Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Villanova’s rainbow shot for the championship

A day after Carlos Brathwaite broke English hearts, Villanova's Kris Jenkins beat the buzzer in the finale to this year's March Madness

Many cricket fans will agree that last Sunday’s World T20 final was a gripping, exciting match. It went down to the last over, which started with England probably thinking they had a splendid chance to win. No doubt, their fans, and I’m sure at least some of their players, were ecstatic at that point; surely that trophy was theirs now?

Famously, of course, that dream went poof in a few Brath-less minutes, as Carlos Brathwaite swatted four huge shots that won the match for the West Indies. In that remorseless way that only sports can trigger, ecstasy morphed swiftly to agony.

One day later, there was a repeat of that morphing—but this time, on the other side of the globe in another sport altogether. In Houston on Monday night, Villanova University squared off against the University of North Carolina in the championship game of American college basketball.

If you know your basketball, you know this is the culmination of the American college season. More accurately, the basketball season ends in a tournament that’s played every March among the top 64 college teams. Each year, this tournament inspires such passion and heroics that it’s now routinely referred to as March Madness. (Check marchmadness.com.) And this year, Villanova’s Wildcats and North Carolina’s Tar Heels met in the final.

Both teams thoroughly dominated their semifinals. So, after those two dull and one-sided games, fans of the sport hoped fervently for an exciting final. Sure enough, the finalists delivered a riveting, pulsating, superbly played game filled with massive shifts of momentum and many moments to savour.

Carolina had a five-point lead at half-time. A nice cushion, but hardly decisive. Villanova had no reason to be disheartened. After all, those who follow these things closely knew that Carolina had been shooting unusually well in that first half, and still had not been able to shake free of Villanova.

In the second half, Villanova not only erased the five-point deficit, they broke away to a 10-point lead with about five minutes left in the game. At that point, you would have forgiven Villanova for thinking that was a lead they could keep, just as England may have thought they could defend 19 runs in that last over against the West Indies.

But what do you know, the tide turned again. Showing immense hustle and knocking down a brace of three-point shots, Carolina closed to within three. With about a quarter minute to go, the stage was set for a finale that will long be remembered.

Carolina has the ball and works it swiftly up the court. Via a bounce pass that leaves a Villanova defender sprawling, it ends up in the hands of Marcus Paige, way on the right edge of the court. As he takes two steps forward, he has to see another Villanova defender, Ryan Arcidiacono, flying at him.

But Paige stops well outside the three-point line, sets, rises, holds his shot at the peak of his leap to let Arcidiacono fly futilely past, then cocks his left arm and fires an off-balance shot on the way down. In slow motion, you can’t believe he has the time and presence of mind to pull off that double-pumped beauty. In real time, it’s like a small miracle.

Paige’s shot finds, in that classic basketball phrase, “nothing but net", swishing through the basket for three points that tie the game with just under five seconds left. 74-74.

Cue wild celebrations among Carolina players and fans, head-holding despair among the Villanova faithful. Paige is pumping his fists and yelling, certain he has sent the game into overtime. He would later say: “At that point, we believed we were going to win." Given that his team now had the momentum, he had to think they would seal it in overtime.

Except, in case anyone forgot, there are still 4.7 seconds left to play. Villanova take a timeout to work out what they will do in that time. You would forgive them, again, if they decide to sit on the ball, let the clock run out and then take their chances in overtime. But what transpires when they come back on court is one of those flawlessly executed gems that make this game so heart-stoppingly beautiful.

Villanova’s Kris Jenkins takes the ball behind his own basket and tosses it to Arcidiacono, who turns and races up the left sideline, towards half-court and the Carolina side. Remember that the clock is ticking down from 4.7 seconds—Arcidiacono is acutely aware of it.

He shakes one Carolina defender and curls to his right, towards the centre of the court. Jenkins runs just behind him, his hands in position to receive the ball, and you can almost hear him yelling for it. You would forgive Arcidiacono for taking a shot himself—which college kid wouldn’t want that chance at glory?

But he knows he’s running across court, the basket is to his left, and if he is to shoot, he needs to stop and turn to face the basket, losing precious time and allowing other Carolina defenders to close in on him. What he does instead is a tribute to his unselfish basketball smarts.

For Arcidiacono also knows just where Jenkins is, a step or two to his right now, and he knows that Jenkins has much the better look at the basket. With an almost casual flip, he hands Jenkins the ball.

Jenkins takes the ball out of the air, leaps in one motion from at least a couple of feet beyond the three-point line and shoots—half a second showing on the clock—over the outstretched fingertips of a lunging Carolina player.

In its import and precision, the gorgeous arc the ball makes is reminiscent of the much longer, higher yet just as gorgeous arc that Brathwaite achieved with his last strike in Kolkata a day earlier.

With Brathwaite, you knew: England’s only chance was to catch that ball; and even if they did, the West Indies still had two more shots at victory. In the event, there was no question of a catch and the ball soared way over the boundary for six and the championship.

With Jenkins, you know, if he misses his target, we are going into overtime. But if he makes it, the game is immediately, irrevocably, heartbreakingly and simultaneously deliriously, over. Right there, right then.

As the clock winds to zero, Jenkins’ rainbow shot finds nothing but net. Villanova’s radio announcer screams: “Cats win it all! Cats win it all! Cats win it all!"

It is such a sweet shot that it looks good right out of his hands, as it heads unerringly towards its goal. His teammates even realize it—because they are actually up and running to pile on to him even before the ball sinks silently through the basket. (Pretty much like Brathwaite’s teammates.)

March Madness has produced one more thrilling memory. Villanova has won one magnificent game of basketball, 77-74. Hoops: no question, I’m forever a fan.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

Close