We just witnessed the greatest finish the NCAA Tournament has ever seen.
With the championship game's final seconds ticking away, UNC had the ball trailing 74-71. The Tar Heels worked the ball to Marcus Paige, who dropped Villanova's Daniel Ochefu, jumped to shoot, realized Ryan Arcidiacono's hand was in his face, double-clutched his shot, and somehow found the strength to throw the ball toward the rim — and it went in.
That shot in and of itself should go down in basketball history. Off-balance, off-rhythm, off-everything ... and yet it was pure. Paige scored eight points in the game's final 90 seconds to tie up the game. One one play, TV cameras lost sight of a missed shot for about half a second, then Paige emerged with it from the bottom of a pile and laid it in. He was a man possessed, and with shots ranging from improbable to impossible, he got his team to the brink of overtime.
But his miracle shot went in with 4.7 seconds left. Typically that's not enough to do much in college basketball — unlike the NBA, you can't advance the ball to midcourt with a timeout, so the Wildcats had to bring the ball the full length of the floor. The Wildcats had about four seconds to get the ball 60 feet, a half-second to shoot, and the rest of eternity to live with the consequences of the shot.
It went in:
Ball game. National championship, confetti, etc.
The play Jay Wright drew up was perfect. It's called "Nova," and it actually has several options, and that's why it worked. When Arcidiacono, the team's senior leader, got the ball across halfcourt, UNC prepared to stop him. They shaded into the paint to ensure he wouldn't get a game-winning layup. They stuck him tight, to ensure the sharpshooter to ensure he wouldn't get off a three.
They didn't prepare to stop Kris Jenkins, the inbounder, and arguably a better shooter, who was trailing the play. Jenkins caught it, squared up with space, and shot. Jenkins, who was playing against his adoptive brother, UNC guard Nate Britt,is too good a shooter to leave with that much space. Everybody who knows Jenkins knew as soon as he squared up that the shot was good. (Including Britt.)
* * *
The song they play at the end of all this is called "One Shining Moment," and we definitely had one Monday night. In the college basketball season's defining moment, Villanova and Kris Jenkins shone. Simple as that. It's a play that will be replayed, both in video clips and in our minds, for as long as college basketball is a thing. But this game was better than just that sparkling second.
UNC began the year as college basketball's No. 1 team, dropped off for a bit, and over the last month, restaked that claim. They won every game in the NCAA Tournament before the final at least 14 points. They won games where they shot well, they won games where they beasted on the offensive glass.
Villanova perhaps looked even better than UNC in March. They had the best offensive performance any team had all season long in the Sweet 16 — the best out of over 6,000 individual team games. And then they obliterated Oklahoma by 44 in the Final Four, the biggest semifinal blowout of all time.
These two teams were clearly the two best in college basketball, blowing the freakin' doors off of everybody they faced in March. It was a matchup of the unstoppable force of the Wildcats and the unmovable Heels, cemented in tar.
College basketball's thrills are often provided by the foibles and failings of amateur 17-to-21 year olds, but there were few flaws tonight. The two best teams in college basketball played to their full potential, each preposterously hot. UNC shot 11-for-17 from three, Villanova 8-for-14 from three. Both teams in the national championship game hit over half of their threes! How is that possible!
We've seen many incredible finales in the NCAA Tournament, and we've seen many incredible NCAA Tournament finals. We've seen Cinderellas take down juggernauts, we've seen thrilling last-second hits, we've seen thrilling last-second misses.
But I don't think we've ever seen anything like tonight: Two incredible teams playing as perfectly as they can for 39 minutes and 50 seconds, then trading mind-boggling shots for the championship.
Only Villanova gets to say they won, and only Jenkins' shot will be on highlight reels for decades. But this game had two incredible teams and at least two shining moments -- hell, dozens of shining moments -- and if we remember them all, Jenkins' shot might even shine brighter.