This day in sports history: Kris Jenkins beats buzzer, UNC for thrilling Villanova championship

Yahoo Sports
(Yahoo Sports)
(Yahoo Sports)

There are thrilling buzzer beaters that win NCAA tournament games. There are massive shots in critical moments that secure national titles.

And then there’s Kris Jenkins.

Four years ago today, the Villanova forward stunned North Carolina and sent Philadelphia into a frenzy with one of the most dramatic moments in basketball history.

The setup

Villanova entered the tournament as a No. 2 seed led by Jenkins and a roster full of future NBA players including Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges.

The program’s claim to NCAA fame at that point was perhaps the biggest underdog story in the history of the tournament, the 1985 team that stunned Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas as a No. 8 seed to win the national title.

This was no underdog story.

Villanova’s rise to the top under Wright

Jay Wright took over as Villanova’s head coach in 2001 and had built the program into a national power by 2016. It was the third straight year that Villanova had claimed a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the tournament as the Wildcats looked to build a legacy beyond Rollie Massimino and Ed Pinckney’s giant-slayers from 1985.

Villanova couldn’t capitalize on its regular-season success the previous two seasons, falling victim to second-round upsets 2014 and 2015.

The 2016 Wildcats cruised through the first three rounds of tournament play with double-digit wins before upsetting No. 1 seed Kansas in the Elite Eight and demolishing Oklahoma 95-51 in the Final Four.

They would advance to meet a North Carolina program clicking on all cylinders and looking to secure its third championship of the Roy Williams era. Williams left Kansas to take over at his alma mater in 2003 and returned Carolina to its glory days after a brief dip in the aftermath of Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge’s retirements.

Legacy building for Roy Williams

Now with two titles on his resumé, Williams was looking to surpass his mentor by claiming a third banner for the Smith Center rafters. His 2016 team was led by All-American forward Brice Johnson, future first-round pick Justin Jackson and a dynamic backcourt of Marcus Paige and Joel Berry.

The Tar Heels were a No. 1 seed and a favorite to cut down the nets, having cruised through the first five rounds of NCAA play with double-digit wins in each game.

UNC looked ready to blow the championship game open with a 9-2 run late in the first half that it ultimately led, 39-34. But Villanova took over in the second half, tying the game at 44-44 before taking a 67-57 lead with 5:29 remaining.

Frantic final minutes

But the Tar Heels fought back in the game’s final minutes, leaning on Berry and Johnson before setting Marcus Paige up for what looked like the biggest shot of the tournament.

With Villanova leading 74-71 after a pair of Hart free throws, Berry took an inbounds pass with 13 seconds left and advanced the ball over halfcourt. He looked to Paige on the wing. Daniel Ochefu dove to intercept the bounce pass but whiffed, leaving Paige briefly open for a game-tying three-pointer.

But Arcidiacono forced Paige into an awkward, off-balance heave by closing in fast — to no avail.

Paige hits a huge shot

Paige’s desperation 3-pointer rattled home to tie the game with 4.7 seconds remaining. The baby-blue contingent at NRG stadium went nuts. Timeout Villanova.

After the timeout, Jenkins inbounded the ball to Arcidiacono, who frantically advanced ball past midcourt with Berry in tight man-to-man defense. The rest of the UNC defense had fallen back to defend anything remotely close to the basket.

Paige’s massive shot was about to be relegated to a footnote.

Jenkins trailed Arcidiacono unguarded. As Arcidiacono approached the top of the key, he knew exactly where Jenkins would be and dumped off a backward pass near the edge of halfcourt logo.

Jenkins’ historic shot

At this point, UNC forward Isaiah Hicks recognized what was happening. He stepped up from his position near the free throw line and stretched out his left hand to contest. But it was too late.

Jenkins caught the pass in rhythm and launched a deep 3-pointer without a dribble. The horn sounded as the ball was in mid-flight and continued to ring as his shot dropped through the net.

Streamers fell. Massimino watched in elation from the sideline. A stunned Williams walked from the North Carolina bench to congratulate Wright. Officials reviewed the play, but there was no doubt.

Jenkins had just hit one of the biggest shots in tournament history to claim a national championship for Villanova.

North Carolina would return the next season to claim its own national title. But Paige and Johnson walked off the court for a final time as seniors that night, relegated to witnessing another team’s championship glory.

The shot secured Wright’s legacy and his first of two national championships in three seasons as the Wildcats would win again in 2018. A program had reached a pinnacle, and Wright claimed his rightful spot among the greats of the game.

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