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's buzzer-beating win over Georgetown in 1999 was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

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Villanova's buzzer-beating win over Georgetown in 1999 was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

January 30th 1999.  I was a 15-year-old who wondered how the Phillies would build around Scott Rolen, marveled at Lindros and LeClair’s 40 goal seasons, happy to have Iverson back after a lockout and was suspicious about some guy named ‘Reid’ the Eagles just hired.  

In the midst of all this, my best bud, Ryan Bennett and his family, scored tickets to Villanova vs. Georgetown at the now Wells Fargo Center for a Saturday noon tipoff and they were kind enough to invite me along.  

I remember Ryan and I had a CYO High School basketball game that night in Lansdale at 7 p.m.

“No problem, plenty of time”, we thought. 

The Bennett’s picked me up at that morning and off we went to what would be the best game I ever saw... 

Our seats were in the upper level, 1st row, in a corner at the end Nova would be shooting at in the 2nd half.

Steve Lapas’ Wildcats opened with a 13-0 run on Craig Esherick’s Hoyas. Esherick had just taken over for the legend, John Thompson. 

Just as an aside. My friend and I kept thinking Esherick looked A LOT like Norm MacDonald as Burt Reynolds (aka Turd Ferguson) on SNL’s celebrity Jeopardy. You be the judge…

Anyway, back to basketball.  

In the 2nd half, the Wildcats built a 17-point lead only to see it wiped away with a 17-0 Hoyas run. Georgetown’s Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje’s lay-up tied the game at 67 with 2:30 left. RBB was a Cameroonian baller before it was trendy. 

I remember a slew of guys were in foul trouble. Including RBB and Malik Allen.

In the final :45 seconds, tied at 69-69, both Nova and G-town sent guys to the line to shoot two. Neither team hit a free throw. Missed all four.  

Nova had one final chance on an inbounds play with 11 seconds left in regulation. John Celestand got the ball, tried working for a shot, gave it up to Allen who shot and missed from the top of the key as time expired.  

1st OT

The Hoyas struck first with a three, then three players fouled out; the Hoyas’ RBB and Jaleel Watkins and Nova’s T.J. Caouette. Six players would end up fouling out of this game in total. 

With :11 seconds left and Nova down two, Brooks Sales hit two free throws to tie it at 78. Kevin Braswell, a freshman guard for the Hoyas brought the ball up and was picked up by Celestand. Braswell rose for the game winner with :03 seconds on the clock and Celestand stuffed him! The ball never even left the freshman’s hand! Celestand was all over it. Smothered! 

Time ran out. 

2nd OT 

The game seesawed a bit. Howard Brown banked in a three for Nova. Braswell responded with a driving lay-up. 82-81, Georgetown.

With a little over 2:00 left, Allen, fouled out.  Nova would keep pace thanks to a huge three from Brian Lynch with just over a minute left that gave the Cats an 87-86 lead.   

Then things got bleak for Nova. 

Georgetown took a 90-87 lead on another Braswell layup and a free throws from Daymond Jackson and Anthony Perry. Perry made the first of two, missed the second. Nova secured the rebound and pushed up the floor with :14 seconds left. 

Then a Nova Miracle. 

The Wildcats, down 3, crossed half court and set up their offense with nine seconds left. They worked it to Brown in the corner. The same corner my friend and I were sitting over in the upper level. Brown let it fly and hit the three to tie the game at 90. With 2.4 seconds left the Hoyas inbounded under the basket and threw a pass to half court. The ball was tipped by Nova and wound up in the hands of the Cats’ Jermaine Medley. Medley grabbed the ball, spun and shot all in one motion. 

Splash. 

Buzzer Beater. 

Nova Wins! 

The Wildcats scored six points in under four seconds to win in double overtime, 93-90. 

Me, Ryan and his parents jumped with excitement, high-fived and then ran to the parking lot. We had our own game to play. We got from the upper level to the car in record time and we were one of the first cars out of the lot. We just made our CYO game in Lansdale, which for the record, we won.

One of the things that made being at this game so awesome was that the broadcast had a horrible camera angle for Medley’s game winner. ESPN didn’t capture the shot live. When Ryan and I got to our game that night, a teammate couldn’t believe we “were at that game.” He said it wasn’t until replays aired that people at home actually saw what happened.  

Fast forward 17 years. I’m boarding a flight, Charlotte to Philadelphia. Christmas Eve. None-other-than Steve Lappas sits next to me. We get to talking. Incredibly nice guy. I bring up this Nova game. Two things he told me. He knew Celestand had Braswell on that block in the first OT and he still can’t believe how Medley made that circus shot at the end. Neither can I. 

Nova-Georgetown double OT, truly the best game I ever saw.  

The Kris Jenkins shot vs. North Carolina was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

The Kris Jenkins shot vs. North Carolina was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

Reuben Frank and Sean Kane both chose the 2016 national championship game between Villanova and North Carolina as the greatest game they ever saw in person. Reuben was there as a reporter, Sean was there as a fan. Here are each of their perspectives. 

Reuben Frank: We're taught from Day 1 as journalists to never let your emotions show, to remain unbiased, and for the first 33 years, six months and 12 days of my career I had a perfect record. Then Kris Jenkins hit a jumper. So much for objectivity. I was court-side at NRG Stadium in Houston - second row, center court - when Jenkins his that 26-footer at the buzzer to give Villanova the 2016 NCAA Championship over North Carolina, and I'm pretty sure that Mike Kern of the Daily News, sitting to my left, and I both stood up and looked at each other and screamed "OHHHHHHHHHHH" at the top of our lungs when the ball splashed through the basket as the buzzer sounded.

Then, as the confetti rained down from the roof and bedlam ensued, Jenkins for some reason ran right in front of me to celebrate and I began taking as many pictures as I could. The Super Bowl was dramatic and unforgettable. But for that Villanova-UNC game I was on top of the action, just a few feet from the court, just a few feet where I lost my cool after 33 years, just a few feet from the greatest shot in college basketball history. 

Sean Kane: This game narrowly edges out Super Bowl 52 and the classic Duke/Kentucky regional final at the Spectrum in 1992. I'm fortunate enough to have been in attendance for arguably the two greatest shots in college basketball history - Christian Laettner's turnaround jumper to beat Kentucky and Kris Jenkins' three-pointer to beat North Carolina. The 2016 national title game is my choice for a number of reasons. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I've been a Villanova fan for as long as I can remember. My grandfather went to Villanova. My uncle and cousin went there too. I've been going to Villanova basketball and football games since I was a little boy. So to be there to see my favorite team win a national championship at the buzzer? Nothing tops that. 

The 2016 Final Four was the first time I attended a Villanova NCAA Tournament game as a fan. I covered Villanova in the tournament every year from 2006-2009, trying my best to stay objective. But going as a fan was a new experience. My Dad and I decided to go as soon as Villanova beat Kansas in the Elite Eight. My wife immediately got us plane tickets and a hotel room in Houston and we left the morning of the national semifinals. We were there for Villanova's historic 44-point win over Oklahoma on Saturday night, the biggest blowout in Final Four history. The PGA Tour was in Houston that weekend, so we spent Sunday watching golf. It all worked out perfectly. Then the main event - Villanova and North Carolina in the championship game on Monday night. North Carolina had ended Villanova's season in the NCAA Tournament three times during the Jay Wright Era - 2005, 2009 and 2013. But this time was different thanks to Phil Booth's 20 points off the bench and Ryan Arcidiacono finding Jenkins for the win as the buzzer sounded. It was one of the greatest games in college basketball history. It ended with the best shot in NCAA Tournament history. And I was there to see it with my Dad, who raised me as a Villanova fan. That's as good as it gets for me.