Rollie Massimino sat there on center stage, smoking a $5.50 baseball bat of a cigar.

He positively beamed as he described how he had convinced his basketball team that yes, they really could beat mighty Georgetown for the national championship. The team had its usual pregame routine, including a late afternoon mass. But something was not routine this day. After the short service, Massimino told his players to go to their rooms and think about two things.

"No. 1, I told them to play with the idea not to lose; but instead, to play to win," he said. "No. 2, they had to go upstairs and think they were good enough to win. I told 'em that in a one-shot deal, we could beat anyone in the United States."

And tonight they did. The team that was rated a 9 1/2-point underdog played exactly the sort of perfect game Massimino said they needed to win, hitting an NCAA Tournament record 79 percent of their shots, including nine of 10 from the field in the second half, to stun the Hoyas, 66-64, for the NCAA title.

"It was very difficult to be by yourself thinking because of all the fans around the hotel," said guard Gary McLain, the senior guard and one of many heroes tonight. "The thing that came to mind was that we were capable of playing with Georgetown. The most important thing was you had to believe. I believed in us since we started the tournament. And that had a lot to do with it."

And Massimino clearly played on his team's underdog status throughout the day. "Everyone wrote us off, didn't think we had a chance," he said. Asked if he had any doubts, he said, "sure, every one of you people said we shouldn't play the game."

But there was no bitterness in his voice tonight, not after his players hit so many critical free throws down the stretch, not after they handled the Hoyas' pressure as well as any team possibly could, and not after he had received what by now has become the mandatory call from the White House. "I never heard his voice before," he said. "I didn't know if it was him or not."

Massimino also refused to be drawn into any controversy. Asked about an incident at the end of the first half when Reggie Williams threw a wild forearm at Chuck Everson, the coach politely declined to get into it. At the time, he was not so polite, yelling at game officials to call a foul.

"The official said it was incidental contact," Massimino said. "Maybe it motivated us right before we went out (for the second half), but that's all."

The Wildcats had other motivation tonight. They were saddened earlier in the day to learn that former Coach Alex Severance had died of a heart attack earlier in the day in Lexington. He had been at Villanova 60 years.

"It's just too bad he couldn't be with us," Massimino said. "One of the fathers said hopefully Al would be sitting up somewhere in heaven today swatting the ball away from the basket."

Someone asked Massimino to talk about the impact of the victory on his life, what it meant to him to achieve that he had earlier described as "the greatest victory in Villanova history."

"I'm basically a very small person," he said. "It's not going to change me. I'll still have fun, enjoy my family, and my players. We reached a pinnacle. But if we had lost, would I be different? No. I am just very grateful."