Reuben Frank's 10 memories of Villanova's 2016 NCAA championship

Reuben Frank's 10 memories of Villanova's 2016 NCAA championship

I've been doing this for more than 30 years and never lost my composure. Never came close.

I was there when Joe Montana drove the 49ers the length of the field in the final seconds at Joe Robbie Stadium to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.

I was there when Eric Allen ran circles around the Jets for 91 yards on the greatest interception return in NFL history.

I was there when Mitch Williams struck out Bill Pecota to give the Phillies the 1993 pennant.

I was there when Freddie Mitchell caught 4th-and-26 and when Chad Lewis' second TD of the day sent the Eagles to the Super Bowl and when Randall Cunningham threw that impossible touchdown pass to Jimmie Giles while suspended horizontally in midair.

Never showed any emotion because that's what journalists are supposed to do. Sit stone-faced while these unforgettable incredible moments are unfolding around us.

Then Kris Jenkins hit that shot and three decades of composure went out the window.

I stood up and put my hands on the side of my head and looked over at Mike Kern from the Daily News, who was next to me courtside at NRG Stadium in Houston, and screamed something to the effect of, "OHHHHHHHGGGGHHHHHHHGHGHGHGHGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!"

Ethics be damned. This just happened a few feet away from me, and you'd have to be a corpse to not react emotionally.

It's a year ago today since Villanova beat North Carolina, 77-74, to win the national championship, and I don't think a day goes by without me either thinking about Jenkins' game-winning shot or somebody reminding me of it or video just popping up on Twitter or Facebook.

So as the 2017 basketball season disappears into our rearview mirror, I thought I'd share 10 memories of April 4, 2016, the day that made me scream on the job.

1. What's amazing about that day is that it began at a downtown Houston hotel, where Allen Iverson learned he had been voted into the NBA Hall of Fame. Iverson has always been my favorite Philadelphia athlete, and you know how emotional he gets. I sat at a table with A.I. and a few other writers for an hour while he regaled us with stories and spoke about the highs and lows of his life and his career. It was very deep and very powerful and I remember thinking there was no way any basketball game could live up to this. There was no way any basketball game could be as emotional as sitting there with Allen Iverson listening to him talk in depth about his decline and resurrection. I was wrong. Oh yeah, I was totally wrong.

2. When I arrived at NRG Stadium a few hours later, I was shocked to see I was assigned a seat in the second row right at midcourt. I have no idea what I did to deserve a spot that -- with the elevated court -- may have been the single best seat in the entire stadium. The view was tremendous. I remember backing up and deleting all the photos in my phone because I knew I was going to be taking a lot of pictures. Good move right there.

 

3. There were thousands of North Carolina fans directly behind me, and they were going bonkers when the Tar Heels went on a 25-13 run to turn a 19-14 deficit halfway through the first half into a 39-32 lead a minute before halftime. UNC was up seven with the ball with under a minute left and I remember thinking this is a really crucial point for the Wildcats. If UNC goes up nine or 10 going into halftime, that's going to be tough to overcome. North Carolina had all the momentum. But Josh Hart blocked a Justin Jackson shot with 10 seconds left and Phil Booth ended the half with a jumper to cut the lead to five. I remember thinking how big that shot was. Still within striking distance.

4. With Ryan Arcidiacono, Jenkins, Booth and Hart all hitting big shot after big shot, the Wildcats built a 10-point lead with just five minutes left, and I thought to myself, "It's over." The Wildcats had been demolishing teams throughout their run. That team had such a killer instinct and I thought to myself, "This is where they turn this thing into a 15-point game." But the Tar Heels battled back. It was 67-57 'Nova with 4:42 left, but another UNC run -- this one 12-3 -- made it a one-point game at 70-69 Wildcats with half a minute left. Booth then made two free throws to give him 20 points and give Villanova a three-point lead, and I remember thinking, 'Man, Phil Booth, a guy averaging 6.7 points, a guy who didn't score more than 11 points in a Big East game, a guy who doesn't even start, is going to be the story of the National Championship Game.' Booth was huge, but as it turned out, he wasn't quite the story of the game.

5. Then there was Marcus Paige's shot, and that was the first time that night I just felt like I was watching history being made. It was the biggest situation of Paige's life, he found himself in an impossible position -- in mid-air, actually about to start falling back down toward the court as Arcidiacono flew by him with his arms outstretched. Paige sort of scissored his legs like a long jumper in mid-air, and heaved the ball toward the basket. Of course, it dropped right in to tie the game with five seconds left. If it hadn't been for what came next, it would have been remembered as one of the greatest shots in college basketball history.  

6. I said to Kern, "Plenty of time left," and I noticed that there was no panic among the Villanova players, even though their double-digit lead had just evaporated. It was Jenkins who turned to the ref as soon as Paige's shot went through the basket and immediately called timeout. I watched the Villanova players as they walked over to the bench. Nobody was hanging their heads. Nobody looked upset. No signs of panic. They just went into the huddle and figured out what to do next.

7. It was Jenkins that in-bounded to Arcidiacono under the UNC basket. There were 4.7 seconds on the scoreboard. I remember thinking there wasn't anybody on Earth I'd rather have with the basketball in his hands in that situation than Arcidiacono. He had been shooting so well in the tournament that if he wound up with the final shot, I liked his chances. But he's also such an unselfish player I knew that if somebody else had a cleaner look, they were getting the ball. Joel Berry picked up Arcidiacono full-court, and Arch actually made a sweet crossover move while still in the backcourt to gain some space to work as he crossed halfcourt.

Jenkins? He was trailing the play to Arch's right and he started raising his hand calling for the ball as he hit midcourt. What was most striking was just how decisive Villanova was running that play. There was no hesitation. They just ran the play like they had run it a thousand times at practice. Arch sort of underhand-scooped the ball to Jenkins and then ran in front of him, which was weird. Two things that stick out about the shot itself. He was really deep. Jenkins was at least four feet behind the three-point line, so this was about a 24-footer. And the other thing is that Isaiah Hicks, UNC's rangy 6-9 forward, came out of nowhere to really get a hand up in Jenkins' face, forcing him to arc the shot pretty high. I looked up at the scoreboard and clearly saw 0.2 as the ball was in flight. Good if it goes.

8. I just remember fixing my eyes on Jenkins, who stood motionless watching his shot splash through the rim. Booth and Hart were the first to jump on him and then bedlam. I was supposed to file a story as soon as the game ended, but I just kept taking pictures. Then an amazing thing happened. Jenkins for some reason ran right in front of me. Like eight feet away. Daniel Ochefu was embracing him and Jenkins was holding his arms up in the air soaking in the moment as most of the 74,000 people at NRG Stadium roared their approval. I remember thinking, 'I can always send my story 10 minutes late. I'll never be able to take these pictures again.' I took about 100 pictures in the next five minutes and tweeted out a bunch as the celebration unfolded in front of me. I still didn't believe what I just saw. I still don't. 

9. I ran back to my laptop and filed my early story, then ran over to a riser they had built on the court where the Villanova players and assistant coaches were gathering to watch the annual One Shining Moment video recapping the entire tournament and finishing with the ending we had all just watched. Naturally, I started taking pictures again. And that is the moment -- when I saw Arcidiacono in tears with his hands holding his head -- that it hit me. That it really hit me. Villanova had just won the national title on a 24-foot, buzzer-beating three-pointer by Jenkins. It was overwhelming. I know as media we're supposed to keep emotion out of the equation, but we're also human. Seeing those kids up on that stage watching highlights of their historic tournament run and the sheer joy in their faces ... that was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

 

10. Postgame was a blur. But what I remember clearest is this: Jenkins sitting in his locker, answering questions, clutching the trophy with his eyes closed. He wouldn't let go. I remember losing the AC charger for my MacBook Air and finding it at 2 a.m. on the floor back where my press box seat used to be (the tables were already gone). I remember doing a TV hit with John Clark outside NRG Stadium. I remember getting back to the hotel at 3:30 a.m., packing my bag and running to the airport to catch a 6 a.m. flight. I remember sitting in a coffee shop in Bucks County soaking it all in late Tuesday morning and somebody coming up to me and asking if I had a chance to see the Villanova game the night before. Yeah, I did catch it. More accurately, it caught me.

Redemption: North Carolina wins national championship in thriller over Gonzaga

Redemption: North Carolina wins national championship in thriller over Gonzaga

BOX SCORE

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It's OK, Carolina, you can open your eyes.

An unwatchable game turned into a beautiful night for the Tar Heels, who turned a free-throw contest into a championship they've been waiting an entire year to celebrate.

Justin Jackson delivered the go-ahead 3-point play with 1:40 left Monday and North Carolina pulled away for a 71-65 win over Gonzaga that washed away a year's worth of heartache.

It was, in North Carolina's words, a redemption tour -- filled with extra time on the practice court and the weight room, all fueled by a devastating loss in last year's title game on Kris Jenkins' 3-point dagger at the buzzer for Villanova.

"Just unreal that we get a second chance at this," junior Theo Pinson said, recounting a pre-game conversation with teammate Joel Berry II. "Not a lot of people can say they can do that. I told him, `We're about to take this thing. I'm about to give everything I got.' I knew he would, too, we just didn't want to come up short again."

But to say everything went right for Roy Williams' team at this Final Four would be less than the truth.

The Tar Heels (33-7) followed a terrible-shooting night in the semifinal with an equally ice-cold performance in the final -- going 4 for 27 from 3-point land and 26 for 73 overall.

Gonzaga, helped by 8 straight points from Nigel Williams-Goss, took a 2-point lead with 1:52 left, but the next possession was the game-changer.

Jackson took a zinger of a pass under the basket from Pinson and converted the shot, then the ensuing free throw to take the lead for good. Moments later, Williams-Goss twisted an ankle and could not elevate for a jumper that would've given the Bulldogs the lead.

Isaiah Hicks made a basket to push the lead to 3, then Kennedy Meeks, in foul trouble all night (who wasn't?), blocked Williams-Goss' shot and Jackson got a slam on the other end to put some icing on title No. 6 for the Tar Heels.

Williams got his third championship, putting him one ahead of his mentor, Dean Smith, and now behind only John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp.

"I think of Coach Smith, there's no question," Williams said. "I don't think I should be mentioned in the same sentence with him. But we got three because I've got these guys with me and that's all I care about right now -- my guys."

Berry recovered from ankle injuries to lead the Tar Heels, but needed 19 shots for his 22 points. Jackson had 16 but went 0 for 9 from 3. Overall, the Tar Heels actually shot a percentage point worse than they did in Saturday night's win over Oregon.

Thank goodness for free throws.

They went 15 for 26 from the line and, in many corners, this game will be remembered for these three men: Michael Stephens, Verne Harris and Mike Eades, the referees who called 27 fouls in the second half, completely busted up the flow of the game and sent Meeks, Gonzaga's 7-footers Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, and a host of others to the bench in foul trouble.

The game "featured" 52 free throws. Both teams were in the bonus with 13 minutes left. Somehow, Collins was the only player to foul out.

Most bizarre sequence: With 8:02 left, Berry got called for a foul for (maybe) making contact with Karnowski and stripping the ball from the big man's hands. But as Karnowski was flailing after the ball, he inadvertently grabbed Berry around the neck. After a long delay, the refs called Karnowski for a flagrant foul of his own.

"I'm not going to talk about refs," Karnowski said. "It was just a physical game."

Zags coach Mark Few handled it with class, calling the refs "three of the best officials in the entire country," and insisting they did a fine job.

He might have wanted further review on the scrum with 50 seconds left. The refs were taking heat on social media for calling a held ball, which gave possession to the Tar Heels, on a pile-up underneath the Carolina basket. It set up the Hicks layup to put Carolina ahead by 3. One problem: Meeks' right hand looks to be very much touching out of bounds while he's trying to rip away the ball.

"That was probably on me," Few said. "From my angle, it didn't look like an out of bounds situation or I would have called a review. That's tough to hear."

The Bulldogs (37-2), the Cinderella-turned-Godzilla team from the small school in the West Coast Conference, tried to keep the big picture in mind. Twenty years ago, this sort of run at that sort of place looked virtually impossible. With less than 2 minutes left, they had the lead in the national title game.

"We broke the glass ceiling everyone said we couldn't break," junior forward Johnathan Williams said.

And North Carolina got over a hump that, at times this season, felt like a mountain.

"They wanted redemption," Williams said. "I put it on the locker room up on the board -- one of the things we had to be tonight was tough enough. I think this group was tough enough tonight."