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Golden Indeed

April 5, 2016

For 39 minutes and 55 seconds of Monday Night’s 2016 NCAA Men’s National Championship slugfest between Villanova and North Carolina, the game’s Most Outstanding Player was Villanova sophomore Phil Booth. Who? Exactly. If I was in a phone booth with Phil Booth, I probably wouldn’t be able to pick him out in that crowd.

But there he was, scoring 13 of his up-to-that-point-in-the-game high 20 points over the previous 13:28, keying what would become ‘Nova’s game-turning 23-13 run over an 8:04 span in the second half that put the Wildcats up by 10 and on the precipice of a National Title. Calmly hitting two free throws with 35 seconds left during UNC’s furious rally over the last five minutes to keep the Tar Heels at bay, shooting 6-7 from the floor, (2-2 from three), 6-6 from the free-throw line, grabbing two key defensive rebounds down the stretch, making a crucial block and steal, Villanova’s “sixth man” Booth was THE man of the hour.

Time and again, sports history is written by the heretofore unknowns. Buster Douglas. Long John Daly (Twice!). Malcolm Butler. David Tyree’s Helmet. Cool Hand Luke Hancock.  Rarely, if ever, are they overshadowed in the event that was about to propel them to household name status.

But then Marcus Paige hit a jangly, double-pump 25-footer to complete North Carolina’s comeback and tie the game at 74 with 4.7 seconds left. UNC’s classy senior leader and point guard had come through in the clutch, scoring 17 of his team-(and at-that-point-game-) high 21 points in the second half. A shot for the ages, overtime was in the air for the first time since the 2008 NCAA Final when Kansas survived Memphis, a fitting cap to what was one of the better NCAA Finals in recent memory. Cometh the Moment, cometh the Man.

Villanova had another Man however. Up stepped Kris “Big Smooth” Jenkins with the answer of a lifetime, hitting a three as the buzzer sounded and securing Villanova’s 2nd National Title, 77-74.  Aptly named “Nova”, that play called by Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright in the preceding timeout immediately became the greatest buzzer beater in NCAA History, at least since Jim Valvano was running around the court looking for someone to hug. Drop the mic, and the confetti.

As if the Basketball Gods’ scriptwriters weren’t already working overtime with storylines entering the game. Jenkins was adopted by the family of North Carolina’s Nate Britt in 2007, in an incredible tale of love and sacrifice, and here they were playing each other for a National Championship? Talk about family bragging rights. Jenkins had missed much of the first half with two early fouls, Wright opting to sit him for the final 15:41 of the first half, but much like the Wildcats from Philadelphia had in a larger sense this season, Jenkins saved his best for last.

Previously I had said in this space that “I doubt we see a repeat historical shooting performance” from Villanova in the Final, yet once again I was clearly mistaken.  For that matter, so much for the NRG Effect. Largely on the strength of Villanova’s historical shooting performances – .583 FG% last night after shooting .714 FG% two nights earlier, the highest team shooting percentage in an NCAA Final since UNLV’s .612 FG% in 1990 and fourth highest in a Final since their .786 against Georgetown in 1985 – the 2016 Final Four teams collectively shot .498 FG% in Houston, and the overall shooting percentage at the NRG Stadium had risen from .322 FG% in 15 games to .351 over 18 games.

I had also thought that rebounding would be the key, and while UNC outrebounded Villanova 36-23, the Wildcats had a .568 DRB% (21 defensive rebounds to UNC’s 16 offensive rebounds), and limited the Tar Heels to two (2) second-chance points in the entire game. Villanova also outscored North Carolina in the paint 32-26, and limited the most prolific 2-point shooting team in the country to 16-46 (.348 2FG%) inside-the-arc, easily UNC’s worst performance of the season in that aspect. Wright’s Wildcats strategically excelled at both ends of the floor, inasmuch because of, as despite the fact that UNC had their best 3-point shooting game (11-17, .647 3FG%) of the season.

Truth be told, I think Villanova’s 33-3 team last season was a better basketball team than the one who won this year’s National Championship (even as KenPom’s efficiency stats from 2015 and 2016 might suggest otherwise, as Villanova was slightly more efficient on both offense and defense this season), up and until the start of March Madness, but that season ended in the Round of 32 for those Wildcats (as had their season before that), while this postseason served as an object lesson in playing your best when it counts.

In case there was any doubt, we now know that when Villanova plays for the NCAA Title, something special is bound to happen. Phil Booth made the NCAA Final Four All-Tournament team, and teammate Ryan Arcidiacono (he of the final assist of the game) was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, but Big Smooth’s Moment was One Shining Moment to end all One Shining Moments. Cue Luther Vandross.

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From → Basketball, Sports

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