HOUSTON — The day before Monday night’s NCAA national championship game, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins said this game might be the “tiebreaker” in his personal competition with North Carolina brother Nate Britt Jr., whose family became his guardian nine years ago.
It merely turned into the tiebreaker of all-time. With 4.7 seconds left, the Tar Heels’ Marcus Paige buried a double-pump, off-balance right-wing three from long distance to knot the score at 74. But the Wildcats had an answer as Ryan Arcidiacono dribbled up the court, then pitched to Jenkins on the right wing, where he hit the shot of a lifetime for a 77-74 victory Monday night at NRG Stadium.
Asked if he thought it was good, Jenkins said, “I think every shot’s going in so that was no different.”
It was the second national title for Villanova (35-5), and while the Wildcats’ 1985 upset of Georgetown might be remembered as “The Perfect Game,” this one had the perfect ending.
Butler’s Gordon Heyward nearly pulled it off in 2010, but his halfcourt shot at the buzzer bounded off the rim. Jenkins’ shot was as pure as could be, a brilliant ending to a great game.
Villanova got a great game off the bench from sub guard Phil Booth, who scored 20 points, Arcidiacono added 16, Jenkins totaled 14, and Josh Hart had 12. North Carolina (33-7) was led by Paige with 21 points, Joel Berry with 20 and Brice Johnson with 14 points and eight rebounds.
It was the first national title for Villanova coach Jay Wright, and it was the first for a team from the new Big East since it went back to its basketball-only roots three years ago. “We have a play for a sequence like that,” Wright said. “We put it in Arch’s hands, and Kris told Arch he was going to be open.”
Jenkins told the crowd he was calling to Arcidiacono, “Ryan! Ryan! He made the perfect pass.”
Carolina was expected to attack inside, but after Johnson got untracked with a dunk and a layup, things opened up on the perimeter for the Tar Heels as Justin Jackson, Paige and Berry connected on consecutive three-pointers to put UNC in front, 25-23, and send Wright into a rage at his team for not rotating properly to cover the shooters.
That three by Berry started a streak of 12 straight Carolina points by the point guard. A jumper by Britt followed by a left-wing three from Jackson gave the Tar Heels their biggest first-half lead at 39-32. But in the final seconds, Villanova’s Hart blocked a fast-break layup attempt by Jackson before the Wildcats’ Phil Booth squeezed off a jumper in the paint to cut their halftime deficit to five points.
At that point, Carolina had made seven of nine three-pointers, but Villanova was shooting 58.3 percent and unexpectedly leading points in the paint, 18-12. Just before the half ended, Jenkins and Britt got on the court at the same time with Britt actually covering Jenkins on a switch.
When the second half began, a Johnson basket restored Carolina’s seven-point lead, but a corner three by Jalen Brunson triggered a 19-5 Villanova run to take a 53-46 lead. Booth scored five points in that stretch, including the go-ahead three-pointer at 49-46, and his play was critical off the bench because sixth man Mikal Bridges was stuck to the bench with four fouls.
After a string of six straight missed shots, the Tar Heels’ offense got going again as Paige scored seven straight Carolina points in a surge that cut the deficit to three. But when Paige missed a potential tying three-pointer, Arcidiacono responded at the other end with a top-of-the-arc three followed by two foul shots that gave Nova its biggest lead to that point at 65-57. Booth added a pair of free throws at 5:29 for the first double-digit lead at 67-57.
The Tar Heels fought back to make it a one-possession game when Paige drained a corner three with just 1:30 left with the Wildcats clinging to a 70-67 lead. An inexplicable Arcidiacono pass then sailed out of bounds, and Carolina’s Johnson banked a shot in the paint at 1:03 to cut it to 70-69.
Villanova kept the pressure up with four foul shots down the stretch for a 74-71 lead. Then Paige came back with what might have been the second-greatest clutch three of all-time to tie with 4.7 seconds to go.
Not good enough.