The best NCAA final ending ever? Yes, indeed

Waiting for the 8 a.m. flight from Houston’s Hobby to board, Jim Host asked: “Have you ever seen anything like that?”

Jim Host turned a Lexington, Ky., public relations firm into a major entity in collegiate sports. In 1975 he bought the radio rights to the NCAA tournament for a song. In 2007 he sold Host Communications to IMG for an album’s worth of songs. He has attended more Four Finals than I, and I’ve covered 23. Our considered consensus was:

No one had ever seen anything like the ending of Villanova-North Carolina. Marcus Paige made the most outrageous shot in Final Four annals to tie the score with 4.7 seconds left. Kris Jenkins won it for Villanova at the buzzer. (Guessing you knew that by now.)

Maybe you didn’t know this: The NCAA tournament has been staged since 1939, and only three times has it been settled by a last-second shot. The first two: Vic Rouse’s putback of Les (Big Game) Hunter’s miss to lift Loyola over Cincinnati in 1963 and Lorenzo Charles’ dunk of Dereck Whittenburg’s air ball in 1983 to leave North Carolina State’s Jim Valvano looking for somebody to hug.

Of the first 77 NCAA finals, none was won by a jumper in the air at the horn. Michael Jordan’s shot against Georgetown came with 15 seconds remaining. Keith Smart’s against Syracuse came at 0:05. Mario Chalmers’ tying 3-pointer against Memphis came with 2.1 seconds left. What happened Monday night was doubly delicious. Jenkins made a winning jumper at the buzzer, which had never happened, but also trumped Paige’s shot, the likes of which had never been seen in a final, either.

My pal Mike Lopresti, formerly of USA Today and now of, and I talked long after the game as to Where This Ranked among finals. By the time we shared an Uber to Hobby at 5:15 a.m., I was referring to the famous 1985 upset of Georgetown as “the first Villanova game” — because there was now a second. I’d still say that Nova-G’town was better overall: The Wildcats made 78.6 percent of their shots and won by two points, which tells us how great the Hoyas were. (Villanova made 71.4 percent against Oklahoma on Saturday and won by 44.)

But Villanova-Georgetown had no ending like this. No NCAA tournament has ended like this. Even the postgame quotes were breathtaking. From Carolina’s Joel Berry II: “That feeling of walking off the court, feeling the confetti fall, but it’s not for you. It’s a horrible feeling.”

From Carolina coach Roy Williams: “The difference between winning and losing in college basketball is so small. The difference in your feelings is so large.”

It came down to this: Score tied, 4.7 seconds left, one play for a national championship. Jenkins inbounded to Ryan Arcidiacono — my Catholic-since-birth wife calls him “Ryan Archdiocese” — who sliced off Daniel Ochefu’s screen at midcourt. (Fact: Ochefu helped mop that spot before the ball was inbounded because he didn’t want to slip.) Arcidiacono could have shot the ball, or he could have fed Josh Hart, who was coming off Phil Booth’s screen, or even Booth.

But there was a fourth option, one Carolina didn’t cover. Jenkins, the inbounder, who’d scurried to put himself in position to receive a back-pass. He even called for the ball: “Arch! Arch! Arch!” With 1.2 seconds remaining, Arcidiacono flipped it to Jenkins, who caught it with feet planted and shoulders squared. His follow-through was so elegant that you knew before you saw. In one shining moment, you knew.

“It was the longest time a ball has been in the air,” said Villanova’s Darryl Reynolds, but then it was through the net and the confetti was falling (but not for Carolina). A classic game was won on a play as precise as Paige’s shot was improvisational. It was the greatest finish of any final ever. On this I will brook no argument.