fields and Jermaine Dixon behind to accept the pass. By the time he put the ball on the floor for the first time, he also was past Pitt forward Sam Young, who had been guarding Cunningham.

With the ball in his hands and open space up the sideline, Reynolds suddenly had the game on his shoulders. A kid who had trouble trusting his coaches and teammates when he first arrived at Villanova was being trusted with their season.

Reynolds was never supposed to wear a Nova uniform. He signed with Oklahoma but opted out after Kelvin Sampson left for Indiana. The Herndon, Va., native wound up in Philly with a coaching staff and teammates he didn't know particularly well.

"I didn't know who to trust," Reynolds said. "I didn't have a trust factor, and it takes a while for me to trust someone. It took a while for me to take pride in Villanova basketball. I was a part of it, but I wasn't into the bigger picture."

Cunningham tried to help by making room in his digs for a third bed and moving Reynolds in with him and his roommate. Former Nova guard Mike Nardi also took Reynolds under his wing and helped indoctrinate him.

The adjustment period didn't take long once the games began. Reynolds was a freshman sensation, averaging 14.8 points per game and dishing out 133 assists. But his sophomore season was stagnant; his scoring average decreased in Big East play, and he had more turnovers than assists in conference games.

This season, Reynolds has played well while surrendering part of the spotlight to Cunningham, who has been Nova's leading scorer and rebounder. But with a Final Four berth up for grabs in those final seconds in Boston, everyone in the Villanova huddle wanted Reynolds to decide it.

"The biggest compliment you can give a player is to put the ball in his hands at the end of the game," Reynolds said.

Ball in his hands, Reynolds was a blur passing midcourt and cutting to the middle of the floor. From the baseline camera angle, you could see him take a quick glance at the clock to calibrate how far he could get before taking the decisive shot.

"Once I got ahead of the two guys guarding me, I knew I had enough time -- not to play around with the ball, but kind of shift to the middle of the floor and let everything fall into place," Reynolds said.

In those end-of-game practice situations, Wright told his players that every dribble, every pass and every pump fake basically took a second off the clock. Reynolds figured he had time for four dribbles.

The first three were with the right hand. The fourth crossed over to his left as he streaked past a reaching DeJuan Blair. Then it was two steps into the lane, and Reynolds withstood a bump from Dixon and went to the rim.

The last line of defense was Fields, who had rotated back and stood with his arms aloft. Reynolds went straight into him.

"I was going to be aggressive," Reynolds said. "If the ref was going to call a charge, so be it."

There was no charge call. If anything, there might have been fouls called on Dixon and Fields, whose arms came down a bit on Reynolds'. But nothing was stopping him from getting the ball into the hoop and cementing his own March moment for as long as anyone cares to remember.

It was a play that dazzled the nation. But on the Houston Rockets' bench, they saw it coming.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.