Villanova again! The greatest NCAA title game ending ever

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Houston – Mike Lopresti, formerly of Gannett and USA Today and now of, and I took Uber to Hobby early this morning. Between us, we'd had 2 ½ hours of sleep. (All mine, I confess.) We were rehashing … well, guess.

(Here's what I wrote a few hours ago, in case you missed it.)

Somewhere in the conversation, I used the phrase, “The first Villanova game" as a reference point -- because there’s now a second. On April Fools Day 1985, Villanova made 78.6 percent of its shots to fell Georgetown in the NCAA championship game. That was a bigger upset and a better performance. (On Monday night, Nova made a mere 58.3 percent of its shots.) But it had nothing like this ending. No NCAA final has had an ending like this.

Michael Jordan’s shot against Georgetown was not at the buzzer. Keith Smart’s shot against Syracuse was not at the buzzer. Scotty Thurman’s trey over Duke's Antonio Lang was not at the buzzer. Mario Chalmers' 3 against Memphis was not at the buzzer and only tied the game. Gordon Hayward’s shot from midcourt, also against Duke, didn’t bank home. Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer at 0:00 Monday was only the third game-winning buzzer basket in championship annals, and it was the first title-winning jumper at 0:00.

Credit: Mark Bradley

Credit: Mark Bradley

Vic Rouse’s follow of Les Hunter’s miss – Loyola over Cincinnati, 1963 – was a layup. Lorenzo Charles’ dunk to beat Houston in 1983 was, duh, a dunk of Dereck Whittenburg’s air ball. This was a perfect jump shot off a perfect play. This was precision at the most frantic moment of any of these players’ young lives.

The Wildcats said afterward that they run that play – Jenkins inbounding to Ryan Arcidiacono, who gets a midcourt screen from Daniel Ochefu and then drives and either shoots or passes to Josh Hart or Phil Booth or, in Option 4, flips the ball back to the trailing Jenkins – every day in practice. But every coach will tell you that there’s a difference between running a play against walk-ons and doing it against North Carolina with a title in the balance.

What made this ending doubly stunning was that Carolina had just tied the game on the most outrageous shot of any championship game – Marcus Paige’s double-clutching, leg-splaying, sling-it-from-the-hip 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds remaining. In the huddle, Paige told his teammates that they were 4.7 seconds from a championship because there was no way they’d lose in overtime, and surely they wouldn’t have. But it never got to overtime.

I can recall only one NCAA tournament game having two such shots in the final five seconds, and that’s the game often described as the greatest ever – Duke over Kentucky in 1992. Sean Woods’ banker from the lane put the Wildcats ahead with 2.1 seconds remaining. Grant Hill threw long to Christian Laettner, who … well, you know what he did. But that, I should note, was the East Regional final; it wasn’t in a Final Four, let alone a championship game. As far as title games go, this ending was unprecedented.

Earlier in the day, the former Notre Dame publicist Roger Valdiserri had been inducted to the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s Hall of Fame. Valdiserri told a little joke involving the linguist Noah Webster. The punchline was, “No, I am surprised – YOU are astonished.”

Those were the only two reactions to this finish. At Paige’s shot, we were surprised. At Jenkins’ winner, we were astonished. The First Villanova Game has a companion – the Second Villanova Game, which gave us the greatest Final Four ending ever.