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HOUSTON — We’ll remember it forever, but he saw it first. Kris Jenkins inbounded to Ryan Arcidiacono, ran toward half-court and called out, “Arch! Arch! Arch!” Jenkins could tell he would be open for the greatest shot in NCAA championship game history, and he assumed he would hit it, because he is Kris Jenkins and he assumes these things.
Jenkins was Villanova’s last option on the play, but so what? When he was in middle school in South Carolina, his mother, Felicia, worried about his behavior and his circle of friends, and she sent him to live with the Britts, of Upper Marlboro, Md., whose son, Nate, had been AAU teammates with Kris. They were in the stands Monday night. Nate was on the North Carolina bench, watching the man he considers a brother rise to crush his dream, and Nate saw it too, before the rest of us:
“That’s going in,” Nate thought.
When Jenkins left his feet, the score was tied, 74–74. It had already been a game for the ages, the kind that brings you back to college basketball, seducing you like an old flame. Forget about APRs and one-and-dones and the true cost of attendance: This game was a two-hour reminder of the pleasure of attendance.
In the first half, North Carolina was surprisingly hot from three-point range and took a five-point lead into the break. Jenkins got in early foul trouble, but when he was on the bench he was vocal, and when he was on the floor he was the aggressor.
A day earlier, Jenkins had been asked if he would talk to his brother before the game, and he said he loved his brother but no, he would not, and then he finished by saying he would be ready, because it was Carolina. Not his brother. Not the title game. Carolina. He wanted a shot at his sport’s Mayweather, its Tiger, its Yankees.
In the second half, Villanova locked down on North Carolina and took a 10-point lead on the favorites. The Tar Heels looked frustrated, except for Marcus Paige, the senior guard. A day earlier, Paige had been asked what it would be like to take off his jersey for the final time, and he gave an eloquent answer but admitted he didn’t really know. Now it was clear: He just wanted to do it as a champion.
Jenkins released the ball. As it descended toward the rim, the crowd could start to see what Nate Britt thought: The shot was going in.
Jenkins ran over toward the Villanova cheering section, pointed to his arm and yelled “I’ve got ice in my veins!” Then he saw the mother who sent him from South Carolina to Maryland, and suddenly 50 feet was too far away.
He jumped over press row and hugged her and yelled in her ear: “What can they say?” We all have doubters, and Kris’s fueled him. He hugged his father Kelvin. Felicia said her heart rate was “off the charts. Off. The. Charts.”
In the front row, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, who broadcasts college football’s biggest games and should be immune to goosebumps by now, pulled out his phone to record the moment.
Who wouldn’t love this?
Ice in his veins!
Off. The. Charts …
… but wait.
What about Marcus Paige?
Did you see what he did?
It was the shining moment before the shining moment, a shot that could well stand, even Tuesday morning, as the second-best shot in NCAA championship game history. And in degree of difficulty, it was even more impressive than Jenkins’s. There was no reasonable explanation for what Paige did, yet everybody on North Carolina’s bench expected him to do it because he is Marcus Paige and he does these things.
North Carolina trailed, 74–71. Michael Jordan was in the cheering section behind the Tar Heels' bench, and Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams knew what he wanted. He would ride with Marcus. For four years, that was one of the smoothest rides in college basketball.
The Tar Heels set a screen. Paige expected the Wildcats to switch on it and they did. He jumped, as if he should shoot, but then he thought he should dump the ball into Brice Johnson for a quick two and then he thought oh no, never mind, Carolina needed a three, and there are no advanced shooting stats for players changing their mind twice after they leave the floor, but trust us: The percentages are not good.
But Paige has something. He has athleticism, sure, but he isn’t even a sure-fire NBA player. He has skill, yes, but other players are more skilled. He has something else: The ability to make you trust him. It is evident every time he speaks. If you interviewed him for a job, you’d hire him. If he asked to babysit your kids, you’d let him. If you built a team, he’d be the first stone you placed in the ground.
He bent his knees far too much and dropped his elbow way too low and launched. The ball rolled around the rim and dropped in.
The crowd went nuts. Paige couldn’t go nuts, not really, because there were 4.7 seconds left. He told his teammates they had to play 4.7 seconds of defense, and then they would win the game in overtime, “’cause that’s just the way the game was going to go. We had clawed back from down 10.”
In that moment, it was hard to argue. You wondered how the Wildcats could possibly expect to win a game it should have won already, except …
… on the Villanova bench, Father Rob Hagan, the team chaplain, thought, “I can’t believe he hit that shot. Are we going to have to go overtime?”
When your chaplain loses faith, even for a moment, that’s a problem. But Hagan looked around. The Wildcats were not disheartened. Paige’s shot was an inconvenience, like a traffic jam or a lousy cell-phone signal; annoying, but it would not ruin their day.
All season, Villanova head coach Jay Wright’s players had talked about being a “band of brothers and a band of believers,” and they had a one-word mantra: Attitude.
Rhymes with “platitude,” appropriately enough. You’ve heard it a million times in sports. Villanova players say it every day.
Attitude is resilience. Toughness. Belief. Are those just more platitudes? Try this: Attitude is entering the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed, a year after you lost in the round of 32 as a No. 1 seed, and believing you’ll win the whole thing. Attitude is getting fouled by the scout team in practice, looking for the coaches to blow the whistle and hearing them say, “Attitude. Fight through it.”
Attitude is easy to say and hard to build. Attitude is watching Marcus Paige nail a devastating, championship-stealing shot in the middle of an Olympics gymnastics routine, walking to the huddle and thinking: 4.7 seconds. That’s enough.
Hagan said the timeout was “very calm.” The chaplain recognized the play that Wright called right away. The Wildcats run it toward the end of every practice, in a series called Wildcat Minute, when they practice end-of-game situations. Villanova calls it “’Nova.” After this, everybody else should, too.
If the ball is in your hands, nobody cares if you were the last option.
Nobody cares what the other team just did.
And you can’t care that your brother is on the other team.
Villanova 77, North Carolina 74.
“The fireworks go off,” Paige said afterward. “You want that to be your moment. As bad as you want anything in your life, you don't know how much our team wanted this game.”
The Carolina blue jersey will come off now for good, but in a way, Paige will wear it forever. This was his dream school. This was the moment he wanted. There is still a place for that in this sport. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
There are always tears in a losing locker room. North Carolina might have set a tournament record. Williams was crying. Paige was crying. Johnson was such a mess, a teammate had to remind him, in the entryway to the showers, how much he had done for the team. Jordan spoke to the team, but there were no words that really mattered.
Paige did not play his best this season, but he said it was his favorite year. He said he wouldn’t trade a thing, wouldn’t change a game, “including even this one.” Some of those moments were painful, but all of them were his.
In the Villanova locker room, Jenkins sat on a folding chair. Not much time had passed since he hit the shot he expected to hit and screamed about ice in his veins. But what seemed normal in the moment was already starting to seem insane.
“I’m in shock right now,” he said. “That was crazy. That was a hell of an experience.”
The championship trophy was in his lap. Jenkins rested it against his lips. For many years, when producers cut alltime NCAA tournament highlight videos, he will be everybody’s first option.