This excerpt from "Long Shots: Jay Wright, Villanova, and College Basketball's Most Unlikely Champion" by Dana O'Neil is published with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/LongShots.
Just as CBS announcer Jim Nantz shouted, "For the championship!" on the national television broadcast, setting up the would-it-or-wouldn't-it-drop drama of the final shot, Mikal Bridges made his first step up from the bench and onto the court.
The freshman decided he didn't need to wait to see if the ball would score or miss; he'd already made up his mind. Bridges boldly moved toward what he anticipated would be a buzzer-beating celebration before the ball even slipped through the net. As his teammate Jalen Brunson spread his arms wide, holding back what could be a premature court storming, Bridges threw his hands in the air and caution to the wind. He hesitated for maybe a half second after taking that first step but then immediately sprinted, the first bench player to reach Jenkins in the celebratory scrum.
"One of our coaches goes, 'That's good! That's good!'" Bridges said. "I looked and I saw it and I thought it looked good, too. I was already running on the court when it went in."
In sports, there is nothing more exciting than the dramatic finish -- the walk-off home run, the Hail Mary pass, the overtime-winning goal, and, of course, the buzzer beater. Joe Montana's touchdown pass to Dwight Clark in the 1982 NFC Championship Game still lives on as "The Catch," just as Bill Mazeroski's Game 7 World Series bottom-of-the-ninth homer continues to resonate more than 50 years since he launched it.
The NCAA Tournament is built for such heroics, its win-or-go-home design injecting anxiety into every game. No surprise, then, that it's nearly cornered the market on last-second drama. From Bryce Drew's dramatic hook-and-ladder winner for Valparaiso, to Christian Laettner's turnaround jumper for Duke, to Mario Chalmers' overtime-forcing three-pointer for Kansas, to Lorenzo Charles' putback for N.C. State's stunning title win, there's a reason it's called March Madness.
The 2016 NCAA Tournament might have been the maddest of them all. Capping a turbulent season in which six different teams held the No. 1 ranking, the tourney was pure mayhem. Michigan State, one of those top-ranked teams, lost in the first round. Yale won its first tournament game in school history. Temple lost to Iowa in overtime on a put-back rebound at the buzzer. Providence rallied from seven points behind to beat USC with 1.5 seconds left. In the span of mere minutes, Northern Iowa hit a half-court, buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat Texas in Oklahoma City, while in Spokane, Cincinnati missed on a would-be tying dunk after officials ruled it came after time expired.
Villanova's theatrical finish, then, was the absolute right end to a chaotic year.
But the tricky thing about fantastic finishes is that sometimes they mask what had been otherwise ordinary games. Exciting finishes don't always equate to well-played games. That Providence-USC game, for example, was fraught with endgame mistakes. Yet the end was so exciting the mistakes were easy to forget -- and forgive.
What separated the 2016 national championship game from the pack is that from the first shot -- a Joel Berry three-pointer for North Carolina -- until the last, it was a taut, tension-filled drama that left fans little time to sit, let alone breathe.
"You know, there are 75 possessions in the game," North Carolina's Marcus Paige said after the loss. "They just happened to get the last one and make the shot."
It was exactly that sort of game, the sort that left people wondering what might have happened if there had been more time on the clock. It is easy, in fact, to imagine the Tar Heels coming up with an answer because, for 40 minutes, that's what the two teams did -- trade tough shot for tough shot, scoring run for scoring run.
North Carolina took its biggest lead of the game -- a seven-point advantage -- with 38 seconds remaining until halftime. Villanova answered in the only way it knows how -- with attitude. Josh Hart chased down Justin Jackson on a would-be fast break, blocking the Tar Heel's player's shot. Ryan Arcidiacono scooped up the ball and whipped a pass to Phil Booth.
"Shoot it!" Arcidiacono yelled at Booth. The sophomore did, just before the buzzer sounded.
Without Hart's block, Villanova could have been down nine. Instead, the Wildcats trailed by just five.
Despite the furious finish to the opening 20 minutes, the Wildcats weren't happy in the locker room. They hadn't played poorly but they also didn't believe they had played as well as they could. Their defense was porous, allowing North Carolina to turn the tables on Villanova and shoot 7-of-9 from the three-point arc. Their own offense was foolish, taking more difficult shots than makeable ones, and they'd turned the ball over six times, giving the Tar Heels, a team that loved the fast break, 10 easy points.
It wasn't what they had come to Houston to do. For everyone else in the traveling party, the trip was a fun weekend, a celebratory finish to a great season. For Villanova, it was a business trip. Wright had all but sequestered his team in its hotel, avoiding as much of the hoopla as he could in and around the city. Other than practice, media obligations, and team dinners, the Wildcats essentially kept to themselves.
It was a far cry from the approach Wright had used seven years earlier, when the Wildcats played in the Final Four in Detroit. Villanova practically hosted a party every day. Patrick Chambers, now the head coach at Penn State, was an assistant on staff then. He remembered pregame meals that seemed more like banquets, with family members, friends, boosters -- really anyone who wanted to come -- joining the players to eat. Some people would even sit in on team meetings; during a film session, Chambers recalled Wright chatting up Vice President Joe Biden on the phone.
"It was a circus," Chambers said. "But we were so happy to be there and that was the problem. It was, 'Wow. We made the Final Four.' We didn't realize that, yeah, we made it, but we weren't done."
Remembering that experience, and even more the resulting 83-69 blowout loss to North Carolina, Chambers texted Wright before the 2016 Final Four, warning him not to make the same mistakes.
He needn't have worried. How dialed in were the Wildcats this time around? When asked after the Oklahoma game about any nerves playing in front of Vice President Biden (whose wife, Jill, received a master's degree from Villanova), Hart smiled.
"I didn't know he was here," Hart said.
Which is why the Wildcats were so frustrated at the half of the title game. They weren't playing with the focus they believed the game merited. In the locker room the coaching staff didn't even speak much; the seniors did most of the talking. Ochefu and Arcidiacono reminded their teammates of how they defined Villanova basketball and more, how they defined themselves, calling on them to meet the standards they had set for the first 39 games of the season.
Message received. As the second half began, the Wildcats got back to their roots. They connected one small act with another, stringing together the little things that collectively lead to great things, slowly chipping away at the Tar Heels' advantage.
With 16:59 to play, Brice Johnson scored on a dunk to put UNC ahead 43-38. Over the next four minutes and 15 seconds, Villanova would outscore the Heels 11-3 to retake the lead. The go-ahead exclamation point came via a Booth three-pointer, but that hero shot wasn't the game breaker. The game changed because of the stuff that doesn't show up in the box score but earns check marks in Attitude Club. North Carolina failed to score on four of its next six possessions, their shooters unable to find breathing room thanks to the Wildcats more closely contesting their shots. Their guards struggled to handle the ramped-up defense, turning the ball over twice in that span.
By the time it was all said and done, Villanova would, piece by piece, put together one of the epic runs it had become known for in this NCAA Tournament, outscoring North Carolina 27-14 to take a 10-point lead with a little more than five minutes to play.
By all rights the game should have been over at that point. North Carolina had been completely thrown off of its game. The same team that shot 53 percent in first half could connect on only 34 percent of its opportunities in the second. But like Villanova, the Tar Heels weren't disappearing without a fight.
"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 coach Roy Williams said. That the Tar Heels believed their coach says a lot about North Carolina. That the Wildcats knew the game was far from over says even more about the quality of the game.
"When we took the 10-point lead, given how the game had gone to that point, we never expected to go up double digits," associate head coach Baker Dunleavy said. "We figured it was going to be one of those games that comes down to the wire. Even up 10, I was thinking, This is going to be a game where we have to execute. I was just hoping we'd be up four or five and just have to execute our press offense, not our last-second, tie-game play."
Over the next four minutes, the Tar Heels essentially did to Villanova what the Wildcats had done to them earlier. With North Carolina extending its defensive pressure, Villanova scored on just two of its next seven possessions, missing layups and jumpers and twice turning the ball over. By the time the Heels were done, they'd made it 70-69, setting up the ferocious final minute.
In most cases -- in almost every case, in fact -- Paige's double-pump three-pointer is the moment of the season, the highlight to be played over and over. Like Ochefu and Arcidiacono, Paige was also a senior who had endured his share of strife during his career. An academic scandal had tainted North Carolina's reputation and cast a huge shadow over the Tar Heels' entire season, the players left to answer questions about misdeeds they were not party to. The investigation pressed on for years, a slow-drip of news without a conclusion that offered little respite for Williams and his players, who were admittedly tired of dealing with it.
Paige was the bright light. A terrific student who stuck around for four years, he began his final year in the conversation for various national honors, and as the leader of a team that was favored early to win the championship. Instead he struggled all year with a shooting slump that eliminated him from award consideration and undermined the impact he could have on his own team. As North Carolina struggled to play as dominantly as people thought its talent dictated, Paige's shooting woes only amplified.
The struggles dogged him in the national championship game, too. For the first 38 minutes and 30 seconds of that game, Paige was just 4-of-12 from the floor, connecting on 2-of-5 three-point attempts. But when his team needed him most, Paige rose to the occasion. He scored eight points in the final 90 seconds, including those final three, on a shot where it appeared as if he hung in the air from a wire.
"I've coached a lot of guys, but I've never coached anybody any tougher than that kid," Williams said of Paige. "I've never coached anybody that tried to will things to happen even when he wasn't playing as well as he could play."
By all rights, then, Paige should have been the star of the show. Instead he is a footnote to history, the would-be hero forgotten and swept up with the detritus of Villanova's celebration.
As Jenkins' shot went in, Paige, along with senior teammate Brice Johnson, were the closest guys to the basket. The ball literally and cruelly fell through the net and bounced between the two of them. Paige immediately threw his palms upward as if to say, "What can you do?" before making his way off the court with his stunned teammates.
"When you're a kid growing up you don't dream of missing the last-second shot or you don't dream of a team beating you at the buzzer," Paige said afterward. "You dream of having that moment, that confetti, seeing your family over there crying tears of joy, hugging the guys you gave blood, sweat, and tears with for four years. That's what you dream of. And we were this close to that dream."