The ball was deep in the end-zone seats, punched there in desperation by a Georgetown player to stop the clock. Georgetown? Desperate? Yes. Then it was on the floor, scrambled for, and finally smothered—bam, splot—as if a runaway caboose had left the tracks somewhere in the Kentucky night and crashed through the walls of Rupp Arena. A train on a basketball court? Yes again. Because it was Dwayne (D-Train) McClain who fell on the ball as time ran out on Georgetown's try for a second straight NCAA championship, and McClain who cradled it in his arms and refused to let go until he was absolutely positive his Villanova Wildcats' 66-64 victory wasn't a dream.
These were just the ultimate improbabilities in a fantasy of a basketball game Monday night that manifested all that is spectacular in sport, while at the same time recalling nothing more than the simple lyrics of the late Harry Chapin:
And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon.
Just as that troubadour lifted his song from a treasury of nursery rhymes, so did Villanova steal this NCAA title from a Georgetown team that was about to step into another book: a history book. Who but the man in the moon would have believed that the terrifying Hoya defenses could be shredded by a baby-faced guard called Gizmo (in civilian life, Gary McLain), who made but two turnovers in 40 minutes against unrelenting pressure? Or that the same Georgetown gang that had cowed opponents into missing more than six of every 10 shots over two unyielding seasons would be devastated by a record-breaking 78.6% performance by the Wildcat marksmen?
April 8, 1985
Moreover, if McLain and Harold Jensen, the mystery guest in the 'Nova back-court, were the littlest boys in blue, their combined eight-for-eight shooting was the stuff of silver spoons.
To be sure, the Wildcats as a whole made nine of their 10 shots over as tense and terrific a second half as one could ask for, their only miscue being a McClain jumper that was rejected by Patrick Ewing, as courageous a warrior in his final defeat as he ever had been in 121 career Hoya victories. But in the end, Villanova's Ed Pinckney had slithered around and inside Ewing for 16 points as well as six rebounds and five assists to the Terminator's 14, five and two, and McClain had popped in 17 more points from all manner of pogo stick angles. Significantly, the Villanova interior defenders did not send Ewing to the free-throw line even once.
"Everybody had said Georgetown, Georgetown," cried E-Z Ed amid the hysterical, orgiastic postgame celebration. "Yeah," screamed D-Train. "April fool." In the middle of it all was the heartwarming sight of Dwight Wilbur, the Wildcats' starting guard, who was rolling around on the floor with Jensen, the man who had replaced him; the man who had to inbound the ball time and again against the fearsome Georgetown legions; the man who calmly was to score the biggest basket of all—an arrow from 18 feet that gave the lead back to Villanova, 55-54, for the last time.
"If Villanova is Cinderella, then Cinderella wears boots," Memphis State coach Dana Kirk had grumped after 'Nova had beaten the Tigers in the semifinals, 52-45.
Ah, but what else can you call our new champions, a crew masterminded by the beloved Rollie Massimino, a cigar-smoking pudge of a character who looks as if cartoon balloons should be floating over his head, or with a leader as E-Z-going as Pinckney, the brother of six older sisters and uncle to 13? Given Villanova's 10 defeats, including a 23-point loss to Pittsburgh in its last regular-season game, and acknowledging Georgetown's prowess, this might have been the most fascinating upset in the 47 years of the NCAA championship game. North Carolina State's surprise conquest of Houston two years ago in Albuquerque pales in comparison. "I still think we're number one," Ewing said, explaining his wheelhouse waving of an index finger during the awards ceremonies. But his moment was in the runner-up ceremony. And don't even whisper the word fluke around Massimino lest he stick one of those $5.50 stogies in your face.
If two close regular-season losses (one in overtime) didn't sufficiently acquaint the Wildcats with the Hoyas, four full years of mutual harassment between the teams from Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. surely prepared 'Nova seniors McLain, McClain and Pinckney. When Pinckney was asked whether Monday's was his greatest game, he seemed insulted. "My greatest game was two years ago, 27 points, 22 rebounds," he said. "Against Georgetown."
So the Wildcats were more than ready for the champs' nightly dose of snarling and posturing. As when Hoya Reggie Williams confronted McClain early on and mentioned something about "kicking your ass." As when Hoya Michael Jackson pressed McLain into a ballhandling error and suddenly jabbed a finger near his face. "I'm used to that," said Gizmo. "That's not classy. We walked away from two incidents. The classy program was going to win this championship. We're very classy. "There was yet a third incident when, on the last play of the opening half, the spindly Williams, having received a muscular block-out from Villanova sub center Chuck Everson, responded by slapping Everson on the chin.
By then Villanova led 29-28 and there would be no extracurricular nonsense from the Hoyas thereafter. Unlike their routine 77-59 thrashing of St. John's in the other semifinal, this was it, the battle of the Hoyas' lives.
In a contest of rhythms and wills, Georgetown coach John Thompson had unilaterally reversed the tone for good when he removed his most elusive scorer, Williams, midway through the first half. At that point Villanova had made seven of its eight shots. Still, the Cats were behind 20-14, Williams having scored four baskets himself. "Reggie was winded," said Thompson, who then proceeded to run him in and out of the game, alternating him with defensive specialist Horace Broadnax. After his 10-point first half, Williams came up empty in the second.
Ewing had forged his imprint on the game with three straight monster slams before intermission, and then the great center began to tighten the defensive screws in the second half.
But 'Nova was ready for that, too. After McLain would beat Jackson's pressure over midcourt, the heady Gizmo would slow the game to a crawl, set up and command the team to work patiently. Let the Hoyas scratch and bray and intimidate. Animosity never killed no Cats. Pinckney, Harold Pressley, even Jensen, continued taking the ball straight down the pipe at Ewing. And at the other end 'Nova's mystifying matchup zone in all its alterations had Ewing positively locked in prison.
Unable to uncover their hole card buried in this stacked deck, the Hoyas had to deal from afar: 53 shots for the game compared to just 28 for Villanova. Georgetown connected on 54.7%, good enough to win oh, say, two-thirds of all the NCAA championship games ever played. But this wasn't a mere game to 'Nova, remember. This was a crusade.
Twice Villanova, always struggling, pushed its second-half lead, once to six points, at 38-32, then to five, at 53-48. On both occasions Georgetown, like an army defending its king, fought back. Moreover, when the Hoyas' David Win-gate (16 points) drilled a fairly outrageous banker from the wing with Pressley draped all over him, Georgetown, leading 54-53 with 4:50 left, looked to be the stronger side. After Ewing forced Pinckney to cough up the ball, making it three straight possessions on which 'Nova failed to score, Georgetown was ready to begin its dread spread offense and close out the game. But this time the Hoyas blinked. Bill Martin threw a fate-fully bad pass off the foot of Broadnax, and the ball went over to Villanova.
Massimino abruptly called time out. "Settle down," he told his players. "Run a play. Look. This [Georgetown] is a great team. They were going to make a run all along. But we're going to win this game."
And so here they came again. Jensen set up on the right side. When the now tentative Hoyas chased McLain left, Gizmo reversed the ball to McClain who got it to Jensen. And there it was at 2:36, the opening. Zing—bull's-eye, 55-54 Cats. Villanova would finish with 22 field goals (of 28) and 22 free throws (of 27). Twenty-two-skidoo.
Two minutes, 11 seconds showed on the clock when Jensen rubbed Pinckney's head for luck. Then Eddie E-Z'd in the first pair of 11 Villanova free throws down the stretch. When Pressley went to the line with 10 seconds to go, Jensen ran over to the sideline and gleefully kissed the bald pate of septuagenarian trainer Jake Nevin, there in his wheelchair alongside the Wildcat bench.
"This one's for you, Jake," he shouted. And for Villanova, the revered basketball name from the Main-Line. A national championship for some special faces. And a place in the heart.