HOUSTON — North Carolina and Villanova reached the national championship game Monday night at NRG Stadium largely because they can shoot the ball better than most. So it turns out that in a game that had “shootout” written all over it, a shootout is precisely what happened.
Kris Jenkins, plagued by foul trouble early in the game, hit a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired, giving Villanova a 77-74 victory over the Tar Heels. For the Wildcats, it is their second national title in school history, and their first since a 1985 win over Georgetown.
Both teams began the game with a case of jitters. Following its red-hot shooting performance (71 percent) in a semifinal win against Oklahoma, Villanova missed its first two attempts and turned the ball over on its third possession of the night. But a Josh Hart 3-point jumper got the Wildcats on track and gave Nova its largest first-half lead at 14-9, before UNC could fire up its own engines.
With Villanova concerned about North Carolina’s length and size inside, the Heels put on an offensive display from the outside. Normally not a great long-distance shooting team, UNC hit five of its first seven 3-point attempts, turning a 19-14 deficit into a 27-23 lead (13-4 run) with Justin Jackson, Marcus Paige and Joel Berry connecting on consecutive treys.
The Wildcats’ quick solution to the outside onslaught was to re-insert Jenkins, who picked up two quick fouls in the opening three minutes. Jenkins, Villanova’s best outside shooter, hit back-to-back baskets to tie the game at 27. Berry then scored seven straight points himself (15 total in the first half) to put the Tar Heels back up, 34-30 with 1:56 remaining.
Jackson then found himself alone for a corner 3 that gave the Heels their largest lead of the half at seven, before a Phil Booth jumper in the lane pulled Nova back within five at the break (39-34). Carolina turned around Villanova’s strong defensive start by blistering the nets themselves in the half, hitting 7-of-9 treys and shooting 54 percent overall from the floor.
Could that Heel-hot shot continue to fall for Carolina? Not quite. With the score tied at 44, Booth scored five straight points for the Cats, punctuating a 19-5 run and propelling Villanova back into a 49-46 lead at the under-12-minute timeout. A Jenkins post-up jump shot over 6-foot-10 All-American Brice Johnson plus an Arcidiacono jumper put the Wildcats up seven at 53-46 two minutes later, extending their run.
Villanova’s defense, doggedly nipping at the Heels most of the way, began to make a difference. North Carolina managed to score just five points in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Back-to-back scores from Marcus Paige pulled UNC back within three, until Arcidiacono hit five straight points for Villanova, giving the Wildcats their largest lead of the night at eight (65-57) with 5:58 to play. That lead grew to 10, and Carolina’s shots that fell in the first half began to catch too much of the rim in the second half.
Still, the Tar Heels were far from finished. A Berry trey capped off a 7-0 UNC run to put the Heels within 67-64 with 3:42 remaining, only to have Booth answer with a dagger deuce of his own as the possession clock expired, putting Villanova back up five with 2:44 to play.
A Paige 3 kept UNC close, within 70-67 and 1:30 remaining, and the Tar Heels then slapped a trap on Villanova, forcing Arcidiacono into a rare turnover. Johnson then scored a baseline shot with an even 60 seconds to play, setting the stage for a frantic finish with Carolina trailing by one.
With the shot clock winding down, Booth appeared to have his shot blocked by Isaiah Hicks, only to have Hicks called for a foul. Two Booth free throws were followed by a tremendous second-effort put-back from Paige to keep it a one-point game. Hart hit a couple of pressure-packed free throws to put Nova up 74-71, setting the stage for an incredible game-tying shot.
Paige managed to connect on a 25-foot double-clutch of a prayer from the right flank for 3, sending the crowd into a frenzy. But the real frenzy was still 4.7 seconds away.
After a timeout to draw up the play, Jenkins’ number was called, and Jenkins shot himself into certain “One Shining Moment” fame, delivering a deep trey as the final buzzer sounded to give Villanova the thriller.
Providence’s Mike Stephens, in his fourth Final Four appearance, was the referee (lead official) for the national title game, joined by John Higgins and Terry Wymer on the game crew.
The game was Villanova’s third try at a national title in the school’s basketball history, having won previously in 1985. While the Wildcats did reach the Final Four in 2009 (and also 70 years earlier in 1939), they lost in the ’09 semis to, coincidentally, North Carolina. Their other appearance in the national title game came before the Big East formed in 1979, as the Wildcats lost to the UCLA juggernaut in 1971 at Houston’s Astrodome.
Villanova completes its 2015-16 season with a 35-5 record, setting a school mark for most wins in a single year. The Wildcats set another school record by playing in their 40th game overall.
Villanova and North Carolina last met in the first round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels lead the all-time series between the two, 11-5.
When the Final Four was last in Houston in 2011, UConn was then a member of the Big East. The Huskies defeated Butler — now a current member of the Big East — 53-41 to claim the national title.
The Big East Conference now owns eight national titles in 37 seasons of men’s basketball — Georgetown (’84), Villanova (’85, ’16) UConn (’99, ’04, ’11) Syracuse (’03) and Louisville (’13). Eight of the 10 current schools in the league have reached at least one Final Four (Providence has made two, in 1973 and 1987), with three current schools owning championship trophies (Marquette won in 1977 prior to league membership). Creighton and Xavier have not yet made a Final Four, but both have been as far as regional finals (Elite Eight). DePaul has twice made a Final Four, in 1943 and 1979.
At 21.1 points per game, Providence’s Ben Bentil finished the season ranked 17th nationally in scoring. Bentil led the Big East Conference, and also finished fourth in rebounding. Kris Dunn led the Big East in steals and finished fifth nationally (2.5 per game), while coming in 16th nationally in assists per game (6.2). Dunn just missed out on becoming the third straight Friar (over five consecutive years) to lead the Big East in assists (Vincent Council twice, Bryce Cotton, Dunn last year).
The U.S. Basketball Writers Association announced prior to the national title game that Oklahoma’s senior guard Buddy Hield is the winner of the Oscar Robertson Trophy, annually presented to the organization’s national player of the year. Hield is the second Sooner to win the award (after Blake Griffin in ’09), and he was a two-time Big 12 Conference Player of the Year. Hield was second nationally in scoring (25.4 ppg) and had 12 30-point games this season.
In the annual East-West College All-Star Game held over the weekend at NRG Stadium, Butler’s Kellen Dunham and Georgetown’s DeVauntes Smith-Rivera represented the East squad from the Big East. The West beat the East, 89-85.
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced the 10 members of the Class of 2016 to be honored Sept. 8-10 during this year’s enshrinement festivities in Springfield, Massachusetts. This year’s class includes 27-year NBA referee Darell Garretson, 11-time NBA All-Star Allen Iverson, two-time NABC Coach of the Year Tom Izzo, the first African-American coach in a professional league John McLendon, three-time NBA Finals MVP Shaquille O’Neal and four-time WNBA Champion Sheryl Swoopes.
Additionally, distinguished committees focused on preserving all areas from the game selected four directly elected members. They include Zelmo Beaty from the Veterans Committee, Yao Ming from the International Committee, Cumberland Posey from the Early African-American Pioneers Committee and Jerry Reinsdorf from the Contributor Committee.