By Cameron Stewart |@
Sports Capital Journalism Program
HOUSTON — When Phil Booth knocked down a pair of free throws to put the Villanova Wildcats ahead by 10 points over the North Carolina Tar Heels with 5:29 remaining in the national championship game, a title seemed secure. The Wildcats had made it to Monday night’s game behind a poised starting lineup composed of four upperclassmen that consistently protected the ball, and clamped down on the defensive end.
The portion of the 74,340 in attendance at NRG Stadium hoping to see North Carolina capture its sixth national championship had gotten quieter and quieter as they saw a five-point advantage at halftime slip away.
Then North Carolina decided that it wasn’t time to concede the game just yet. Spearheaded by seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, the Tar Heels clawed back into the game and found themselves down only three points with the ball, with 13.5 seconds remaining on the clock.
That’s when Paige received the ball on an in-bounds pass and Villanova senior Daniel Ochefu unsuccessfully went for a steal. Villanova senior Ryan Arcidiacono recognized the risk and ran towards Paige. But Paige rose up for a three-point attempt, double clutched and forced the shot. The running heave flew in, putting an exclamation mark on the Tar Heels’ epic comeback.
The North Carolina faithful was now at a full roar. Dozens of orange and black seat cushions were flying all over the arena. With everyone on their feet, those seat covers were rendered useless.
For most teams, especially at the college level, being on the other side of North Carolina’s comeback would be crippling. That would not be the case for these Villanova Wildcats.
“Nothing’s going to break our team down mentally,” said walk-on senior Henry Lowe on his team’s ability to handle adversity. “We pride ourselves on our mental toughness.”
That mental toughness was put on full display in the defining moment of their season.
Needing to go the length of the court with only 4.7 seconds remaining, junior forward Kris Jenkins inbounded the ball to Arcidiacono. When nobody in a North Carolina jersey picked up Jenkins defensively, he headed to the right wing to spot up for a jumper. Arcidiacono delivered a pass to Jenkins that gave him just enough time to catch and shoot. The shot left Jenkins’ fingertips with 0.5 seconds left.
How did the Wildcats handle their evaporated 10-point lead with their season on the line?
“We have belief in each other and confidence in each other,” said sophomore guard Phil Booth, who led the game in scoring with a season-high 20 points. “No matter what’s going on, we can bounce back from anything going on together.”
If the Wildcats looked like they had been in that situation before, it’s because they have been.
“We practice end of game situations every day in practice and it worked out for us,” said junior guard Josh Hart, who chipped in 12 points and 8 rebounds in the victory. “This team was so dialed in and focused. We weren’t nervous for overtime or scared to lose and I think that’s the biggest element of why we were able to just go out there and play.”
It’s only fitting for Villanova to win its first national title since 1985 on the strength of its mental toughness and attitude in the face of adversity.
“That’s the Villanova way,” Ochefu said.