NCAA Cage Tourney Worth the Wait

John Gilbert

A week-long road test of a Jeep Renegade painted “Syracuse Orange” was reason enough to pick Syracuse in the NCAA basketball Final Fours.  Photo credit: John Gilbert
A week-long road test of a Jeep Renegade painted “Syracuse Orange” was reason enough to pick Syracuse in the NCAA basketball Final Fours. Photo credit: John Gilbert

If the final five seconds of the NCAA basketball championship game had been a movie script, you might have walked out shaking your head at how ridiculous it was, that such an incredible swing, back and forth, of spectacular good fortune first for North Carolina and then for Villanova simply was too unrealistic to believe.

In case you quit paying attention because your office-pool bracket was broken in the first or second round, and simply didn’t care for either North Carolina or Villanova, then you have my smpathy. If you have any interest in sports, or even if you don’t, the finish was quite possibly the most scintillating in the history of college basketball. If you can think of one better, let me know.

For background, the first two rounds of the tournament were fantastic, because upsets ruled. That’s always fun, when some little podunk college with a hyphenated name that you didn’t even know was a college knocks off some legendary favorite. But when things moved on to the Sweet 16, it was pretty much all the favorites advancing. Worse, every time you watched a game it would be a lopsided blowout, eliminating any shred of the drama that makes tournament play captivating in any sport.

When they got down to the Final Four, last Saturday, the blowouts continued. North Carolina hammered Syracuse 83-66, and the 17-point margin seemed pretty close, because Villanova rocked Oklahoma 95-51 in the other semifinal. Think about that – a 44-point margin of victory for the Wildcats, setting an all-time NCAA tournament Final Four record.

When the two teams took the floor in Houston, North Carolina was the prominent favorite. After all, they were ranked No. 1 in the country, and Villanova No. 2. For anybody who thinks that’s significant, forget it. I was curious, and not because I had picked Syracuse as an upset because of the cosmic energy that exuded from a new-car test-drive I had just gotten the day after the Syracuse Orange reached the Final Four. The vehicle was a Jeep Renegade, painted the purest orange I’ve ever seen on a vehicle. It was so orange that I called it “Syracuse Orange.”

Anyway, the main reason I wanted to check on No. 1 was because I was sure Kansas was the overwhelming No. 1 much of the season, and right up to the end of the regular season. Checking back, I was right. Both major national polls list Kansas as No. 1 when the season ended and the playoffs began. Any self-respecting rating poll would go through the regular season, and then let us all see how accurate those ratings truly are.

But those folks who conduct the ratings apparently think the viewing public is so uninformed that they could fool us by continuing their ratings all the way throughout the tournament. So when you get down to the Final Four, and the finals, what an amazing coincidence that the two finalists wind up 1-2! My guess is that they’ll come out with one more rating now, shocking everyone by announcing that the NCAA champion is No. 1.

At any rate, I wanted to watch the final game, just to see if it could finally provide the sports-mad country with a game of high drama to satisfy our anticipation. A huge crowd of 74,340 jammed the Houston football stadium where most of them pretended they could see the court. The game was not always an artistic success, with both teams scrapping and scrambling and making frequent mistakes, primarily because of the impressive defensive play by their opponent.

But nothing throughout the exciting twists and turns of the game caused anyone to predict the finish. North Carolina had control first, but Villanova went by the Tar Heels and gained the upper hand early in the second half, suddenly seeming to put it away when successive 3-point baskets boosted Villanova to a 10-point lead. Still, calmly and coolly, the Tar Heels came back, closing to within 74-71 with possession as the final 10 seconds ticked away. Time to panic? Hardly. Getting into range, a bounce pass to the right sideline barely eluded a diving Villanova defender, and guard Marcus Paige grabbed it.

Knowing time was expiring, Paige whirled and went up for a jump shot – a long,
long, jump shot. At the top of his jump, he realized a Wildcat defender was coming at him, also airborne, so he adjusted while hanging in the air, shifting the ball far to his left to avoid any chance of it being blocked. Then he flung it. This was not a smooth, perfectly executed jump shot, but a desperate 2-handed fling attempting to save the season for North Carolina.
It went in, a storybook 3-pointer that tied the game 74-74 and sent Tar Heel fans everywhere into ecstacy. Sure, it would take overtime, but going into overtime was far better than losing by three. The clock showed 4.7 seconds remaining, and Villanova took a time out, desperate now to concoct a way to avoid overtime by snatching back the victory that was now teetering.

At least, we thought the Wildcats must be desperate. But coach Jay Wright seemed calm as he told his players what they were going to do: “Nova.” That’s the name of the play Wright has designed for any time a game goes down to the final five seconds and the Wildcats need a bucket. Wildcats players said they practice Nova during every single practice, all season.

The play calls for passing the ball in to guard Ryan Arcidiacono, a brilliant floor general, and he races down the court as swiftly as possible. He then has three options. One, go all the way in for a layup; two, try to take advantage of a pick or feed a teammate who has such an opening; and three, drop the ball off to Kris Jenkins, a safety valve because he makes the inbounds pass and trails the play on the right, potentially arriving unnoticed.

Practice made perfect. Jenkins passed it in, Arcidiacono took off, dribbling up court and as he approached the 3-point line, he attracted two North Carolina defenders. Perfect. He dished the ball off to his right to Jenkins, and cut in front of him as a casual bit of interference. Jenkins stepped up and launched a 3-pointer. At the height of its arc, the horn sounded, and the ball continued on its downward trajectory, dropping cleanly right through the hoop.

Villanova had won the game, 77-74, after that astounding exchange of the most high-pressure 3-point shots imaginable.