LEXINGTON, Ky. - I have said it before and I will say it again: I have absolutely no conception what people who aren’t sports fans do for true excitement.
The answers I have received are laughable. Concerts, I’m told. Concerts do not have an outcome. Politics, I am told. Sorry, but sitting around waiting for the election returns from the 11th Precinct does not pose a challenge to my heartbeat.
I am here to tell you sorry, wretched souls who drift aimlessly through life unable to appreciate the joys of sports competition that I am very glad I am not you.
I am lucky. The Boston Globe flew me down here, all expenses paid, so I could sit 12 feet from a fascinating human drama. Here I am, someone who has followed college basketball since 1952, and I got to see what may have been the greatest championship game ever played.
Villanova 66, Georgetown 64 was simply a phenomenal sporting event on every level. This game threw off sparks from the moment a delightful young man named Harold Pressley drove baseline and squeezed up a two-hand reverse layup past the great Patrick Ewing to open up the scoring. That came on Villanova’s second possession and set the tone for the most amazing offensive show ever seen in this great tournament.
Even you non-sporties can appreciate the fact that the object of this game is to throw the ball through the orange ring and that Villanova did so 22 times in 28 attempts under the most intense pressure imaginable. Villanova’s offense consisted largely of scoring or losing the ball without a shot. The new national champions shot 78.6 percent against a team that had limited its previous 37 opponents to 40-percent shooting.
History tells us that a team simply does not shoot 55, 60 or 65 percent in a championship game because the pressure is just too great for kids to handle. Your average NCAA title game is a tense, mistake-filled mess. Furthermore, you never, at any time, shoot 50 percent against Georgetown. You don’t, but Villanova did - and this morning the Augustinians have bragging rights over the Jesuits as a result.
But merely reciting the Villanova shooting percentage, as astonishing as it was, does not convey a feeling of the splendor of this exercise. The very best moments in sports occur when logic and form charts are replaced by illogic and Ouija boards. Do not forget for one instant that Georgetown was a prohibitive favorite in this game. Nobody, but nobody - outside the immediate Villanova family - honestly believed Villanova had a chance to win.
But Villanova believed. You can tell they believed because they came out and played. They didn’t pattycake with the ball; they passed it until they got good shots, which they didn’t hesitate to take. And on this golden evening, this fairy-tale, star-crossed evening, those shots went in, and it didn’t make any difference whether the shot turned up 10 seconds into the possession or 10 minutes.
You will be reading a lot about how Villanova benefitted from the absence of a shot clock in this tournament, but in this game the Wildcats just played confident basketball. Villanova played a game that could easily have absorbed a 45-second clock, proving once again that at the high level of NCAA play kids should be encouraged to play the game naturally, not taught to view the game as a passing and free throw-shooting exhibition.
So there was Gary McLain firing up a pair of 21-footers in the second half and swishing them. There was Ed Pinckney, the tournament MVP, sticking his nose in low and taking the ball to Ewing. There was Dwayne McClain spinning by one defender, and arching a baseline runner over the frightening, elevated form of Mr. Ewing. And there was the redoubtable Harold Jensen taking - and making - five medium-range jumpers.
Whatever Villanova did worked. But it would not have worked if these kids and their coaches didn’t truly believe they had the ability to make it work.
Villanova’s achievement cannot be exaggerated because it beat a great team playing a very good ballgame. No one will soon forget the poise of a Michael Jackson as he stuck one in from the top of the key with his team down five with 5 minutes to play, or the panache of a David Wingate putting Georgetown ahead with a superb banker two possessions later. Georgetown itself shot 55 percent and had a quite respectable total of 11 turnovers. Georgetown’s defense forced Villanova into 17 turnovers. Georgetown would have beaten every team in the country last night. Except one.
This is a Villanova team that lost 10 games. There were very low points to their season, such as a devastating loss to Boston College and a shocking 23- point loss to Pitt. But Villanova was a team ideally suited for tournament play, and once Villanova arrived in the final it reached out and confronted greatness on its own terms.
Villanova did what Americans have always prided themselves on doing. They recognized their Moment and seized it. “I wanted us to play not with the idea not to lose,” said coach Rollie Massimino, “but to play to win.”
So if you think it was just a basketball game, I ask you: What have you done lately that could properly be classified as “exhilarating”? Probably nothing. But 23,000 of us in Rupp Arena saw a truly exhilarated group of young men last night. I’d like to be one of those young men this morning.