HOUSTON — All that talk of this being the worst Final Four in history sure looks silly now.
Two dull, one-sided national semifinals paved the way for the most riveting national championship game in recent memory.
With time melting away in a tie game, Villanova's Ryan Arcidiacono sprinted up floor, drew two defenders and dished to teammate Kris Jenkins, who was running alongside him screaming for the ball. Jenkins pulled up from the right wing and buried a tie-breaking 3-pointer at the buzzer over the outstretched arms of North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks, giving the Wildcats a 77-74 victory and their second national title.
Jenkins' shot dwarfed another dramatic 3-pointer that only seconds earlier appeared as though it was going to go down in NCAA tournament lore. Marcus Paige's off-balance, leaning 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left capped a 17-7 North Carolina surge, tied the score at 74 and set off a celebration among Tar Heels fans who were certain the title game was headed to overtime.
But there would be no overtime because Hicks inexplicably gave too much space to Jenkins, a lethal shooter who hit 17 of 33 attempts from behind the arc during the NCAA tournament. His final one forever secured his place in Villanova lore and will be replayed every March for decades.
"I knew when I gave Arch the ball, he was going to be aggressive," Jenkins said. "They were going to try to take Arch away because he's hit big shots in his career. When they all followed the ball, I just knew if I got in his line of vision, he would find me."
The wild finish gave Villanova its first national title since 1985 when Rollie Massimino coaxed a No. 8 seed to a stunning upset over a star-studded Georgetown team. This one will be just as memorable considering the many momentum changes that preceded Jenkins' moment of glory.
Though North Carolina led by five at halftime, it was an advantage that came with many warning signs. A typically cold-shooting Tar Heels team ranked 294th in 3-point shooting knocked down 7 of 9 attempts from behind the arc yet could not generate any separation.
Once the Tar Heels cooled off just a bit from the perimeter, Villanova made its move, unleashing a 33-16 second-half surge to erase a seven-point deficit and build a 10-point lead with just over five minutes to go. The Wildcats were aided by North Carolina coach Roy Williams' unwillingness to call timeout, a longstanding strategy born out of trust in his players and a desire to let them figure things out on their own.
This was one time the Tar Heels might have benefited from a timeout to regroup because they appeared to be rattled both by the officiating and by the Wildcats. Villanova spread North Carolina out and attacked off the dribble at one end and denied post-entry passes at the other.
Phil Booth (20), Arcidiacono (16) and Josh Hart (12) combined for 48 points, the majority of it coming via their ability to attack of the dribble. North Carolina's All-American power forward Brice Johnson had 14 points on 10 shots, but the Tar Heels were largely reliant on their backcourt and unable to exploit their size advantage inside.
"At halftime, we just recommitted to Villanova basketball," center Daniel Ochefu said. "In the locker room, we did something we don't normally do. We asked everybody — all the managers, all the coaches — to leave the locker room. Guys were getting on each other.
"We got back to Villanova basketball. We started defending better and started rebounding better."
It would have been easy for North Carolina to quit facing a double-digit deficit with five minutes to go, but the Tar Heels never gave up hope of winning Williams his third championship.
A quick 4-0 spurt forced a timeout from Wright and then huge 3-pointers from Paige and Joel Berry brought North Carolina within three. Villanova sank 5 of 6 free throws in the final two minutes to keep the pressure on the Tar Heels, but Paige came through with a game-tying shot that at the time had him pumping his fists and screaming but now seems bittersweet.
"At that point we believed we were going to win," Paige said. "We just needed 4.7 seconds of defense. It didn't work out. Kris is their best 3-point shooter. He got a pretty clean look for whatever reason. There are 75 possessions in the game. They just happened to get the last one and make the shot."
The most remarkable part of Villanova's title run is that it's come without surefire NBA talent. Whereas the previous 28 national champions have each had at least one future first-round pick on their roster and often as many as four or five, NBA scouts are skeptical any of this year's Wildcats will ever be worthy of being selected in the opening round.
What Villanova lacks in raw talent it makes up for in chemistry, work ethic and motivation. The roots of this year's title run can be traced back to the Wildcats' past March failures.
Motivated to shed its reputation for early NCAA tournament exits after back-to-back second-round losses the past two years, Villanova entered this season with something to prove. They've evolved from a good team to the nation's best as freshmen Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges grew more comfortable at the college level and Hart, Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds adjusted to increased responsibility.
They embraced the importance of moving the ball unselfishly and displaying smarter shot selection. They learned to defend with more cohesiveness and communication in their aggressive, switching man-to-man scheme. They also benefited from Daniel Ochefu returning from injury and blossoming into an interior scoring threat who's also able to pass out of double teams.
The product of Villanova's season-long progression was a formidable yet undervalued team that now has the March validation it craved. The Wildcats defeated their first five NCAA tournament opponents by an average of 24.2 points, a run highlighted by their 44-point beatdown of Oklahoma in Saturday's national semifinals.
Monday night's win was not nearly as emphatic but it was even sweeter. For the first time in 31 years, the Wildcats can finally party like it's 1985 all over again.