On the threshold of achieving the impossible, Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino ran out of explanations today. "Maybe," he said, "it's just destiny."
Destiny, intelligence and grit lifted Villanova past Memphis State, 52-45, in Rupp Arena today and put the Wildcats into Monday night's Division I national championship basketball game against Georgetown. Villanova (24-10) shot just 42 percent from the field, was outrebounded, 33-27, and went more than seven minutes without scoring. The Wildcats' best player, Ed Pinckney, was fighting flu and got sick on the court in the final minutes.
But they won.
And, whether Memphis State Coach Dana Kirk wants to admit it or not, in doing so, they wrote another chapter in what has become a true Cinderella story.
"If they're Cinderella, then Cinderella wears boots," Kirk said in a less than gracious moment after his team had finished the season 31-4. Kirk grumbled about the officiating, "How can we outrebound and only shoot nine free throws to their 26?" But if he wanted to point a finger of blame, he might have looked to his all-America forward, Keith Lee.
If ever a great player has had a more ignominious ending to his college career than Lee's today, he does not leap to mind. Lee scored 10 points on three-for-nine shooting from the field. He left the game with 10:21 left after a terribly foolish fifth foul.
With his team trailing, 39-33, Lee caught a pass in the low post and turned to shoot. The ball, untouched, flew out of his hands and Villanova's Dwayne McClain grabbed it. Immediately, Lee committed the classic reach-in foul.
"When you're in the Final Four, you don't think about how many fouls you have, you just go for the ball," Lee said. "When you lose the ball, you have to fight for it, try to fight back and get revenge."
Lee's revenge earned him a seat on the bench. Surprisingly, after McClain made both ends of the one and one to make it 41-33, Villanova almost disappeared. The Tigers scored eight straight points to tie the score.
"I think the kids probably couldn't believe we had that kind of lead in a game this big," Massimino said. "I think we got a little complacent and tentative. In a game like this, it's very easy to get tentative."
But, as it has done throughout the tournament, Villanova survived. And the Wildcats did the same things today they did to get here. They kept the pace slow, they got the Tigers' big men in foul trouble and, in the clutch, they made the big plays.
Most notable among Villanova's heroes was McClain. After the Wildcats had blown a 41-33 lead, McClain took over.
He made a strong move to the middle and was fouled by Baskerville Holmes with 3:04 left in the game. He made both free throws for a 43-41 lead, the first points his team had scored in 7:17. Then, after a miss by Andre Turner, McClain went base line off the spread offense and dunked over Holmes with 2:01 left for a 45-41 lead.
Finally, after a short jumper by William Bedford had cut the lead to 46-45 with 1:15 left, McClain made two more foul shots with 54 seconds left for a 48-45 lead that proved insurmountable.
"We wanted to get in in the middle; that was our plan all day," McClain said. "But they were sagging way in on Eddie and that left me room to maneuver. On the free throws, I just blocked out all the distractions."
McClain's free throws wrapped up a game in which Memphis State had let Villanova play at its pace throughout. The first half ended in a 23-23 tie and, before the second-half tipoff, the quickest moves in the building were made by the Memphis State pompon girls, who had the crowd shrieking with their extraordinary dance routine at halftime.
But, as they had done in their last two games, the Wildcats made the first 10 minutes of the second half theirs. Trailing, 31-28, with 16:43 left after Turner (11 points) had stripped Gary McLain of the ball at halfcourt, Villanova went on a a 9-0 spree to gain control at 37-31 with 12:30 left.
It began with a pretty inside bank shot by McClain, who clearly felt he had to take control with Pinckney (12 points and nine rebounds in 39 minutes) feeling ill. After a miss by William Bedford, Lee got his fourth foul when Pinckney tipped a rebound out of his hands and was fouled going up.
Pinckney made both shots for a 32-31 lead. Then, after a brick by the Tigers' Willie Becton, Pinckney hit a soft base line shot for a 34-31 lead. Bedford was called for traveling and angrily threw the ball into offical John Clougherty's stomach. That earned him a technical foul; McLain made the free throw.
When Harold Jensen made a 15-footer on the same possession, the lead was six. "We got impatient on offense at times in both halves and that helped them build their lead," Kirk said. "But even though I don't want to gripe, I have to say it's awful hard to play when you're in foul trouble."
Kirk could hardly blame the officials for his team's troubles. Memphis State has walked this tightrope for more than a month. Today was the 12th time in 13 games that Lee had gotten at least four fouls.
"We were trying to intimidate them on defense," said Turner, who almost single-handedly brought his team back with his intensity and all-out floor play. "But they played smart most of the time."
The only lapse in the Wildcats' intelligence came after Lee had fouled out and the lead was 41-33. Then, they appeared to celebrate early. During the 7:17 stretch when they lost the lead, Villanova committed four turnovers, including a walk by Jensen with a chance to make the lead 10 points, and missed five shots, a couple of them virtual chippies.
"Losing the lead was upsetting," McLain said. "But the important thing is we didn't lose our poise when we very easily could have."
Massimino added, "The way we were going, we could have fallen apart and lost by six or eight points."
But Villanova has not come this far by losing its poise. After Turner's 18-footer had tied the score at 41 with 3:26 left, the Wildcats seemed to take a deep breath and settle down.
"We just went back to our regular set," Massimino said. "The other stuff hadn't worked."
Out of that set, the ball went to McClain on the left wing. He head-faked to the base line, went to the middle and was hacked by Holmes. His two free throws seem to give Villanova a second wind.
"After we made our run if we had been able to get the lead, it might have been different," Kirk said. "But they're a good team. They've been through this before."
That showed after Bedford's shot had made it 46-45 with 1:15 left. Kirk called time to set up his defense. "We wanted to deny the inbounds pass," he said. "Either steal it or make them lob and get a five second call."
They got neither. Villanova ran a screen for Jensen, who easily caught the inbounds and passed to McLain. He then walked the ball up court with almost no pressure and gave the ball to McClain, who was fouled with 54 seconds left.
After McClain made both free throws, Turner missed again and McLain ran out the string with four free throws of his own in the last 21 seconds. Time ran out on Memphis State and the Wildcats hugged and kissed one another all over again.
"It was just one more time, I guess," Massimino said, lighting yet another victory cigar. "Just one more time."