The ball was in the air, and two teams, two coaches and 74,340 fans craned their necks to catch a glimpse.
If it went in, it would be a thunderous, thrilling conclusion to one of the best college basketball games in years. For Villanova and North Carolina, the national championship hung in the balance.
Villanova’s lead had just evaporated. Overtime loomed. North Carolina guard Marcus Paige’s dramatic three-point basket had tied the score with less than five seconds to play. But that shot was about to be upstaged.
With time winding down, Ryan Arcidiacono had brought the ball upcourt and passed it back to Kris Jenkins, who let it fly.
The ball went in, Jenkins’ hands went up and his teammates wrestled him down. The clock showed zeros. Villanova took the championship, 77-74.
Moments before, it had nearly vanished. Villanova led by three points with less than 10 seconds to play.
Paige lined up a three-pointer. He faked. The first defender went by. Arcidiacono closed. Paige jumped, pumped and twisted in the air, firing up a shot. The ball swirled in.
North Carolina fans tossed their seat cushions in the air like graduation caps. But the commencement never culminated.
And Jenkins, once an overweight afterthought of a recruit, was the hero. He scored 14. As fate would have it, his stepbrother, Nate Britt, plays for North Carolina. Initially, Villanova recruited Britt. Jenkins was told that he lacked the work ethic to make the team. But he stuck around.
After the game, Jenkins found Britt on the court. Britt’s parents had taken Jenkins in, at Jenkins’ parents’ request, and treated him as a son.
“This hurts,” Britt said. “It’s bragging rights, probably, for the rest of our lives.”
This was a season that supposedly featured no dominant teams, in an era taken over by freshmen and dominated by the three-point shot. Yet it yielded two finalists, neither with a likely one-and-done player, that breezed into the title game.
Monday’s game, in comparison, was one of the most dramatic title games in years. The lead changed hands nine times. The score was tied nine times. Neither team led by more than 10 points.
And Jenkins’ shot, Paige said, “was one of the biggest shots in NCAA tournament history. That was supposed to be our moment.”
It could’ve been Arcidiacono’s too. With the score tied, Villanova called timeout. In the huddle, Wright said he wanted the ball in Arcidiacono’s hands. Jenkins told him he’d be open.
“Jenkins lives for that moment,” Wright said.
It was a play the team runs every day in practice. But, forward Daniel Ochefu said, the team figured Arcidiacono might take the shot. It was his decision. No one, Ochefu said, would’ve complained.
He brought the ball up the floor. Behind him, Jenkins yelled for it.
“All I heard was, ‘Arch, Arch, Arch,’” Arcidiacono said.
So he shoveled it back. It was, Paige said later, a shock. He realized that Jenkins was open.
Down low, Ochefu said, “I just mouthed, ‘Shoot it.’”
“When Arch threw me that pass — one, two, step, shoot ‘em up,” Jenkins said.
Early on, North Carolina had actually led. It took a five-point lead into halftime, thanks to Berry’s 15 points in the period. But Villanova kept grinding North Carolina down. It chipped away. Six minutes into the second half a two-handed dunk by Mikal Bridges tied the score at 44-44. Less than two minutes later, Booth pulled up and hit a three-pointer. It was part of a 13-2 surge. Villanova had reclaimed the lead.
“I was dumb enough, when we were down 10, I promised ‘em, if they do what I said, we’d come back and we’d have a chance to win the game,” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said.
The Tar Heels settled down. When Paige splashed in a three-pointer with 90 seconds left, the deficit was three points. Later, he missed a layup but wrestled the rebound away and muscled in a second try.
Nobody but Paige would take the Tar Heels’ last shot.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had anybody make a tougher shot,” Williams said.
Perhaps, but the one that followed was even tougher.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand