HOUSTON -- There were still six minutes to play in the first half, still a galaxy of basketball between this brief, fleeting moment and Monday night's final, shining one. It was still possible to imagine either team on that floor, staring up at the highlights and the song, awash in feelings more complex than gratitude.
For now, though, gratitude would do. Daniel Ochefu had slammed home a tip-dunk. Marcus Paige had buried the third of his three straight 3s. Josh Hart had answered two of them with gorgeous mid-range finishes. Both North Carolina and Villanova were flying around the floor, playing high-level, pinpoint basketball and trading great plays. When the game broke for the first half's under-eight media timeout, 70,000 fans -- UNC fans, Nova fans and neutral fans alike -- stood and applauded.
It didn't sound like excitement. It sounded like appreciation.
It was already clear then -- before North Carolina opened a late second-half lead, before Villanova closed it, before the Wildcats surged in front in the second half and sustained their push with cannily executed offense and advantage-erasing defense, long before Kris Jenkins would etch his name among the college basketball legends and go down in history as Villanova's hero -- that the 2016 national champion, whoever it was, would be crowned at the conclusion of a brilliantly played college basketball classic.
Jenkins' shot, and the furious finish that preceded it, felt inevitable long before it was real.
The two teams combined to shoot 55-of-111. Villanova went 28-of-45 from the field and 8-of-14 from three; the Wildcats committed just 11 turnovers in 65 possessions. North Carolina was nearly as good for nearly as long, flashing the interior depth and perimeter balance that had made it one of the nation's most potent offenses.
The essential quality of both was on display for 40 minutes, in ways both obvious and nuanced. Ryan Arcidiacono made a deep 3 to separate his team from the Tar Heels by six points with 6:19 to play in the second half, one of the biggest non-Jenkins-related shots in a game full of them. Just as impressive, though, was a sequence in the first half, when Arcidiacono was blindsided by a Joel James screen as he clawed around a player twice his size to front the post entry and get inside rebounding position. There was the Villanova offense and the Villanova defense, in one microcosmic showcase.
There was Hart and Ochefu finding interior buckets against UNC's bigger, more athletic frontcourt; there was Jenkins stretching the floor with range; there was Phil Booth, coming off the bench, making every well-timed shot en route to a career-high 18 points, testifying to the Wildcats' interchangeable depth.
On the other end, there was Paige, in the final two minutes of his college basketball career, cutting Villanova's six-point lead to three with a cool corner 3. There was Brice Johnson, the first-team All-American at the heart of Roy Williams' frontcourt, finishing a turnaround hook to make the deficit one. And Paige again, snatching his own miss and sneaking in for a putback.
And then there was Paige again -- somehow -- hanging, floating and hitting the game-tying 3 on UNC's final possession of regulation.
And then Jenkins, less than four seconds later, in transition, finding all net to give Villanova a heart-stopping 77-74 win.
Before that ending could play out, the folks in NRG Stadium already knew.
It was clear before the cannons would burst and the confetti would fall; before Tar Heels fans could stand, shocked, and wave their arms crossways, a last-ditch prayer to unsee what they had just seen. It was clear before they'd give up and file out in a zombie shuffle -- before the Villanova fans they passed would shake their hands, offer them a hug and tell them that their team was great, that they should be proud. Before Carolina fans would nod and say "Thank you."
Long before the complex and bittersweet came flooding out, this consensus had been formed.
This would be one of the great ones. And gratitude would do.