By Mary Cunningham
Villanova Coach Jay Wright didn’t even draw the play up in the huddle:
It is the Wildcats’ go-to set with less than five seconds remaining, and there they were, all tied with North Carolina in last night’s national title game, with 4.7 seconds left.
The Tar Heels had just stormed back from 10 points down in five frantic minutes, tying the game on a circus 3-pointer by the iron-willed Marcus Paige, and breathing new life into a game that seemed to have long since slipped away from them.
But after Wright called the play, the ball went into the hands of the Wildcats senior Ryan Arcidiacono, who raced upcourt, turned and flipped the ball backward to Kris Jenkins, trailing the play. His shot rattled through the rim as time expired.
Cameras caught Wright saying one word: “Bang.”
“It is still surreal,” Wright said later.
It had been 31 years since Villanova’s last national title, in 1985, but the Wildcats had delivered again, 77-74, over the Tar Heels, a No. 1 seed, at NRG Stadium in front of an announced 74,340 fans who exited in delirium or disbelief.
It was the first buzzer-beating shot to win an N.C.A.A. men’s national title since Lorenzo Charles’s dunk for North Carolina State in 1983, and the first title game to end on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
Jenkins, a 6-6-inch junior forward, had been 280 pounds when he arrived at Villanova, a recruitment that materialized thanks to his adoptive brother, North Carolina’s Nate Britt. The Britts adopted Jenkins in 2007, and Nate was Villanova’s original target as a prospect. But Villanova fell in love with Jenkins’s soft touch.
He was the inbound passer as “Nova” took shape. It is designed for Arcidiacono to have the license to make three decisions: drive to the hoop, feed to the wing (where a screen was being set) or look for Jenkins trailing behind.
“We knew what play we were going to,” Arcidiacono said. “We work on it every single day.”
Jenkins said, “For him to be so unselfish and give up the ball, it just shows what type of teammate he is.”
Carolina was vying for its sixth national title, and Coach Roy Williams his third, to move him into a tie for fourth on the career list with Jim Calhoun and Bob Knight. He would have surpassed his mentor, the legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith.
“I promised them, if they do what I said, we’d come back and we’d have a chance to win the game,” Williams said. “We let Villanova have the ball last.”
Arcidiacono, who was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four, scored 16 points. Phil Booth added a team-high 20 for Villanova. Paige scored a game-high 21 points.
When Arcidiacono arrived four years ago, out of shape, mending a back injury, he knew he had a challenge on his hands. Villanova had been 13-19 the previous season, finishing 14th in the Big East. He started calling his freshman teammates “the redemption class.”
“We wanted to get it back to what the standards of Villanova basketball should be,” he said Sunday.
Both teams were experienced, led by senior guards (Paige and Arcidiacono) on a mission. There were no freshman prodigies expected to dazzle and then ditch college for the NBA This was a throwback game.
It had been a fitful regular season, with no dominating teams and with a crowd of contenders leapfrogging one another at the top of the rankings. That uncertainty produced one of the wildest opening weekends in NCAA tournament history, with 13 first-round upsets and 10 wins by teams with double-digit seeds.
All the while, Villanova and North Carolina quietly established themselves as a cut above. The Tar Heels, the No. 1 seed in the East Region, had yet to win a tournament game by fewer than 14 points. The Wildcats, a No. 2 seed from the South Region, had to upset the top seed, Kansas, to reach the Final Four. But on Saturday, they delivered a performance for the ages, setting records for margin of victory (44 points) and highest field-goal percentage (71.4 percent).
That magic had worn off, slightly, by Monday, though Villanova still shot 58.3 percent from the field and 8 of 14 from 3-point range.
It was a sloppy start to the game, with the teams combining for four turnovers and only five field goals in the first five minutes. But Carolina, which had missed its first 12 3-point attempts in Saturday’s win over Syracuse, delivered on five of its first seven, including three in a row from the same corner.
Carolina was leading, 32-30, with two minutes remaining in the half when Joel Berry II knifed through Villanova’s defense for an uncontested layup, prompting Wright to call timeout. The Wildcats went into the locker room at intermission trailing, 39-34, despite shooting 58 percent from the field.
Villanova even outscored Carolina in the paint, 18-12, in the first half, a rarity against the Tar Heels’ interior size. A dry spell for the Tar Heels early in the second half allowed the Wildcats to retake a 49-46 lead with 12 minutes 45 seconds remaining. It would grow to double digit thanks to 3s by Jenkins and Arcidiacono with 5:29 left.
Williams said he tried everything in the huddle to motivate his group. He was making his fifth appearance in the national title game. He was hobbling on along the sideline on bad knees. He had been irritable with reporters in recent days, sensitive to inquiries about retirement or the continuing NCAA investigation into Carolina’s long-running academic fraud.
But he had brought UNC to its first Final Four since 2009, its last title, and few expected the Tar Heels to leave quietly.
Brice Johnson slammed a putback and Berry hit a 3. Paige missed a layup, fought for the rebound, and burst back up for the layup to cut Villanova’s lead to 1 with 22 seconds remaining.
“I’ve coached a lot of guys, but I’ve never coached anybody tougher than that kid,” Williams said of Paige.
But after Paige’s final heroic shot — a double-clutch 3-pointer he needed to adjust in midair — there was just enough time for one more play.
“One step, two step, shoot ‘em up, sleep in the streets,” Jenkins said, echoing a phrase his coach has used all season.