HOUSTON — As a roaring basketball game in a roaring football stadium distilled to one final, soaring shot making its descent, 74,340 seemed almost to hush. The hush would not last. Kris Jenkins’s cocksure three-pointer from the right of the top of the key swished down through the net and into deathless fame, and all manner of noise broke out and threatened to stream through the years.
Villanova’s players surged into a pile. Villanova’s coaches hugged and hopped. Jaws dropped. Fans boomed. Streamers fell. North Carolina’s players walked off toward hard comprehension. The scoreboard suddenly read 77-74, and Villanova, a sturdy men’s basketball program with an eternal Monday night glittering from its distant past, had found another Monday night all witnesses will find impossible to forget.
It had claimed its second national championship 31 Aprils after its first. It had added another pinnacle to the storied occasion of 1985 in Lexington, Ky., when a No. 8-seeded Villanova faced a towering Georgetown and rode near-perfection to the kind of 66-64 upset that lives on in memory banks and highlight reels. On this freshest Monday night, a No. 2-seeded Villanova reached a 35-5 peak in Coach Jay Wright’s 15th season and looked very much like it had become, by the end — especially the very end — the nation’s hardiest, most united, most resourceful team.
Mostly, though, it had become a team and a fan base that would gab forever about Jenkins-to-Arcidiacono-to-Jenkins, the final play of a 2016 national championship game set to line up among college basketball’s manic jewels. Beginning with 4.7 seconds left after an almost equally dramatic, hanging, three-point shot from North Carolina senior Marcus Paige had tied the game shockingly at 74-74, it had Jenkins throwing in the ball.
It had Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova’s senior leader with the daunting touch, receiving that ball and hurrying forward.
Then it had Arcidiacono crossing midcourt, Jenkins sprinting into the play and screaming to Arcidiacono — “Arch! Arch! Arch!” — and Arcidiacono passing to Jenkins.
Then it had bedlam.
“Kris Jenkins lives for that moment,” Wright said.
“I think every shot’s going in, so that one was no different,” said Jenkins, who was an All-Met at Gonzaga College High.
“We work on it every single day in practice,” Arcidiacono said.
“One, two, step, shoot ’em up,” Jenkins said.
All told, the Wildcats had played precisely as would a team that brought four players with 109 or more college games lining their long CVs. They cared not about a seven-point deficit early in the second half against a top-seeded power that had won five NCAA tournament games with negligible stress. They made a 23-9 run to a 57-50 lead teemed with high-brow mastery. They made polished, difficult offensive plays. They shot 14 for 24 in the first half, 14 for 24 again in the second half. Their highly communicative defense flustered North Carolina through the second half, playing a leading role in the Tar Heels’ 12-for-35 shooting after halftime.
When North Carolina made one late, last push, from a 67-57 deficit with five minutes left to within 70-69 with one minute left, and then that jolting tie with 4.7 seconds left, Villanova kept its stomach just enough to win a game full of winners. It had gotten a strong boost from a backup, Phil Booth, who scored 20 points. It had won out with its usual committee of contributors, from the poised work of Arcidiacono (16 points), Jenkins (14 points) and Josh Hart (12 points). It won even though North Carolina had the indomitable poise of Paige (21 points) and a flurry from Joel Berry II (20 points).
Then it won even after a frightening jolt, when North Carolina started up the court after Hart’s free throws with 13 seconds left, down 74-71, and Daniel Ochefu lunged at Paige, and Ochefu flew away, and Paige launched his shot.
“The shot that Marcus made was just an unbelievable shot,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said amid his effusions of pride in his team.
Villanova called a timeout. A rout-prone Final Four had evolved into a stirring Monday night. After semifinals on Saturday with final margins of 44 points (Villanova over Oklahoma) and 17 points (North Carolina over Syracuse), the two dominant teams went at each other without a loser in sight.
Villanova, its starters averaging 107 games of college experience, guarded North Carolina’s size with impressive effect. North Carolina, its starters averaging 106.2 games of college experience, did something it hadn’t done usually: It swished three-pointers, 7 of 9 before halftime, before tapering off.
The Wildcats, however, stood well through all storms, even the last, which might have haunted many for good.
“I don’t think this has hit me yet,” Wright said one hour afterward. His team had grabbed its lead, lost its lead and then had run Jenkins-to-Arcidiacono-to-Jenkins, with Jenkins trailing, waiting, shouting and knowing, a basketball soon to go up, then descend.