Charboneau: A shot for the ages redeems NCAA’s drama

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Houston — This was what we were all waiting for.

The excitement. The intensity. The gripping drama of college sports that is so often captured in late March and early April.

What the Final Four games on Saturday failed remarkably to deliver, the national championship game more than made up for on Monday night.

Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer at the buzzer gave Villanova a 77-74 win over North Carolina in a title game that will be hard to match anytime soon.

“That was one of the great college basketball games we’ve ever been a part of,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

And who could argue? Nine lead changes. Haymaker after haymaker. Dagger after dagger.

It was March Madness at its wildest, and as tantalizing as it was for the entire night, it was the final five seconds that sent the building — and college basketball — over the edge.

It started with Villanova leading, 74-71, with just 13.5 seconds to play.

That’s when Marcus Paige, the North Carolina senior who had the Tar Heels on his back in the final minutes, made a 3-pointer that can only be described as ridiculous. Several feet behind the 3-point line, Paige rose up to shoot just as Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono jumped out to contest. Paige adjusted in mid-air, double-clutched and nailed the shot to tie the game with 4.7 seconds to play.

The shot was so hard to fathom that the 74,340 at NRG Stadium were so out-of-their-minds delirious with what they were watching they all started tossing seat cushions through the air in an impromptu moment of joy.

Yes, plenty of North Carolina fans were celebrating, but any fan in the building with the slightest ounce of love for sports was probably firing a few seat cushions to the sky as well — maybe even a Villanova fan.

Just another shot

But that was just the warm-up.

A game that had fans on the edge of their seats from the opening tip was about to reveal itself as a classic. Maybe another five minutes would have been basketball bliss, but how this one ended would trump anything that might have happened in an overtime.

Villanova called timeout after Paige hit his prayer and inbounded the ball to Arcidiacono. He raced up the court with Jenkins trailing the play. Arcidiacono found him in stride from deep on the right wing and the Wildcats junior fired the shot in rhythm with North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks soaring through the air with a hand up.

Jenkins held his pose, crouching down as the ball floated toward the basket. Down it went. Jenkins lifted his arms and his teammates mobbed him.

“I think every shot is going in,” Jenkins said. “So every shot I shot today I thought was going in, so that was no different.”

Yeah, but this one just happened to win the national championship, a second one now for Villanova that goes along with the 1985 team that pulled off the biggest upset in tournament history by beating Georgetown as a No. 8 seed.

Turning the Paige

It was different because it looked like Villanova was starting to put the game away, leading 67-57 with just more than five minutes to play. But North Carolina, the blue blood that was shooting for national championship No. 6, wasn’t about to go away without a fight.

Paige scored eight of North Carolina’s final 10 points, adding another 3-pointer from the corner and a putback off an offensive rebound. But he couldn’t change what was going to happen, saying after the game he had a bad feeling when Jenkins caught the final pass and went up for the last shot.

“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. “I said that because I trusted them and believed in them. We let Villanova have the ball last.”

The Wildcats had it last and Jenkins’ shot set off a celebration as epic as the game. He saw his mom in the stands, jumped over press row and stood just as she leaped into his arms. The other Villanova players followed, hugging, screaming, eyes wide in amazement as confetti fell and fireworks exploded.

“I’m still trying to grasp what happening here,” senior Daniel Ochefu said. “It was like everything was happening in slow motion around me.”

Villanova had it last, and now it owns the title of national champion.

And college basketball has a classic. Maybe this was why Saturday happened. Maybe this was why the Final Four’s first act was such a snoozer. Whatever the reason, it’s a night that will not be soon forgotten.