Brooklyn, N.Y. -- JayVaughn Pinkston messed up.
With four seconds left, Villanova was holding onto a delicate 56-55 lead over Michigan. Pinkston just put Villanova ahead at the 18-second mark after muscling Zak Irvin out of the way and dropping in a bucket. Now he was assigned to defend the ball as Spike Albrecht looked to find an open man and give his Wolverines the win. Pinkston, a power forward, doesn’t normally guard the inbounder. But every player on Villanova’s roster is supposed to know not to let a pass into the middle of the paint.
Yet Pinkston overextended, allowing Albrecht to find Irvin cutting toward the post. Irvin caught the bounce pass and took off. Pinkston spun around and met him in the air for a monstrous block that will be remembered as one of the best of the year.
Ryan Arcidiacono recovered the loose ball and then made four foul shots down the stretch to help No. 12 Villanova take down its second top-20 team in two nights with a 60-55 win over Michigan.
Making a critical mistake before reversing course to save the day -- it might be the perfect metaphor for Pinkston’s career.
Pinkston, a Brooklyn native, was suspended for his entire freshman season at Villanova after getting into a fight at a fraternity party. At first, he thought about going home. But his mother Kerry insisted he stay in school. Villanova coach Jay Wright arranged for Pinkston to spend the year living with friends of his, Matt and Christie O’Reilly. Pinkston paid rent by working in a warehouse and got ahead on his classes. His only connection to basketball was volunteering as a coach for Jack O’Reilly’s sixth grade team.
"Not being able to play basketball anymore was overwhelming," Pinkston told Sports Illustrated in the spring, "and I thought about walking away from the game for good."
Instead, he came back to school and finished his redshirt freshman season averaging 9.6 points per game. He followed that up with 13.3 as a sophomore. He expected to hit have a breakout junior season, but at the end of the summer, he needed two surgeries to overcome an MRSA infection. The injury didn’t slow him down at all as he averaged 14.1 point and 6.1 rebounds last season, tied for third on the team; and he helped Villanova earn a surprise No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
This season, with the Wildcats returning five of their top six scorers, Wright knows he can no longer sneak up on teams. Instead, the Wildcats rely on the strength of their upperclassmen. Guards Arcidiacono and Darrun Hilliard, who combined to commit 10 turnovers in last season’s third round NCAA tournament loss to UConn, have tallied 36 assists against just 11 turnovers on the season. The Wildcats have also found two surprising sources of points in juniors Dylan Ennis and Daniel Ochefu, who may be the most improved player in college basketball so far this season.
But entering the Legends Classic, Pinkston felt a pressure to be the leader he finally felt he was. He posted 15 points and seven rebounds in Monday night’s game against VCU, making the Rams’ vaunted “Havoc” defense look downright calm. After the game, he said he was "focused on defense and rebounding."
"He’s officially brainwashed," Wright joked.
Against Michigan, Pinkston struggled to score, failing to put up any points until a breakaway dunk in the second half. But by then he’d already hauled in seven rebounds. He may be brainwashed, but he’s backing up his words with his play on the court. He finished the game with eight points, nine rebounds and that one big block.
And afterward, he was soft-spoken and humble, reiterating that he was focused on defense and rebounding, and on Villanova’s next opponent: Delaware. He even deflected praise on the block, which is the biggest and most memorable play of his career. Instead, he admitted to making a mistake and laughed about it in the postgame press conference.
"For him to go up and say that was a great moment," Wright said after the press conference. "Everyone on our team knows him. And he would have admitted it in the locker room last season, but I don't know if he would have had the confidence to come out with it in public."
To Pinkston, the play wasn’t anything spectacular. It wasn't a defining block in a statement game against a top-20 team in front of what felt like an NCAA tournament atmosphere, especially late in the second half. It was just another chance to defend.
"Making a mistake is OK sometimes," he said. "I didn’t think too much about it in the moment. I just tried to focus on the task at hand, getting back in the play. And then I went up against him mano a mano and won."
It was another victory in a long line of them for Pinkston, who has grown up rapidly for a grateful Villanova program. Making a mistake is OK sometimes. What matters most is how you recover.