HOUSTON – The day before Monday night’s NCAA national championship game, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins said this game might be the “tiebreaker” in his personal competition with North Carolina brother Nate Britt Jr., whose family became his guardian nine years ago.
It merely turned into the tiebreaker of all time.
With 4.7 seconds left, the Tar Heels’ Marcus Paige buried a right-wing, double-pump three-pointer from long distance to knot the score at 74. But the Wildcats had an answer as Ryan Arcidiacono dribbled upcourt, then pitched to Jenkins on the right wing, where he buried the shot of a lifetime for a 77-74 victory at NRG Stadium.
“I think every shot is going in,” Jenkins said, “so that one was no different.”
It was the second national title for Villanova (35-5), and while the Wildcats’ 1985 upset of Georgetown is remembered as “The Perfect Game,” this one had the perfect ending. Butler’s Gordon Hayward nearly pulled it off in 2010, but his potential winning halfcourt shot at the buzzer against Duke bounded off the rim. Jenkins’ shot was as pure as could be, a brilliant ending to a great game.
“We have a play for a sequence like that,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We put it in Arch’s hands, and Kris told Arch he was going to be open.”
Jenkins told the crowd he was calling to Arcidiacono, “ ‘Ryan! Ryan!’ He made the perfect pass.”
It was the first national title for Wright, and it was the first for a team from the new Big East since it went back to its basketball-only roots three years ago.
Villanova got a tremendous game off the bench from sub guard Phil Booth, who scored 20 points. Arcidiacono had 16, Jenkins 14 and Josh Hart 12.
North Carolina (33-7) was led by Paige with 21 points, Joel Berry II with 20 and Brice Johnson with 14 points and eight rebounds. But after shooting 53.6 percent in the first half, the Tar Heels fell off to 34.3 percent in the second half, when the Wildcats’ defense clamped down.
Carolina’s outside shooters got hot in the first half, especially Berry, who scored 12 straight Tar Heels points in one stretch. They took a 39-34 halftime lead after making seven of nine three-point attempts.
Wright was angry, but his players were angrier. Center Daniel Ochefu said the players kicked the coaches and managers out of the locker room at halftime. “Guys were getting on each other,” he said. “We started defending better, started rebounding better. We just got it done.”
Early in the second half, Villanova put together a 19-5 run to take a 53-46 lead. Booth scored five points in that stretch, including a three-pointer that made it 49-46. It was a lead Villanova never would surrender, but North Carolina battled tooth-and-nail, led by Paige’s 17 second-half points.
Trailing by three, Paige had the ball on the right side when Ochefu dived and missed the steal. Paige gathered himself and hit what might have been the second-greatest clutch three of all time to tie it with 4.7 seconds to go.
“I told my team when I made the shot, we got 4.7 seconds to play defense, and this game is ours,” Paige said. “We were going to win the overtime. We had clawed back from down 10 . . . It didn’t work out.”
Wright called timeout to set up a play the Wildcats use when there are four to seven seconds left. Ochefu saw that a young boy mopping the spot where he had dived for the steal was struggling, so the big man got on the mop and made it perfect, because that’s where he would set a screen for Arcidiacono.
“I didn’t want to slip,” Ochefu said. “I didn’t want Arch to slip. Make sure the floor is dry.”
Wright said Arcidiacono was the first option, and then Josh Hart was screening for the hot Booth to the left. The last option was Jenkins, who inbounded the ball.
“The defenders usually follow the ball,” Jenkins said. “They were going to try to take Arch away because he’s hit big shots in his career. When they followed the ball, I knew if I got in his line of vision, he would find me.”
Arcidiacono planned on taking the shot but heard Jenkins calling for the ball. “It’s not about me taking the right shot,” Arcidiacono said. “It’s about me making the right read. I think I just did that.”
Just the way it was drawn up.