What to say, after that?
North Carolina rallied from a 10-point deficit against Villanova with 5 ½ minutes remaining on Monday night in the national championship game. The Tar Heels tied it at 74 with 4.7 seconds remaining on a 3-pointer from Marcus Paige, whose shot – an off-balance, double-clutching attempt – instantly qualified as one of the most dramatic moments in NCAA tournament history.
But then Villanova won the championship amid a moment that was even more stunning, one that will be replayed over and over and over every year around this time. Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer as time expired gave the Wildcats a 77-74 victory in what will be remembered as one of the great national championship games.
For UNC (33-7), it will be remembered for heartbreak. The Tar Heels lost in agonizing fashion, seconds after they’d tied the game on Paige’s 3-pointer from just right of the top of the key. Paige on that play found himself in possession of the ball, the seconds ticking away, needing to make a play.
Moments after UNC nearly lost possession of the ball Paige hoisted an off-balance shot that was pure. It fell through the rim and the UNC fans celebrated wildly, throwing souvenir seat cushions in the air while Paige’s teammates embraced him near midcourt.
“It was special,” Joel Berry, the sophomore point guard, said of Paige – and especially Paige’s performance in the second half, when he scored 17 of his 21 points. “That’s what Marcus is capable of doing. He’s been doing that his whole career here.”
It looked then, after Paige’s 3, like the game might be destined for overtime. But there was still plenty of time left. Villanova (34-6) inbounded the ball to Ryan Arcidiacono, the senior point guard who earned the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player honors. He crossed midcourt and then passed to Jenkins, the 6-foot-6 junior forward who is the adopted brother of Nate Britt, a Tar Heels’ junior guard.
Jenkins didn’t hesitate in the moment. He released a high-arcing shot from the right side that looked good from the release, and as the buzzer sounded and the red light behind the basket went off – signifying the end of the game – Jenkins’ shot fell through.
UNC left Jenkins open on the shot. There wasn’t anyone there to put pressure on him, or to put a hand in his face. Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered given Jenkins’ confidence and his lack of hesitation in that moment.
“I wanted him to be more covered,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “I hoped we’d get up to him closer. … But when the shot went up, I saw Kris shoot it, his follow-through looked great.
“I pretty much knew it was going in.”
After the shot fell, Jenkins ran to one side of the court and screamed: “That’s what we do. That’s what we do.”
He jumped over the press table and ran to his biological mother, who gave up custody of Jenkins to Britt’s parents when Jenkins was in middle school. She wrapped her arms around him and said, “I’m so proud of you.”
Jenkins’ shot immediately entered NCAA tournament lore. But Paige’s will be remembered, too, for its place in what could be considered one of the most dramatic finishes in an NCAA tournament championship game.
One 3-pointer that tied it in the final seconds. One that won it at the buzzer. It was the first time since 1983, when N.C. State’s Lorenzo Charles turned an airball into a dunk that gave the Wolfpack an improbable victory against Houston as time expired, that a national championship game ended like this.
It was a moment that left the Tar Heels’ stunned and some players in tears. Outside their locker room afterward Williams sat with a blank expression next to Hubert Davis, the assistant coach. Both men just sat there, unblinking.
“I wouldn’t trade my team for anybody,” Williams had said earlier. I just wish I could have helped them more.”
After Jenkins’ final 3, confetti streamed from the scoreboard and onto the court. The Wildcats celebrated while the Tar Heels, the only No. 1 seed that had made the Final Four, made their way off the court. Just moments earlier, they’d been riding the emotional high of a 40-game season.
And then it was over. Paige, a senior guard, led UNC in scoring with those 21 points in his final game. Senior Brice Johnson, his roommate and close friend, scored 14 points.
Before the season began, Paige and Johnson often spoke of their goal of reaching Houston and the Final Four. They’d led UNC to a first-place finish in the league, an ACC tournament championship and then, at last, to the Final Four.
Their final college game, though, provided them with their most tormenting defeat. Paige said he’d remember the feeling the rest of his life, the sting that came while watching Jenkins’ shot fall, ending a dream and a season in an instant. And yet Paige would remember more, too.
“The whole four years means the world to me,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade any of the losses, any of the games. It’s hard to say but even including this one, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Jenkins scored 14 points for Villanova and Phil Booth, a junior guard who’d entered Monday night averaging 6.7 points, had 20. Arcidiacono finished with 16 points and two assists – his last on the pass that set up Jenkins with the game-winner.
The game will be remembered, undoubtedly, for what transpired during the final five seconds. For UNC, though, the story of defeat was written much earlier.
The Tar Heels, who were denied their sixth NCAA championship, often failed to take advantage of second-chance opportunities, and scored 11 points off of 16 offensive rebounds. And despite a size advantage on the interior, UNC was outscored 36-32 in the paint. UNC finished the season 0-6 when that happened.
UNC also shot a mere 42.9 percent while the Wildcats made 58.3 percent of their shots. No team had shot more effectively against UNC than Villanova did on Monday night.
And yet UNC still had a chance late, after Paige, known for his second-half heroics throughout his four years at UNC, made his memorable 3 with seconds left in the game. It happened to come moments before Jenkins made one that became one of the most memorable shots in college basketball history.
It was a final five seconds that will live on, a brief moment in time that left some speechless, some in tears, some heartbroken – and one that left Villanova celebrating a national championship.