Where were you when it all went down? More important, when was the last time you even contemplated that question within the context of college basketball? Here is what I can tell you: I was at home, in my living room, when North Carolina’s Marcus Paige hit that twisting, Curry-esque 3-pointer to tie the NCAA Championship game at 74 with 4.7 seconds to play, and I’m pretty sure I gasped out loud.
And a few seconds later, when Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit the 3 to win the title for the Wildcats, I actually shouted an obscenity to no one in particular. I was not nearly as smooth as Villanova coach Jay Wright, who reacted to his first national title as if the dude behind the counter at Geno’s Steaks had just called his number.
With the possible exception of Butler’s Gordon Hayward nearly sinking a half-court shot to beat Duke, I think I was in college the last time I freaked out this much at the ending of a title game. I mean, sure, there was that Mario Chalmers shot for Kansas back in ’08, but not since North Carolina squeezed past Michigan’s Fab Five on Chris Webber’s phantom time-out had the final few seconds of an NCAA Tournament championship game been fraught with the same manic energy. Frankly, it was everything college basketball needed amid this season of revival: A climax worthy of the 1980s, when the sport was in its glory days.
So what will linger from this moment, beyond Jenkins hitting that shot on a pitch from point guard Ryan Arcidiacono? There is Villanova and Wright, finally getting over the hump for the first time since the miraculous Wildcat team of 1985 upended Georgetown in the title game; there is the redemption of the Big East, a conference that was largely left for dead amid the football realignment that threatened to grind it to dust until it re-formed as a basketball-only conference.
More than that, there is the redemption of the sport itself, which had been so grinding and so ugly over the course of the past several seasons. This game was beautiful from start to finish; it had all the ratcheting tension you expect to get in the biggest and best college games. When Villanova went up 10 points with under 5 minutes left, in no way did it ever seem to be over. And it wasn’t. Carolina cut the deficit from 67-57 to 70-69 with a minute to play, and after Villanova hit a pair of free throw shots with 13.5 seconds left, there was Paige, the Tar Heels’ senior point guard – yet another brilliant upperclassmen in a season where the one-and-done rule was largely left in the dust – double-clutching and pumping and torquing and hitting that 3-pointer to tie the game.
I mean, go ahead click over to this link from Villanova’s Pavilion, a crowd of students watching the final seconds, cheering Jenkins’ game-winning shot. If this doesn’t send chills up your spine, then you’re either dead or you’re as inimitably cool as Jay Wright. Say what you will about college sports being corrupt and inequitable and the whole system requiring an overhaul, but when it’s right, it’s so, so right. And this entire NCAA tournament was right from start to finish, from Middle Tennessee dropping Michigan State to Northern Iowa dropping bombs and then dropping bombs on itself to Syracuse making a Final Four run from out of nowhere to that championship game ending, when you thought Marcus Paige had just accomplished something iconic, only to be one-upped by an even more iconic game-winner.
I remember what it was like as a kid back in the Eighties, to watch Lorenzo Charles make that dunk for N.C. State in 1983, to watch Keith Smart hit the shot to beat Syracuse in 1987, to watch Webber make that utterly humanizing mistake for Michigan. Those were the glory years for college basketball, because it was beautiful and flawed and utterly real. And that’s how it felt in the final seconds last night. It felt like a revival of a great American pastime, so I can’t blame you if you didn’t keep your cool. We can’t all be Jay Wright, but it may just be that college basketball’s back, and I think for that we all have reason to celebrate.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb