Villanova Wildcats

Led by Rollie Massimino, Villanova fondly remembers 1985 championship

Led by Rollie Massimino, Villanova fondly remembers 1985 championship

Rollie Massimino took the stage surrounded by a band, students, and scores of blue-and-white balloons and delivered a speech as fiery as one of his Villanova halftime pep talks.

Thirty-one years after Massimino brought an improbable national championship to Villanova, the 80-year-old coaching lifer exhorted protege Jay Wright to win a second title.

"We're going to win tonight! We're going to win tonight!" he commanded as the crowd in Houston roared. "You have family here that is part of your own personal family, but you're part of the Villanova family. That's why we're going to win! Just remember, that part of me is we and Villanova's guys are all in it together. When Jay wins that championship, with all his great players, we're going to root, root, root for Villanova!"

The Wildcats delivered that night in 2016 for Daddy Mass and won the national championship. Six months later, Massimino returned to campus for a championship celebration and danced a little jig as he took the court. Wright, the cool, calm leader of the Wildcats, choked up when he surprised Massimino with a championship ring. The setting was perfect on a night when the 2016 banner joined the one for Massimino's `85 team in the rafters.

With Massimino in hospice care, a long battle with cancer about over, Wright traveled to Florida to say goodbye.

"We just thought if anybody was going to beat cancer and never die, you just thought it was going to be coach Mass," Wright said Wednesday. "We watched him really struggle at the end, so it's nice that he went peacefully and with his family. But it's a big void in this Villanova basketball family because his presence was just so powerful. It impacted current players, current coaches, all his players, the players that came before him, coaches before him. He was just larger than life."

The patriarch of the Villanova family is now gone. Massimino died Wednesday at his home, with his wife of 59 years and some of those closest to him at his side.

Massimino, who was still the coach at Keiser University, was 82. He won more than 800 games in his coaching career, the most notable of those wins coming when Villanova played "The Perfect Game" and stunned Georgetown for the 1985 NCAA title.

"Coach Mass' job was to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed," 1985 Wildcat Gary McLain said.

Massimino, a finalist for enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame this year, was a fixture behind the Villanova bench during its runs to the Final Four in 2009 and 2016. Wright was hired by Massimino to serve as an assistant at Villanova in 1987 and the two held the same jobs later at UNLV. When Wright was hired to coach the Wildcats, he patched the relationship between Massimino and Villanova that stemmed from an acrimonious split in 1992.

"I think he was really comfortable and knew that we all wanted him around, and he wanted to be here," Wright said. "He always wanted to be at Villanova."

Massimino, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2011, also coached at Stony Brook, UNLV and Cleveland State. He spent the last 11 years at Keiser, where he started the program and turned it into an NAIA power.

But he's forever linked to Villanova and that April 1, 1985 night when the eighth-seeded Wildcats topped mighty Georgetown for the title. They remain the lowest-seeded program to win an NCAA title.

Villanova won games against Dayton, top-seeded Michigan, No. 5 Maryland, No. 2 North Carolina, and No. 2 Memphis State before defeating Georgetown in an all-Big East final 66-64.

The Wildcats sank 22 of 28 attempts, including nine of 10 in the second half. They made 22 of 27 free throws, with 11 coming in the final two minutes. Like the Miracle on Ice, the Miracle Mets or Buster Douglas, the `85 Wildcats remain forever frozen near the top of the short list of great sports upsets.

Massimino always laughed when he said he never watched a tape of the `85 title game.

"I'm afraid we're still going to lose," he said.

That game with the Tar Heels was the one where Massimino gave what those linked to that `85 team still call "the pasta speech" at halftime.

"He looked at all of us and threw his coat down," Chuck Everson, who played on that team, said Wednesday. "He said, `If I knew it was going to come down to this, I'd rather have a bowl of pasta with clam sauce and a lot of cheese on it.' Everybody was looking at him like, `What the heck does this have to do about playing?' What he was saying was just go out and have some fun. Do something you like. Play. Everybody's eyes exploded."

Massimino would never again find that so-called one shining moment. His critics said that success ruined him, something Jim Valvano -- who led NC State to an improbable championship in 1983 -- had warned Massimino about. Massimino and Villanova were held responsible for the crumbling of Philadelphia's hallowed Big 5 and the Wildcats never got past the regional final again before he left in 1992 after 19 seasons at Villanova.

He kept his promise to his players that they would always be a part of his family. Massimino and his wife, Mary Jane, let grown men sleep on air mattresses scattered all over their home while dining on his favorites -- tons of pasta, tons of eggplant, all the while toasting the past and the future.

Until this summer when the Pavilion was closed for renovations, a 50-foot mural inside the entrance to Villanova's home court highlighted the Wildcats' greatest basketball glory. There were pictures of Massimino and photos of the 1985 title team wildly celebrating in a parade, hoisting the trophy over their heads as crowds jammed the streets of downtown Philadelphia.

Weakened by cancer, Massimino made an appearance this summer at Villanova's "Summer Jam," a chance for past and present Wildcats to celebrate under one roof. Everson and fellow `85 Wildcats Brian Harrington and Harold Pressley saw Massimino this week in hospice to tell their coach they loved him.

"The last thing he said to me was, `I love you,'" Everson said. "That's a rarity with a coach and a player relationship. That doesn't happen. He taught us that it was OK to be that way, to show your feelings like that. It was OK to do all that stuff."

Pressley laughed as he recalled a bucket list trip he made just weeks ago with Massimino to Atlantic City, New Jersey.

"I never gamble! Let's go gambling," Pressley recalled Massimino telling him. "We lost a couple of hundred dollars each. He said, `How do people do this?' I told him, Coach, let it go. It was something we had to do."

Massimino is survived by his wife, five children and 17 grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.

"He's going to live in all the players he coached, all the coaches that coached with him," Wright said. "We are all products of him."

Villanova moves up to No. 1 in the nation

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Villanova moves up to No. 1 in the nation

If you're looking for a sliver of good news on a depressing day in Philly sports, Villanova is now the No. 1 team in the nation.

The 10-0 Wildcats moved up to the top spot in Monday's AP poll, receiving 41 of 65 first-place votes.

Michigan State, Wichita State, Duke and Arizona State round out the top five, in that order (see Top 25).

Duke, the unanimous No. 1 team the last two Mondays, lost 89-84 on Saturday at Boston College.

Last week's No. 2 team, Kansas, moved down to No. 13 after losing twice last week to Washington and Arizona State.

Villanova plays twice this week — at Temple on Wednesday for a Big 5 showdown, then vs. Hofstra on Friday night. Those are the Wildcats' last two non-conference games before they begin Big East play on Dec. 27 at DePaul.

Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

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Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

BOX SCORE

Duke's run at No. 1 ended with a court-storming loss at Boston College and No. 2 Kansas wilted in a rare home loss.

Undaunted and undefeated, Villanova is charging toward the top spot.

"We played the next No. 1 team in the country," La Salle coach John Giannini said Sunday.

The Explorers got a taste of how tough it can be to knock off the Wildcats. La Salle scored more baskets, sank more 3-pointers, had more steals and still was just another victim in Villanova's unbeaten season.

Phil Booth scored 18 points and Donte DiVincenzo had 18 points and 10 rebounds to help the fourth-ranked Wildcats avoid an upset in a 77-68 win over La Salle.

"They don't have bad games," Giannini said.

This was as close as one gets for the Wildcats (10-0). They were sloppy -- throwing the ball away several times on outlet passes -- slumped from the 3-point line and could not shake the pesky Explorers until the final minutes of the game to win their 21st straight Big 5 game.

The Wildcats had depth and a massive edge from the free-throw line to sink the Explorers. La Salle (5-6) was a two-man show in B.J Johnson and Amar Stukes, and that was enough to give them a 62-61 lead with 4:47 left.

But the Wildcats had Booth and DiVincenzo, and Jalen Brunson scored 17 and Mikal Bridges, quiet all game, came to life for crucial baskets late to seal the win. Throw in the whopping disparity from the line -- Villanova made 27 of 35, La Salle was 4 of 5 -- and the Wildcats made their case for why they should fight it out with No 3. Michigan State (9-1) to become the new No. 1 team in the AP Top 25.

"It's a great lesson for our guys. The score isn't always what the game is really about," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Booth put the Wildcats ahead with three free throws and followed with an assist on DiVincenzo's 3-pointer that made it 67-62 and finally gave them a bit of breathing room. Bridges, coming off a career-high 28 points against Gonzaga, went inside for a pair of tough buckets and a 71-64 lead that brought the Villanova fans to their feet.

"These guys have played in these games. They're not surprised," Wright said.

Johnson led the Explorers with 21 points and Stukes had 16 to help keep slim hopes alive of pulling off a stunner. The duo combined to hit seven 3-pointers and carried La Salle to the brink of victory.

"When we're out there and we started making plays, we felt like we could do that against anybody," Stukes said. "The shots started falling. We just had to play defense."

The Wildcats beat No. 12 Gonzaga by 16 points this week at Madison Square Garden and were expected to roll against the Explorers at the Wells Fargo Center. The foundation for their perfect record had come from the 3-point line; the Wildcats hit a school-record 19 against Saint Joseph's and buried 10 against the Zags. Against the Explorers, the 3s dried up in the first half. Villanova missed its first six attempts and missed eight of 10 overall in the half.

La Salle went the opposite direction in the first half. Shooting a miserable 29 percent from 3-point range this season, the Explorers went 6 of 12 to take a 38-37 lead. Stukes hit two straight 3s and his bucket a tick before the horn gave La Salle the lead at the break.

Villanova, La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Penn make up the city series field. The Wildcats have emerged as the class of the city and haven't been defeated by a Philadelphia-area team since Temple won on Dec. 5, 2012.

Big picture
La Salle: The Explorers lost for the 15th time in the last 16 games against Villanova. But a lot of teams lose all the time to `Nova. It's what the Explorers do from here that will define their season. They have two more nonconference games to shape up before they open the Atlantic 10 season Dec. 30 against St. Louis. The Explorers haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and will need more consistent performances like they had in the first half to get there again this season.

Villanova: The Wildcats win again. Even when the score is close, the outcome never seems in doubt against a city school. Los Angeles Lakers rookie Josh Hart, one of the stars of the 2016 national championship team, sat courtside and earned a standing ovation as the alum of the game. He trash-talked Johnson in the second half and laughed when the La Salle forward buried a bucket after their exchange.

Ouch
Villanova played without G Collin Gillespie because of a left wrist injury suffered in practice.

Up next
La Salle: Hosts Mercer on Sunday.

Villanova: The Wildcats finish the Big 5 season Wednesday at Temple.