It could have been the best shot in college basketball history. With six seconds remaining down by three points in the national championship game, North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige, standing behind the three-point line, snatched a pass from out of Villanova big man Daniel Ochefu’s hands, squared to the basket, and jumped into the air. Paige pumped, faking out defender Ryan Arcidiacono, and on the way down launched a desperation shot to the basket. Swish. Tie game, with five seconds left.
Key phrase: five seconds left. Following a Villanova timeout, Arcidiacono raced down the court, aided by a pick by Ochefu at halfcourt. Instead of sending up a prayer, Arcidiacono shoveled a pass to junior guard Kris Jenkins. Jenkins released the ball a foot from the three-point line with just fractions of a second remaining, with enough separation to shoot it cleanly. Swish. With that shot, the most clutch in the history of March Madness, the Villanova Wildcats won their second NCAA men’s basketball championship, 77-74.
The wild finish capped off an entertaining and unpredictable championship game. Villanova and North Carolina both came in on fire and, on paper, were dead-even. The Wildcats were coming off a semifinal destruction of Oklahoma, while the Tar Heels were the top-ranked team in the nation.
Early on, Villanova and North Carolina traded leads. By halftime, it was the Tar Heels who held the lead, 39-34, thanks to 7 for 9 three-point shooting by a team that missed its first 12 treys two nights before. But just before the halftime buzzer, Nova’s Phil Booth nailed a jumper from the free-throw line, a sign of the theatrics to come.
The Wildcats came battling back in the second half, taking the lead and building a 10-point advantage with five minutes left in the game. With under two minutes, Villanova was still up by seven points, 71-64. Paige led UNC on a furious rally, tying the game on his three-pointer. Jenkins answered with the game-winner.
Despite North Carolina’s height and its greatest strength being post play, the Wildcats had their way down low for most of the game. Nova hit 58.3% from the field, compared to North Carolina’s 42.9%, and scored 30 points in the paint, against 22 from the Heels. North Carolina was able to take the early lead and stay in the game with their shocking three-point display, which included seven three pointers in nine attempts in the first half, with three from guard Joel Berry II (20 points). Paige led all scorers with 21 points, while Phil Booth led the Wildcats with 20 points. North Carolina forward Brice Johnson, the star of the team, was held in check and limited to 14 points.
Kris Jenkins sunk the game-winner, but the most valuable player on the Wildcats was, undisputably, senior Ryan Arcidiacono. “Arch” was named Final Four Most Outstanding Player and was the best player throughout the tournament and the team’s leader. After scoring two points in the first half, he made 14 in the second half, including nine in the last ten minutes. On the last play, Arcidiacono was supposed to shoot, but instead he dished it out to Jenkins, who was open for the winner. That assist was unselfish and perfect basketball play, proving Arch’s basketball IQ and character.
The 2015-16 Villanova Wildcats will go down as one of the most dominant teams of all-time, just like the 1985 team that won the championship. Villanova beat the best (convincing wins over Miami, Kansas and Oklahoma preceded the championship) and now they are the best. After Monday’s game, basketball fans couldn’t have asked for a better championship, better ending, or better champion.