Every NCAA tournament comes down to tears

The nice lady was a talker. In the 15 minutes before Easter Mass began, she’d discussed her carrot cake, her husband’s health and her trip to Florida. Then she got around to Villanova.

“I’m not even a fan,” she said, “but I was watching that boy shoot those free throws and I started crying.”

The “boy” was Ryan Arcidiacono, whose dad played football at Villanova; whose parents met at Villanova; who grew up in suburban Langhorne and who was, as a seventh-grader, told by Villanova coach Jay Wright he’d someday play for the Wildcats. On Saturday, his 22nd birthday, Arcidiacono sealed Villanova’s biggest win since April Fools’ Day 1985 with four free throws and a steal.

This is stuff you could imagine only if you’re Ryan Arcidiacono shooting hoops in the driveway, but here it was, big and real as life itself. The kid who grew up wanting to play for Villanova sent Villanova to the Final Four. The kid who grew into a Wildcat induced a nice Catholic lady in another Philly suburb to shed tears on the Saturday of Holy Week.

Said Arcidiacono, speaking afterward: “It was everything that I dreamed of.”

Why do we follow the NCAA tournament? Because of stuff like that. Because upsetters and upsettees alike cry in March. We saw massive Oregon players weeping near the end of Saturday’s early game. Two nights earlier, Oregon’s best player had been scolded by the game’s most famous coach for celebrating overmuch. That’s how quickly fortunes can change in this event, never more quickly than in this installment.

In Round 1, Northern Iowa’s Paul Jesperson banked home a halfcourt shot to beat Texas. In Round 2, Jesperson was one of the NIU players who contrived to throw away a 12-point lead with 35 seconds left. In Round 2, Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig hit the tying and winning 3-pointers to fell Xavier. In Round 3 here Friday, Koenig missed a layup and had the ball stolen in the final 10 seconds against Notre Dame.

A year ago, Georgia State’s Ron Hunter fell off his rolling chair when his son R.J. hit the 3-pointer that capped a 12-point surge to stun Baylor. This year, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey pulled a calf muscle early in the second half against Wisconsin and limped through the extreme final moments of his team’s comeback. (“Thank God it wasn’t an Achilles,” Brey said, nodding to Hunter’s famous injury.)

Even if the college basketball regular season has been marginalized, even as the annual exodus of one-and-dones have left us not being able to name five returning collegians, the NCAA tournament never disappoints. It cannot be programmed. (Kansas and Michigan State will not meet for this national championship.) It exposes us to people we never knew but won’t soon forget. (Meet Thomas Walkup, the guy with the lumberjack beard for the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks.)

And there are those tears. Everybody cries in this event. North Carolina coach Roy Williams weeps every tournament. Ron Hunter slung an arm around his son’s shoulders after the Panthers had been ousted by Xavier last March and said, “I love this kid,” reducing both to sobs. Something similar happened back in 2007, when Kevin Kruger engineered an upset of Wisconsin by UNLV, coached by his dad Lon.

That same Lon Kruger now coaches Oklahoma, which will face Villanova in the Final Four. That Lon Kruger spent 2 ½ seasons coaching the Atlanta Hawks to no avail before returning to college, and even then he was most animated when speaking of the Big Dance. “The NBA is great,” he’d say, “but it doesn’t have anything like those three weeks.”

On Saturday, Wright said Arcidiacono was tearing up as he was making his vital free throws, and the Bill Murray line from “Caddyshack” — ”Hometown boy, tears in his eyes” — occurred, this time no joke. This really was a hometown boy with tears in his eyes, about to realize his dream.

And Bill Murray? He was part of this March, too. His son Luke is a Xavier assistant coach. Murray was in St. Louis wearing an “X” cap when Koenig’s trey sent the Musketeers home. The world’s funniest man looked very, very sad.

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