How Villanova's Donte DiVincenzo took over the national championship and stamped his name into tournament lore

Pat Forde

SAN ANTONIO — The dunking, 3-swishing, lane-driving, shot-blocking, winking terror who came off the Villanova bench and took over the Alamodome was on the podium, waiting to watch “One Shining Moment.” Half a stadium away, a voice boomed out from the front row of the Villanova fan section.

“DONTE!” Kathie DiVincenzo yelled, straw cowboy hat on her head, trying to get her son’s attention. Someone relayed the message to the breakout star of college basketball, and he beamed and waved to the woman he calls his best friend, the woman whose initials are on his left sneaker. She waved back and blew him a kiss.

“My son has just worked so hard for this,” Kathie DiVincenzo said. “He missed out in 2016. He just worked, worked, worked, worked.”

Two years ago, when Villanova won the national title over North Carolina at the literal last second, Donte was on the bench wearing a suit — rising to his feet as Kris Jenkins launched the most famous shot in championship game history. DiVincenzo had broken his foot early in his freshman season and sat out the rest of it as a medical redshirt. The only tangible input the redhead had on that title run was playing Oklahoma star Buddy Hield on the scout team before the Wildcats blew out the Sooners in the national semifinal.

This time, in a 79-62 blowout of Michigan that was on ice far before the final horn, DiVincenzo was not only in uniform — he was by far the best player in uniform on either team. His career-high 31-point eruption was the most points scored in a national title game since 1989, and the most scored in a regulation championship game since Danny Manning also had 31 in 1988. Last time a player scored more in a 40-minute title game was Kentucky’s Jack Givens in 1978.

Donte DiVincenzo carried Villanova in their national championship win over Michigan. (AP)
Donte DiVincenzo carried Villanova in their national championship win over Michigan. (AP)

A guy who was the No. 120 national recruit in the Class of 2015, from a state bereft of basketball tradition — DiVincenzo was jokingly dubbed “The Michael Jordan of Delaware” by ‘Nova coach Jay Wright — has suddenly gone from being another supporting actor in an ensemble cast to fielding questions about whether he might turn pro after his redshirt sophomore year. (The answer: He’s not thinking about the NBA at the moment.)

Everywhere you looked in the Alamodome afterward, there was someone else euphoric about playing a role in DiVincenzo’s star turn.

On the opposite side of the floor seating from Kathie DiVincenzo was the guy Donte kept winking at during the game, as his point total grew and the fans roared in disbelief. There sat Josh Hart, former Villanova star and current injured Los Angeles Laker. In the previous two years, Hart indoctrinated DiVincenzo on the Villanova attitude during practice.

“Josh, every single day at practice, beat me up,” DiVincenzo said. “We love each other but we compete against each other so hard. We got into it a lot.”

[Yahoo Store: Get your Wildcats championship gear right here!]

As the Villanova players bounded toward the locker room after cutting off their own snippets of net, the final cords were cut by a man in a Roman collar. Father Rob Hagan, the school’s theological answer to Loyola Chicago’s celebrated Sister Jean, was given the honor of waving the net overhead — same as he did when ‘Nova won the East Region title in Boston.

Father Rob, a former criminal defense attorney turned Augustinian priest and athletic department staffer at his alma mater, is close with several Villanova players. DiVincenzo ranks high on that list. The priest became a confidant to the kid during that difficult freshman season spent largely out of uniform.

“I look to him for everything,” DiVincenzo said.

“I think he had to have somebody to believe in him,” Hagan said. “Coaches have to be hard on them, push them. I can catch him on the rebound from that and talk things out. He had someone who was with him when he was up and when he was down — and he was way up tonight.”

Way up, scorching hot. Villanova’s sixth man turned the Alamodome into Donte’s Inferno.

The only thing that kept the Wildcats from an alarming early deficit against the Wolverines was DiVincenzo. He scored six points in 38 seconds to get rolling, then added 12 more points in the first half as ‘Nova pushed out to a 37-28 lead at intermission. He kept hitting shots in the second half, rendering the poor performance by national Player of the Year Jalen Brunson (nine points on 4-for-13 shooting) moot.

But the two plays Wright probably liked best from DiVincenzo were a pair of spectacular blocked shots. The first came when he raced back downcourt after missing a layup to pin a shot by Zavier Simpson between the rim and backboard. The second came when he rose up and vetoed a dunk attempt by Charles Matthews, showing NBA-level athleticism.

Donte DiVincenzo, defensive stopper? This was not the player Wright recruited out of Wilmington, Delaware.

“He was an incredible scorer, but he didn’t play any defense,” Wright said. “He didn’t do anything else. But he really bought in defensively.”

Said DiVincenzo of Wright’s high school scouting report: “He’s right. I had the ball in my hands 99 percent of the time in high school. I just got by defensively on my athleticism.”

This is the way it works these days at Villanova — the system continually churning out new stars after paying their dues and getting better behind old stars. Most of them don’t arrive overly celebrated — Villanova’s recruiting classes never rank very high — but give them a couple of years and then look out.

The 2016 national title team was built around seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, with juniors Hart and Jenkins the leading scorers. Brunson was a freshman who was fifth on the team in scoring. Mikal Bridges was a redshirt freshman who was seventh.

This year, Brunson is the All-American and Bridges is the likely lottery pick, leading what might be one of the 20 most powerful champions in NCAA history.

This was a dominant Villanova tournament run, winning every game by double digits, with an average margin of 17.7 points. At a school with two epic championship-game performances — the 78 percent shooting to shock Georgetown in 1985, the Jenkins bomb to beat North Carolina in ’16 — this relatively uneventful night stamps this as the best team in Villanova history.

And the best player on the best Villanova team on the final night of the season was none other than Donte DiVincenzo, etching his name into the lore of America’s newest blue-blood basketball program.

Related coverage from Yahoo Sports:
Villanova crushes Michigan to win national title
Way-too-early top 25 for 2018-19 college basketball season
‘Michael Jordan of Delaware’ excels for ‘Nova
Michigan grad misses out on $1M payday with ‘Nova’s win