HOUSTON >> Three weeks ago, the gnawing question at Villanova was whether or not the Wildcats could get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Now they’re national champions.
Let that soak in.With Rollie Massimino, the only other NCAA Tournament keyholder in Philadelphia basketball history looking on with an ear-to-ear grin, Villanova completed its undefeated run through the Big Dance with a 77-74 victory over North Carolina at NRG Stadium, to win the second national championship in program history.
It took some steely nerves and a cool reaction to pull it off.
After leading by 10 points in the second half, the Wildcats needed a 3-pointer at the buzzer from Kris Jenkins to make that championship dream become reality.
Jenkins just beat the buzzer to give Villanova its first national championship since 1985 ... then raised his arms in silent triumph.
Sophomore Phil Booth led Villanova (35-5) with 20 points. Senior Ryan Arcidiacono, who made a perfect soft-toss feed to Jenkins for the game-winning assist, added 16 points. Jenkins finished with 14 and Josh Hart had 12.
Marcus Paige led North Carolina (33-7) with 21 points. He hit an amazing, off-balance 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left to tie the game. Joel Berry added 20 points and Brice Johnson had 14.
Jenkins, though, had the last word.
“Legendary,” he said. “What can they say?”
Not much. It will be remembered as one of the greatest championship games in the history of the NCAA Tournament.
It was the first title won at the buzzer since a dunk by Lorenzo Charles gave Jim Valvano and North Carolina State a championship of the ages in 1983. This one only gave Villanova head coach Jay Wright pause.
“Kris Jenkins is unbelievable,” he said.
Jenkins’ buzzer-beater was set up brilliantly by Arcidiacono, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament.
It was a designed play. Jenkins took the in-bounds and got the ball to Arcidiacono, who snaked into position. Jenkins told Arcidiacono he would be open and he was, and without pause he knocked down the shot.
“Ryan Arcidiacono, he’s one of the best players I’ve ever played with,” Jenkins said. “For a senior to get the ball and make the right play and not try to shoot the ball in double coverage just shows a lot about him and what he’s about. He’s just all about winning.”
Still, Jenkins had to make the shot and he did, to the delight of Villanova fans everywhere.
“I told Kris, ‘Come on, give me one,’ and he game me one,” junior Josh Hart said. “He’s a big shot-maker.”
Phil Booth turned out to be a big player in the game, too. The 6-3 sophomore shot 6-for-7 overall, hit both of his 3-point attempts and was 6-for-6 from the free throw line. Booth scored 13 of his points in the second half to help the Wildcats turn a five-point deficit into a 67-67 lead.
“The guys got me the ball and I got into a rhythm,” Booth said. “My shots fell.”
While Booth jump-started the offense, it was the defense that proved to be the difference.
North Carolina shot 7-for-9 from 3-point range to take a 39-34 lead into the locker room at halftime. Berry did much of that damage. He had 15 of his points and was 6-for-7 from the field including 3-for-3 from 3-point range.
The second half, though, was a different story, even though the Tar Heels did finish 11-for-17 from deep in the game. After shooting a blistering 77 percent from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes, North Carolina cooled off to 50 percent.
While the Wildcats defense stiffened, the underclassmen fueled the comeback. Jalen Brunson had four points in the first three minutes. Mikal Bridges had a game-tying dunk before he picked up his fourth personal foul and had to leave the game.
It was Booth, though, who gave the Wildcats their biggest lift. He drilled a jumper to give Villanova its first advantage since they led, 29-27, with 4:08 to go in the first half and then buried a 3-pointer for a 49-46 lead.
And then the older kids took over. Jenkins had a layup and a huge 3-pointer. Arcidiacono hit a pair of baskets. Booth had another big hoop.
Most importantly, the Wildcats clamped down on defense, especially against North Carolina’s 3-point shooters, and that’s what enabled Villanova to erase a five-point halftime deficit. At the same time, the Wildcats kept up the pressure on offense and built a 67-57 lead before the Tar Heels mounted their eventual comeback.
Berry hit a pair of free throws. Johnson threw down a dunk follow and Berry buried a 3-pointer and just like that the Tar Heels were back within 67-64 with 3:44 to play in the game. Booth promptly came to the rescue. With the shot clock winding down, he fought through traffic then buried a fade-away jumper in the lane to push Villanova’s lead back to five.
Carolina continued to push, and press, and tied it on Paige’s 3-pointer. However, the Wildcats had 4.7 seconds left and that was enough.
Jenkins in-bounded the ball to Arcidiacono, who drove to the top of the 3-point circle and turned and found Jenkins right where he was supposed to be on the wing.
The rest is ... and will be ... Villanova history.
“Unbelievable,” Arcidiacono said. “Unbelievable. Simply that. We work on that play every single day and that’s what we did. We worked it, set a screen and Kris hit the shot.”
“Amazing,” center Daniel Ochefu said. “Dreams have come true.”