By David F. Cohen
It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years.
April 1, 1985, dawned in Lexington, Ky., as April Fools Day but also as the biggest day in college basketball’s year. And before the night was over perhaps the greatest upset in NCAA history would transfix the nation.
The Villanova Wildcats finished third in Big East, after getting hammered by 23 points in in the regular season finale, their 10th defeat of the season.
But when they played their game, they were the kind of club that opposing coaches feared. That fear grew during the NCAA tournament as the Wildcats knocked off Dayton, Michigan, Maryland and North Carolina to reach the Final Four, where they shocked Memphis State to reach the championship game against defending champion Georgetown.
Georgetown, the team the nation loved to dislike, was an a 9 1/2-point favorite, led by center Patrick Ewing on the nation’s best defense, which had held opponents to just 39 percent shooting.
But this night, this moment, is one for the underdogs
As Villanova’s players huddle in the Rupp Arena locker room before the game, coach Rollie Massimino tells them to think about two things: “One, do not play not to lose. Play to win. Two, you are good enough to win. You can beat anyone in the country. Believe it.”
They do. After all, the Wildcats had played Georgetown twice during the regular season and both were nail biters, ‘Nova losing 52-50 in overtime and then dropping a 57-50 decision. Massimino scribbles “59” on the blackboard. “That’s what I want you to hold them to,” he says, knowing that when ‘Nova scores 60, it usually wins.
The Hoyas are 35-3, riding a 17-game winning streak, and bidding to join an elite group of programs — Kentucky, UCLA, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State and San Francisco — to win back-to-back titles. But ‘Nova is simply impeccable on this night, shooting perfectly, blocking out, diving for loose balls, defending. In the first half, the ‘Cats make 13 of 18 field goals for an astonishing 72 percent shooting. But they go into the locker room at halftime leading by only one point, 29-28, thanks mostly to their own turnovers.
In the locker room, Massimino excitedly tells his players, “See, you’re as good as they are tonight. I told you that you had it in you, that you had to believe it. Now there’s no question about it. You’re as good as they are tonight. Now it’s time to go out and win it.”
Massimino makes a critical adjustment, stationing Ed Pinckney near the back of the right side of the foul lane on offense, then having him flash into the middle after a teammate, usually Harold Pressley, dribbles into the key. That strategy earns Pinckney six points in an 8-2 surge that gives the ‘Cats a 53-48 lead with 6:02 left.
With 4:48 left, Villanova clings to a 53-52 lead. But G’Town’s David Wingate makes a tough jumper off the glass over Pressley to put the Hoyas ahead, 54-53. At the other end, Pinckney battles Ewing under the basket, gets the ball in position to score but loses it out of bounds.
Georgetown coach John Thompson decides to spread the floor, calling for his four-corner stall offense. To his dismay, Georgetown turns the ball over when Bill Martin bounces a pass off teammate Horace Broadnax’s foot. Slowing the tempo to a crawl, Villanova waits nearly a minute to take its next shot. Harold Jensen hits a wide open 15-footer, putting ‘Nova back on top 55-54. Jensen will hit all five of his shots in the championship game.
At the other end, Wingate drives the baseline, but Pinckney steals the ball. He is fouled and makes both free throws, increasing the ‘Cats’ lead to 57-54 with two minutes left.
Wingate misses another jumper on the ensuing possession, Jensen gets the long rebound, and Georgetown immediately fouls. Jensen makes two free throws, completing a 6-0 spurt that puts Villanova up 59-54 with 1:24 to play.
The pattern repeats itself: Georgetown misses, Villanova gets the rebound, Georgetown fouls and Villanova converts the free throw. In the final 1:10, ‘Nova goes to the free-throw line six times and converts 7 of 10 shots.
With 18 seconds left, the Villanova lead is five points, 65-60. But Georgetown’s Michael Jackson scores twice on drives sandwiched around a Villanova free throw, making it a two-point game, 66-64, with just two seconds showing on the clock. Villanova has the lead and possession.
All ‘Nova has to do to complete this unlikeliest of fairy tales is inbounds the ball safely. Jensen inbounds to Dwayne McClain, who runs into Wingate. Both players fall to the floor. But McClain holds onto the ball and covers it up with his body, clutching it like a baby as the buzzer sounds and bedlam erupts.
McClain extends his fist upward in triumph, realizing the impossible has happened. Villanova’s three seniors — Pinckney, McClain and Gary McLain — stand in a circle under the basket, hugging one other, crying, not believing they beat the mighty Hoyas.
“Look at the scoreboard, just look at it!” Pinckney screams, his eyes red and teary. “Everybody said Georgetown would win. Everybody! But it’s us!”