In a tournament that’s been played by everyone from Wilt Chamberlain to Bill Russell to Lew Alcindor to Bill Walton to David Thompson to Ralph Sampson to Michael Jordan to Christian Laettner to Tim Duncan to Carmelo Anthony to Kevin Durant to Anthony Davis and tens of thousands more in between, it might be Kris Jenkins, of all people, who goes down in history as taking the most famous shot in America’s greatest sporting event. With two seconds left in the final game of the 67-game NCAA tournament, Jenkins, a Villanova junior with a soft shooting touch and unbelievable life story, took a pass from teammate Ryan Arcidiacono and then, as fluidly as can be, drained a title-winning three-pointer with zeroes across the clock.
Kris Jenkins — a player 99% of America didn’t know, couldn’t name and wouldn’t have been able to pick out of a lineup as recently as 90 minutes ago, had just hit the first three-point buzzer beater ever in an NCAA title game. Jenkins was far from anonymous in the college basketball world — he was the second-leading scorer for Villanova this year — but before the tournament you could’ve easily picked 100 players who you’d have expected to make a title-winning three before him. And therein lies the essence of why we love sports. Even in Hoosiers, Jimmy Chitwood got to take the final shot.
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The game had the makings of a classic from the opening tip, but it was far from predestined. The play was ragged and both teams had entered some sort of bizarro basketball world, with UNC shooting threes like the Golden State Warriors (the Heels were ranked No. 294 in the country from beyond the arc) and Villanova pounding it inside the paint (a territory Carolina figured to own on Monday night). Then, with 14 seconds left in that first half, the fun began.
Villanova had the ball down seven points with under 20 seconds, a pretty fine spot to be considering Carolina had gone 7 for 9 from three-point range. A basket would make it a five-point game, a three would cut the lead to a barely-there four point margin. But the Wildcats turned the ball over with 14 seconds left and UNC had an easy run to their basket for what would have been a backbreaking (or at least as backbreaking as one can get halfway through the game) nine-point lead. From the possibility of four to the cold reality of nine: That’s a hard pill to swallow in the locker room, especially in an elongated Final Four halftime.
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But ‘Nova’s leading scorer Josh Hart blocked that easy layup, it was rebounded by Arcidiacono who then (surprise, surprise) made a beautiful pass to Phil Booth who paused, jumped and hit a beautiful floating jumper as time expired – one of those buckets where the shooter seemed to hang in the air forever. (Painfully for UNC, it was a lot like Michael Jordan’s title-winner in 1982.) It swished so crisply you could hear it loudly on TV.
What had been a manageable seven-point halftime deficit, then looked like it would be a morale-sapping nine-point deficit, ended up with Villanova down five points midway through the game. Whoever says there are no moral victories in sports should watch how ‘Nova stormed out of the gate in the second half, buoyed by that ending, to take the lead by the second TV timeout and go up 32-18 in the half en route to building a 10-point lead with 4:42 to go.
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Still, no one thought the game was over and it’s here where basketball, unlike any other sport, excels. In football, you can’t make up a big deficit without a few plays, a bunch of commercials and, usually, some defensive stops. Baseball is all a slow build. Momentum in hockey is only as good as the last goal.
Not basketball. In less than one minute, Joel Berry and Brice Johnson, along with some fine defense by Marcus Paige, cut the lead from 10 to three. The moment UNC cut that lead to eight, you knew the run was coming. Back-and-forth and back-and-forth. Even when Villanova gathered itself and took a six-point lead with 1:52 left, you barely had time to think about what it all meant before Paige hit a three to halve the lead.
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And then, of course, there was Paige’s off-balance, circus three to tie it with 4.7 seconds left. A potential classic had just become an actual one thanks to Paige, who briefly looked as if he’d be the game’s hero. But the UNC star’s brush with immortality lasted approximately three seconds, right up until “Arch” passed the ball to Jenkins, a thoroughly unselfish move that denied himself a chance to live out his childhood dreams of making the game-winning shot, but gave him and his team something better. Instantly, Villanova turned what had become a classic into something Jim Nantz, at an earlier time, might have called “a win for the ages.”
Unless you bleed Carolina Blue, how could you not love it?
In his postgame interview with Nantz, Jenkins hesitated to answer whether or not he thought his shot would fall, almost as if he was embarrassed to give what would sound like a cocky answer. But he didn’t have to. When the ball left his hands, everyone — from the players on the floor to the coaches on the sideline to the fans in Houston (which included Michael Jordan and people who couldn’t see from nose-bleed upper-deck seats) to those watching at home — knew what was happening. A new basketball folk hero was being made before our eyes, thanks to a shot that was so brilliant and so perfect that every time we view it in the future, it’ll still be as thrilling as the first.
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