Five Things: Best NCAA Championship Game Ever?

By Andrew Kahn

Fans hoping for an exciting end to the college basketball season got their wish times a thousand last night. A Tournament that began with utter madness gave us perhaps its best conclusion of all time. Villanova claimed its second national championship last night with a 77-74 victory over North Carolina on a buzzer-beating three from Kris Jenkins. The Wildcats’ run through the bracket—three straight dominant performances, a win over the No. 1 overall seed, a record-setting Final Four rout, and a title game victory—was one of the most impressive in history.

1. Jenkins wins it

Jenkins only played 21 minutes due to foul trouble—he had two before the second media timeout and picked up his fourth with 6:50 remaining—but he made the most of them, hitting 6 of 11 shots. He inbounded the ball on the game’s final play, one that Villanova regularly practices. With 4.7 seconds to go, he passed it in to Ryan Arcidiacono, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, and trailed him down the floor. Arcidiacono is the first option, and he could have passed to Phil Booth, who had some daylight coming off a screen, but he wisely positioned himself between Jenkins and two Carolina defenders before shoveling a pass to his trailing teammate. Arcidiacono cut in front of Jenkins to provide a momentary buffer, and Jenkins released one of the most memorable shots in college basketball history. “Bang,” Jay Wright calmly said, as if to cue the streamers and confetti that poured down from the rafters. Jenkins released the ball with just under one second left and the clock expired as it was halfway to the hoop, so kudos to the quick-trigger confetti operator. Had there been time put back on the clock, we may still be waiting for the court to get clear.

2. Paige ties it

While Jenkins’ shot obviously trumped everything that came before it, Marcus Paige’s three on the previous possession had a higher degree of difficulty. As Carolina brought the ball up the court with 13.5 seconds left, a screen left 6’11” Daniel Ochefu guarding Paige. Ochefu’s gamble to steal a bounce pass to Paige along the sideline failed, which momentarily gave Paige a clean look to tie the game. But Arcidiacono stepped up and challenged the shot, forcing Paige to double-clutch in midair. The long three still found the bottom of the net, and the game was tied. Paige had been sensational all night, scoring a game-high 21 points. With 1:30 left, he hit a corner three to cut the deficit to three. I’m still not sure how he wrestled away a rebound off his own miss and converted a twisting layup with 22 seconds left to cut it to one. And then, of course, after Villanova hit two free throws, Paige delivered the game-tying miracle.

3. Supporting stars

This outlet tabbed North Carolina’s Joel Berry as a player to watch in last night’s game, and the sophomore guard came out blazing. Berry scored 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting, including 4-for-4 from deep. He shook off a shooting slump by draining the game’s first basket, a three from the right wing, and finished with 15 first-half points. For Villanova, sophomore Phil Booth came off the bench and scored a career-high 20 points on 6-of-7 shooting. He made all six of his free throw attempts, including two with 35 seconds left to extend Nova’s lead to three. After the game, Jay Wright said how Booth was playing well in last year’s second-round NCAA Tournament game, but he opted to replace him with a senior down the stretch. Last night, Wright stuck with Booth over starter Jalen Brunson, and it paid off. Booth’s contested fadeaway with three minutes left to push the lead to five was especially impressive.

4. Box score bafflers

The game certainly didn’t play out like many had figured, even if the narrow margin and total points were on par with projections. If you had told Roy Williams his team would make 11 of 17 threes, he would have picked out a spot for his third championship trophy. The 11 threes tied for the most they’d made all season (they hit that many against Indiana in the Sweet 16) and was their second-best performance percentage-wise. On the flip side, if you’d told Williams that Carolina would shoot a season-worst 34.8 percent from two-point range, he probably would have anticipated a lopsided loss.

Villanova did a great job containing Carolina’s ultra effective frontcourt. The Wildcats made post entry passes very difficult, so even if the 6’3”, 199-pound Brunson was guarding 6’9”, 265-pound Kennedy Meeks inside, as was the case on at least one possession, Meeks didn’t get a touch. Berry, as mentioned, shot the ball well, but he and Paige weren’t setting up teammates as much as they had throughout the Tournament. Despite Carolina’s size advantage, Villanova actually scored more points in the paint (32 to 26). The Tar Heels crashed the offensive glass at their usual high rate, but couldn’t didn’t convert the put-backs often enough.

5. Best championship ever?

Full disclosure: The NCAA Tournament is 78 years old and I am not. Was last night’s the best championship game in the history of the Tournament? I’ll say yes, but a full appreciation can only come from watching live, and I did not do that for many of the other classics. That being said, I think a buzzer beater is a requirement here. The 1983 championship had that, with Lorenzo Charles dunking an errant shot to win it for North Carolina State—though if the play happened today, I guarantee time would have been put back on the clock—but it was before the shot clock and the three-point line, and the shooting percentages for that game were much lower. The context—Jim Valvano taking a 6 seed to the title and beating mighty Houston—makes it special, but I believe last night was a better game. Now if Gordon Hayward’s half court shot had gone in…

Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at andrewjkahn@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.

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