Villanova Wildcats

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.

Villanova moves up to No. 1 in the nation

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AP Images

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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AP Images

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.