Villanova returns as heroes to a city starved for winners

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- The police have been escorting the Villanova Wildcats around for weeks now, turning on the flashing lights so the team’s buses can travel unimpeded to practice and game sites in New York, Louisville and Houston.

But it wasn’t until the Wildcats, fresh off their epic national championship win over the North Carolina Tar Heels, pulled out of the airport and onto Interstate 95 South, bound for a welcome-back rally on campus, that the reality of what his team had just accomplished finally hit coach Jay Wright.

It was a little before 6 p.m. when the convoy of three buses took to the highway, the peak of evening rush hour in the clogged city of Philadelphia. Only no one else was on the road -- not on I-95 or I-476, commonly called the Blue Route by locals. No one was anywhere nearby, save the trio of news helicopters that hovered above, tracking the buses back home.

Police had closed the roads temporarily, assuring the Wildcats a speedy return to the campus celebration.

“You know, obviously we had the police escort in Houston and other places, but you don’t really know what it’s like in those places," Wright said. “In Philly, you know what 95 is like at that time. It’s bedlam. That made me stop. We won a national championship."

Wright was not alone in his daze and wonder. Less than 24 hours after Kris Jenkins' buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave Villanova a national title for the ages, the players were still trying to comprehend it all. They had watched the replay of the shot -- or, in Daniel Ochefu's case, the entire game -- on a constant loop, calling it up on their phones, via social media, in their hotel rooms and on the chartered plane. They still couldn’t believe it.

They weren't doubting the final shot. Jenkins is arguably the best pure shooter on the team, and the play is one the Wildcats practice every day. No, they couldn't believe that the whole thing had happened at all.

“I’m at a loss for words," Jenkins said. “I don’t know what to say. I’m still in shock."

The whole city is, really.

For the 1,500 fans who came to greet the Wildcats, some standing as long as two hours in the frigid temps after the Cats’ arrival time was delayed and the others who lined the streets on the buses route to flash a "V" sign, Villanova’s victory is as much cathartic as it is celebratory.

Winning and Philadelphia don’t exactly go hand-in-hand. When the Wildcats take to the Center City streets for a Friday afternoon parade, they will be the first to march through in celebration since the Philadelphia Soul in 2009. And the Soul’s Arena Football League title celebration was basically a handful of block strollers than a full-on parade.

Before the Soul, it was the 2008 World Series champion Phillies. Before that, it was an eternity.

Since that Phillies' title, the city is not just trending away from sports success; it’s sprinting. The Eagles recently fired alleged offensive wunderkind Chip Kelly. The Phillies have played just one game and most folks have already written off the young roster. And do we really need to talk about the Sixers?

The Flyers are the lone hope, but even they are fighting to make the playoffs.

“Terrible," said Wildcats guard Josh Hart of the Philly sports woes. “Just terrible."

Into the abyss walks Villanova.

That Villanova is restoring the glory is something of an interesting twist, though. Housed on the exclusive Main Line in suburban Philadelphia, the school long has been viewed as the city’s distant rich uncle. It is a part of the Big 5, also known as the City Series, but not a native of the city, an important distinction that La Salle, Temple, Penn and Saint Joseph’s fans like to make.

These Wildcats have defied that well-to-do stereotype. They are everything that Philadelphia embraces -- a blue collar, schoolyard-tough, defiant bunch that wins because of its attitude and work as much as its skill and talent. Wright might be pretty, but neither he nor his team play like pretty boys.

The city can live with that, even if it can do without Villanova's high-end zip code, so when the Wildcats finally arrived, walking up a red-velvet-roped aisle and onto a stage set up on the school’s football field, they were greeted like rock stars.

Wright greeted the fans first before calling on Hart, Jenkins, Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono to say a few words, every one sounding the same refrain of how grateful they were for all of the support.

“Nova Nation, we love you, and you guys are the 2016 national champions," Wright shouted to the crowd.

He even sounded like he was starting to believe it.