UNC-Villanova was game of this year, many other years

From joy to sorrow in Chapel Hill as Villanova hits buzzer-beater

UNC fans watching from Chapel Hill went from joy after Marcus Paige hit a 3-pointer to tie, to sadness after Villanova's Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer-beater to win the NCAA National Championship.
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UNC fans watching from Chapel Hill went from joy after Marcus Paige hit a 3-pointer to tie, to sadness after Villanova's Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer-beater to win the NCAA National Championship.

ESPN held its annual ESPY Awards on Wednesday night and, outside of the social activism (like LeBron James speaking out against racial profiling and gun violence) and the recognition of the inspiring (like Craig Sager and his cancer fight), the ESPYS aren't too significant.

That's no slight against ESPN or its ESPYS. It's just that, well, sports doesn't really need an Oscars-like awards show to tell us who the best athletes are, and best teams, and what the best moments of the year were. Because we already have a pretty good idea.

Even so, the ESPYS generate some conversation about those things and yes, I admit it: I wanted to see whether the North Carolina-Villanova game, which was arguably the best championship game in NCAA tournament history, would take home the ESPY for Game of the Year.

Hey, like I said, I know such an award is pretty meaningless and doesn't really matter. There are approximately 10 million things, maybe more, that are more important on Earth right now than whether UNC-Villanova won the ESPY for best game.

But still. I took a weird interest in it and did so for a couple of reasons, I think:

1. The UNC-Villanova game was certainly the best game I'd ever seen live.

2. I was curious if an ESPN awards show would give such recognition to a college basketball game.

So I wrote on Twitter that UNC-Villanova just had to win this ESPY and that if it didn't win that ESPY then, well, I'd lose faith in all awards whose methodology isn't exactly clear to me (which are basically any that aren't decided in some tangible head-to-head competition).

And so Wednesday night, late, I found myself strangely refreshing the ESPY twitter feed, waiting for the game of the year to be announced. Kept refreshing, kept refreshing. It wasn't there. Finally the full list of winners was released.

Scrolled down and there it was, winner for game of the year: Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

Well that's fine and all. Cleveland-Golden State in Game 7 was a great game, in moments, and even more significant than most decisive games would be, given that the Cavaliers completed their rally from a 3-1 series deficit to bring Cleveland its first professional sports title in centuries (or was it only about 50 years?).

So yes, there's an argument for Game 7. You can see it, kind of.

And yet, even though most of the ESPYS (including game of the year) don't really mean anything it must be said, for the record: UNC-Villanova was robbed. Everyone remembers the ending and we'll get to that. But even before that the game was well played and close throughout.

Game 7 of the NBA Finals, meanwhile, included an exercise of which team could be less worse in the final minutes. Yes, there was LeBron James' block. It was fantastic.

Still, it happened with almost two minutes remaining. For the majority of the final minutes neither team could make a shot, everyone looked exhausted on offense and fans everywhere waited for someone, anyone, to score until Kyrie Irving made that 3-pointer with 53 seconds remaining.

Irving's shot was great, no denying that. But it wasn't as great as the off-balance, double-clutching 3-pointer that Marcus Paige made to tie the national championship game with less than five seconds remaining. And Irving's shot wasn't as great, either, as Kris Jenkins' 3 at the buzzer that gave Villanova the most dramatic championship game victory since N.C. State's in 1983.

The national championship game gave us two of the greatest shots in NCAA tournament history, back-to-back in the final seconds. Game 7 gave us LeBron's block, Irving's 3 with a little less than a minute remaining and nothing else in the final 50 seconds. The Warriors didn't even score in the final 4 ½ minutes.

It's not even debatable, to me. Then again, I'm in the bubble. I cover college basketball year round. And the reality is that the sport doesn't register in the public conscious the way it once did.

If the ESPYS existed in 1983 and 1992 (when Duke beat Kentucky at the buzzer), I have a hard time believing that a college basketball game wouldn’t have been chosen as game of the year. Outside of a few places, though – North Carolina, Kentucky, maybe Indiana – college basketball isn't what it was.

More and more, it's becoming a niche sport – one that, nationally, is a focal point only during the NCAA tournament. The ESPYS, again, don't really matter all that much. It’s a made-for-TV event on what might be the slowest sports night of the year.

That UNC-Villanova didn’t win game of the year doesn’t diminish it in any way. Yet the slight is small indication about where college basketball stands in the greater American sports landscape. College basketball’s game of the year, one of its best games ever, had short, brief life in the spotlight.