Forget about Opening Day of the baseball season this week. How about Closing Nights of the college basketball season? If you did not stay up to watch the end of North Carolina-Villanova game for the men’s NCAA Division I Championship Monday night, you missed a gem of a game and a finish that nobody, and I mean nobody, could have imagined.
An instant classic. A game for the ages. The most fantastic finish of any game in any sport. Ever.
That’s what you missed.
And if you didn’t tune in to the women’s championship on Tuesday night between former Big East rivals Connecticut and Syracuse, you missed a record-shattering performance by the Huskies, who won their fourth consecutive national title. Their Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma won his 11th.
Wow, what a couple of nights. Make that WOW! because is doesn’t get much better than what transpired in Houston on Monday and in Indianapolis on Tuesday. Let’s recap.
Carolina, a top seed when March Madness began, was up by five at the half, up by seven in the second half and then down by 10 with 5:29 to play. With 1:52 left, Carolina was down by six. With 14 seconds to go, Carolina was still down, but by only three and with the ball.
What followed were two absolutely spectacular three-point shots on back-to-back plays, the first to tie with 5 seconds left and the second to win at the buzzer. The reaction from 74,340 spectators at NRG Stadium? Think of Hoosies. Remember the Titans. Miracle on Ice. Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. “Havlicek Stole The Ball!” “The Giants Win The Pennant!” Adam Vinatieri Kicks The Super Bowl-Winning Field Goal For The Patriots As Time Expires. Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29. Now, multiply all that drama by, say, a thousand.
Villanova was clinging to a 74-71 lead when the Tar Heels captain Marcus Paige, got the ball from the sophomore guard Joel Berry II way out on the shoulder near the Carolina bench. Paige jumped, hung in the air with his knees bent as the Wildcats captain Ryan Arcidiacono ran directly at him, double-pumped and then launched a ridiculous off-balance left-handed prayer of a push that swished with 5 seconds on the clock.
Tie game! Bedlam in the house!
Villanova coach Jay Wright called for a timeout with 4.7 ticks left! Watching on TBS.com, I shook my head. Overtime for sure, and it’s already past my bedtime.
Then Kris Jenkins put the ball in play to Arcidiacono, who speed dribbled up the left wing as Jenkins ran straight up the middle. Arcidiacono cut right toward the top of the arc. He had the green light to attempt the game winner, but as he approached the three-point line he underhanded the ball to Jenkins, who was standing a couple of steps behind the arc and to the right of center. He caught it and without hesitation launched the shot heard ‘round the hoop world. Time expired as the ball descended, and it was zeroes across the board when the ball went through the hoop and kissed the strings.
Villanova 77, North Carolina 74.
Celebrating had hardly begun when commentators, pundits, fans and sports historians began discussing where to rank it among the great finishes of the NCAA tournament and even among all sports. Jenkins’ shot is No. 1, and it’s not even close. Think about it. Championship game. Score tied. He’s about 25 feet from the basket. Time…is…running…out! And he makes it!
Many fans still put Lorenzo Charles’ buzzer-beating dunk that gave Jim Valvano’s 1983 North Carolina State team the upset over heavily favored Houston for the championship. Are you kidding? Charles made a clutch shot, but he was standing beneath the basket when he grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back. And 1 second showed on the clock after he scored. It ticked away before Georgetown could call time out, but it was still 1 second on the clock. Time expired between Jenkins’s release and the swish.
Remember Keith Smart of Indiana nailing a jumper from the corner that beat Syracuse in the 1987 final? Three seconds left, enough for the Orange to call time out and then put up the final shot, which was short.
No, it will be a long time before anyone matches Kris Jenkins’s shot and an even longer time before anyone outdoes Marcus Paige’s miraculous heave that tied the score and Jenkins’s game winner.
As for the UConn women, what’s left to say about the Auriemma Dynasty? Thirty years of success. One losing season, his first. Eleven finals and 11 national championships. Four consecutive titles, an unprecedented accomplishment in women’s collegiate basketball. Six undefeated seasons.
What more can we say about this team? Perhaps that it might be the best ever. Undefeated UConn routed every opponent from start to finish. The championship game was over after the first quarter. Final score, 82-51.
And what about Breanna Stewart? Four years. Four national championships. Four Final Four Most Outstanding Player Awards. You could make a case that she is the best player in women’s basketball history, but let’s not forget the stunning array of talent that complemented her skill set. Stewart’s Huskies posted a four-year record of 151-5. They were 38-0 this season, 40-0 when she was a sophomore.
Finally, 11 cheers for Auriemma, who passed John Wooden as the coach with the most national titles in the college game. The Wizard of Westwood won 10 at UCLA.