HOUSTON — “That was supposed to be our moment.”
Marcus Paige is right.
North Carolina had erased a 10-point second half deficit that no one in NRG Stadium thought that they would be able to erase. They had gotten the big stops and they had made the big shots and with 13 seconds left, the Tar Heels had the ball, three points away from tying this thing up. The play that was called was for Paige to come off of a Brice Johnson down-screen, and Villanova, as they had done all night long, switched the screen. Joel Berry II was able to get the ball to Paige, who skipped away from Daniel Ochefu and stepped into a 23-foot three from the right wing.
Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono ran at Paige, challenging the shot and forcing the lefty Paige to fling up a double-clutch prayer of a three that rattled home, tying the game and sending the Tar Heel faithful into hysterics. The game was going to go into overtime, and it was that miracle three from Paige that finished off the comeback, a shot that left Paige 4.7 seconds from being mentioned in the same sentence as Mario Chalmers and Keith Smart and Lorenzo Charles for all of eternity.
Then Kris Jenkins happened.
And Paige’s moment was suddenly a footnote in the greatest game the world’s best sporting event has ever seen, a 77-74 Villanova win.
“As soon as he got it off, all you can do is pray when the ball is in the air,” Paige told reporters after the game, as poised and as confident as he’s ever been, the only sign that he had just suffered the most heart-breaking loss he’ll ever experience the redness still evident in his eyes. “It felt like it was in the air forever, and just knocked it down and the fireworks go off right then and the moment that you have been clawing for, fighting every day for, hoping for, dreaming about, just goes away. That fast.”
“It’s going to be impossible not to see it,” Paige added. “That shot’s going to go down as one of the biggest shots in NCAA tournament history. A buzzer-beater in the title game. I’m going to see it, and it’s going to hurt every time. It’s going to remind me of how close we were.”
“That was supposed to be our moment.”
Jim Nantz, who has been the voice of college basketball’s national title game for 25 years, is known for his one-liners, his punny quips that come after the final buzzer in the national title game has sounded.
They’ve been as reliable as One Shining Moment … up until Monday night.
“I have no idea what I said at the end,” Nantz said with a smile after the game. “I completely lost my mind.”
Yes. He did. But there was a reason for that.
“It was epic,” Nantz said of the game. “It was Ali-Frazier.”
It was the greatest national title game of all time.
The ending will never be topped. It’s not possible. The shot that Paige hit was an all-timer, a hang-in-the-air, double-clutch three that will win him every game of HORSE that he plays the rest of his life. A game-tying three with 4.7 seconds left on the biggest stage in the sport. I mean, just look at this picture:
He made that!
And it was wiped away with the first true buzzer-beater in title game history. Lorenzo Charles’ dunk came with two seconds left on the clock. Keith Smart hit his with four seconds left. The most famous shot in North Carolina basketball history, a 15-footer that was buried by that guy in all the internet photos back in 1982, came with 15 seconds left.
On Monday night, the buzzer sounded in the two seconds that felt like two hours that Jenkins’ shot was in the air.
“I pretty much knew it was going in,” Roy Williams said. “It was helpless. It was not a good feeling.”
But far too often great finishes are the easiest way to make us forget just how terrible a game truly was. That was not the case here. North Carolina caught fire in the first half, hitting seven of nine threes and jumping out to what would have been a nine-point lead had Josh Hart’s block of a Justin Jackson layup attempt not led to a Phil Booth floater at the other end.
And it was that floater that launched Villanova’s run, as the Wildcats’ ruthless efficiency on both ends of the floor allowed them to open up a 67-57 lead with just 5:29 left. The game at that point felt like it was over, which was when the Second Half Marcus Paige that we hadn’t seen for two years showed up. He scored 15 points in the final nine minutes and eight points after Villanova opened up that 10-point lead, proving a lost cause to be anything-but.
“That was one of the great college basketball games,” Jay Wright said. “Before they determined that shot was good, Roy came right up to me and said, ‘I’m really disappointed for our guys, that was a great game, but I’m really happy for you.'”
It was the perfect way to cap the season.
Because if we’re being honest here, this college basketball season was a dud.
We can fluff it up and talk about Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine going punch-for-punch during their race for Player of the Year, the resurgence of Tar Heels with the red dot from the NCAA’s investigative arm trained squarely on their Carolina Blue chests, the rise of Brandon Ingram to becoming the favorite to be picked No. 1 in June’s draft.
This season just didn’t move the needle. At all.
That’s what happens when there are no great teams, like there were in 2015, and when there are no great players destined for NBA super-stardom. How many people are tuning in to see Ben Simmons, the kid hyped as the Future Of Modern Basketball, when he mailed it in two-thirds of the way through the season on an LSU team that was never truly considered an at-large hopeful after a handful of ugly November losses?
Not only were NCAA tournament television ratings down significantly across the board this year, but there were more empty seats in NRG Stadium than I’ve ever seen at a Final Four game. Two hours before tip-off, tickets on StubHub were as cheap as $35. You could find a lower-level seat for $62. For a national title game, that’s basically giving the tickets away for free.
It may hurt for college basketball fans to read this, but 2015-16 was by far the most irrelevant season since I started covering the sport.
And yet, the final seconds of the 2015-16 college basketball season will go down as one of the single greatest moments in the history of sports in this country. We’ll never forget what happened in Houston at 10:27 p.m. CT on April 4th. The highlight will be played during every single March Madness montage from now until forever.
A buzzer-beating 25-footer to win a national title? Arcidiacono-to-Jenkins may now have to supplant Hill-to-Laettner as ‘The Shot’.
And in the end, that is what people remember about this season.
Five years from now, ten years from now, no one is going to be talking about the lack of star power in the 2016 Final Four. They’re not going to care about the fact that tickets were cheap or that the ratings were down or that the teams participating in the event weren’t as good as we’ve come to expect.
They’ll be talking about how great the title game was, about how absolutely out-of-this-world the ending was. In the end, it’s not the seasons or the games or the NCAA violations that we remember.
It’s the moments that last forever.
Kris Jenkins stole Marcus Paige’s moment, capping a forgettable season with an image, a moment that we will always remember.