By John Feinstein
Sunday, March 29, 2009
BOSTON In the maelstrom, seconds after Scottie Reynolds had hit the shot that will resonate up and down the Main Line for years to come, the young coach went to find the old coach.
After shaking hands with Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon and the heartbroken Pitt players, Jay Wright ran across the court, jumped over the media table and hugged and kissed Rollie Massimino.
Twenty-four years after Massimino took Villanova to the Final Four, Wright had done the same thing. And the first person he thought about was his 74-year-old mentor.
"I'm the coach I am -- whatever that is -- because of him," Wright said. "Not that he doesn't make me nuts about 95 percent of the time I'm with him."
There are a lot of similarities between this Villanova team and the one that stunned Georgetown with "the perfect game" in 1985. Those Wildcats were led by three seniors who quietly got better with each passing season. They were almost an afterthought during most of the Big East season because Georgetown and St. John's were the league's glamour teams, much like Louisville, Connecticut and Pittsburgh were this season.
The coach then and the coach now could hardly be more different. Massimino's game demeanor was best described by his son, R.C., a walk-on that season: "He starts the game looking good. But once it gets going, he kind of unravels."
Wright never unravels. His Armani suits stay perfectly in place, including his vest and the handkerchief he carefully inserts in his breast pocket before he takes the court. He wears cologne, too.
"Of course I wear cologne," he said a couple of hours before Saturday night's tip. "Doesn't everybody?"
As he sat courtside, swapping stories with a few friends, it was difficult to tell that Wright was about to coach in the most important game of his life.
"Look, I'd like to go to the Final Four, I'd especially like it for these kids because they've been so good to work with," he said. "But if it doesn't happen, I'm okay, I understand how this works. It's hard. We've had a pretty good program for a long time and we haven't gotten there for 24 years."
He smiled. "One good thing if we make it -- I won't have to stay up until 4 o'clock in the morning with [Bill] Raftery. I'll have an excuse to sleep."
It took every last ounce of effort from his players, notably Reynolds and the three senior starters: Dante Cunningham, Dwayne Anderson and Shane Clark, to get past a Pitt team that also had three seniors who desperately wanted to take their school to the Final Four. Pitt hasn't been there since 1941, when no one had heard the term Final Four yet.
Saturday's game had rocked back and forth until Pitt finally tied the score at 76 on two free throws by Levance Fields with 5.5 seconds left. Wright had called timeout after Fields made his first foul shot because he didn't want to give Pitt a chance to set up its defense after the second free throw.
Reggie Redding, who had thrown away the ball on the previous inbounds pass, found Cunningham near midcourt, and he slipped the ball to the speeding Reynolds, who went all the way to the basket and somehow flipped the ball through a throng of Pitt defenders with a half-second left on the clock. Once the officials figured out exactly how much time was left, Fields actually got off an 80-foot heave that hit the backboard before bouncing away.
"When Levance let go of it, I thought, 'It's right on line,' " Reynolds said. "If he'd thrown it up there a little bit softer, we might be in a different place right now."
Wright had his players run the same end-of-the-game inbounds play they practice during those two-minute drills every day. Cunningham had to go high to catch Redding's pass -- "It was a jump ball and he came down with it," Dixon said -- and then he saw Reynolds streaking toward him.
"He's a jet," Cunningham said. "I just put it in his hands and let him go."
Wright returned to Villanova eight years ago after taking Hofstra to back-to-back NCAA bids. He had worked for Massimino for seven years at Villanova and two more at UNLV. He's a Philly kid who grew up 30 minutes north of the city and dreamed of playing for Massimino at Villanova.
"I wasn't good enough," he said earlier this week. "That's why I went to Bucknell."
He took over what had become a divided program. Massimino had never forgiven ex-assistant Steve Lappas for agreeing to succeed him in 1992 and hadn't been back to the school since then. Wright changed that quickly and made sure Massimino was in Philadelphia last week and here this week.
Saturday, as he walked into the team hotel after shoot-around, he saw Massimino.
"Hey Jay," Massimino said. "Get me some paper."
Wright, as always, complied.
"Here's how you have to defend their high screen," Massimino began instructing.
Wright will always be Massimino's assistant. Three years ago, when Massimino took a job coaching at Northwood University, an NAIA school in Florida, Wright was on a recruiting trip when he started being flooded with calls from reporters in Florida.
"We hadn't recruited anyone from Florida, so I had no idea what it could be," he said. "I called back and they were telling me Rollie had taken this job and announced we were opening the season there against his team. I didn't even know he'd taken a job, and I'm being told I'm playing this game."
Of course the Wildcats made the trip.
Saturday, after he had hugged and kissed his old coach, he tried to get him to come down to the court to help cut down the nets.
"No, I'll say here," Massimino said. "You go do it."
Wright smiled a few minutes later thinking about what Massimino had said. "I guess he thought it was my moment," he said.
No doubt he did. Wright had to wear the mandatory NCAA baseball cap during the awards ceremony but even that, he said, was okay.
"They gave me a gray one," he said. "It actually goes with the suit."
He had a huge smile, and his handkerchief remained exactly where he had placed it hours earlier.
"I guess it will go down as one of the great games," Dixon had said a few minutes earlier.
It will. And, as much as people will remember Reynolds's shot for years to come, they will also remember the sight of the young coach in the arms of the old coach. It was a moment they both traveled a long way to get to and to savor and enjoy -- together.