Photo courtesy of Villanova University.
The 10-point lead was gone. Free-throw opportunities had been wasted. The Leviathan had somehow forged a tie, making Michael Jordan smile and Ol’ Roy cheer. Overtime beckoned—and that was something Villanova University definitely didn’t want.
Then Kris Jenkins stepped into his three-pointer, and the Villanova basketball world changed forever.
Remember when the Wildcats couldn’t get past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament? The whispers that Jay Wright was a good regular-season coach but couldn’t get it done when the Big Boys came to play?
That noise has been drowned out by the lingering soundtrack to an epic championship season consummated when Jenkins’ jumper splashed down at the buzzer on April 4, giving the Wildcats a 77-74 victory and their second national title. This season’s campaign would’ve only been considered a success with a trip to the Sweet 16. It rocketed well past that—and beyond anybody’s most improbable fantasies. With Wildcats past and present watching in person and around the country, Wright led Nova to the summit, bumping off a member of college basketball’s aristocracy in the process and pushing Big East 2.0 back among the sport’s elite.
From Left: Photo courtesy of Villanova University; Photo by Kelly Lyons.
There are teams that win national championships, and there are programs that accomplish the deed. This was a program title, belonging as much to those who played during Wright’s previous 14 years at the school as it did to the players who took the floor on April 4. Winning it all takes a lot of building, and the progress comes sporadically.
Nova’s 2009 Final Four appearance was followed by a few years of wandering in the wasteland. The early exits stung. But how many teams are always playing deep into the tournament? There aren’t many. In the past eight years, Duke has won a title but also lost to Lehigh and Mercer universities.
When Villanova and its Catholic brethren (plus Butler University) tried to create a powerful basketball-first conference, many wondered whether the schools’ aspirations were unreasonable. Football brought the dough and the prestige, and the idea that an 8,000-student private Eastern college could trade punches with college sports’ bullies—whose big-money football programs provided their bravado—was a quaint throwback. No matter how Villanova fans and alumni regard their school’s basketball program, its national profile doesn’t match that of schools from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC or Pac-12 conferences.
Photos by Kelly Lyons.
But basketball is a funny sport sometimes, as evidenced by the Final Four appearances of Butler, George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth University over the past 11 years. None of them won it all, though. UConn did—but despite the Huskies’ relatively modest AAC pedigree, they still play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level and have state-school resources. Villanova does not.
But Villanova does have a second national title, and Wright is now securely ensconced in the school’s Valhalla. The game was remarkable, but the voyage has been even more impressive. Wright and Villanova persevered through countless joys and heartbreaks to build a champion.
As the confetti swirled and the streamers fluttered to earth, every Wildcat from the past 15 years could rightly claim a part of the trophy. And a place in history.