HOUSTON – For a second, the entire mass of lungs in NRG Stadium seemed to hold its collective breath.
Villanova, until 3½ minutes prior, had appeared to be in control. North Carolina was flailing.
But a furious UNC comeback and one shot that seemed suspended, mid-drop, led to this: Marcus Paige’s three-pointer, hitting net, tying the score with less than five seconds left.
The moment belonged to North Carolina — a moment that lasted the length of a Villanova timeout. Then, Ryan Arcidiacono was racing down the court with the ball, finding, in an instant, Kris Jenkins’ hands. In one swift movement, Jenkins released.
Later, he would say that he believes every shot he takes will fall. “That was no different,” he said.
Moment stolen. Villanova (35-5), a team that defied expectations throughout a seemingly charmed postseason, had done the unthinkable. Again.
This time, Jenkins’ shot, sinking as the buzzer sounded, was capped by falling confetti and a stadium that reached new decibels as the scoreboard ticked up, to 77-74, and for the first time since 1985, Villanova was a national champion.
“Unbelievable! Unbelievable!” Arcidiacono shouted from the NRG floor. “We’ve run that play every single day in practice, and we executed.”
Half an hour later, coach Jay Wright said he was still processing what had happened.
“It is still surreal,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve really digested this yet. I’m still in my coaching mind, making sure we handle things properly, making sure we cut down the net correctly; we take care of our responsibilities here. I don’t think this has hit me yet.”
But early on, the threat to that final dream was palpable.
With 38 seconds left in the first half, North Carolina (33-7) was flipping the switch. The Tar Heels’ 20-minute firefight from three-point range had started to wear. Leading by seven, charging toward the hoop as the clock ticked down, UNC looked primed to deliver the haymaker.
Not so fast.
Josh Hart swatted away the last attempt, handing Villanova, instead, the last chance. Phil Booth knocked the shot down just before the buzzer sounded, turning a nine-point deficit into a five-point gap at the break and putting Villanova in the driver’s seat.
In the second, the Wildcats took control with a 13-2 run and extended their lead to 10 before UNC — lifted by an ultra-efficient Joel Berry — pushed back within three.
Suddenly, the Tar Heels were threatening, again.
After Villanova pushed back a 70-64 lead, Paige nailed a three and hit a layup sandwiched around a Brice Johnson shot to put North Carolina within 72-71.
Then this: Paige’s improbable three with 4.7 seconds left that earned the first explosion from the crowd and a beastly hug from Johnson.
“He turned a broken play into a great play,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
Everyone in the building felt the momentum switch. Except Villanova.
Arcidiacono said initially he planned to take the shot himself, the first action on the set.
“But I heard someone screaming in the back of my head,” he said. “It was Kris. I just gave it to him and he let it go with confidence.”
Jenkins, normally the third option on that play, had seen that his man wasn’t sticking with him.
“For him to realize that,” Wright said, “he’s one of the smartest basketball players we’ve ever had.”
It was a boxing match worthy of the 40 minutes that preceded it, after two semifinal blowouts.
The pinpoint three-point shooting that marked Villanova’s semifinal win over Oklahoma seemed to bleed into Monday night’s game, with a twist: This time it was North Carolina nailing all the big shots, unable to miss.
The Tar Heels, after starting their semifinal game against Syracuse 0-for-13 from three-point range, sank seven of nine in Monday’s first half and shot 57.1 percent on three-pointers in the game.
But despite UNC’s blistering pace from beyond the arc and Jenkins sitting with foul trouble for nine minutes, the Wildcats wouldn’t be buried. They worked the ball inside and forced UNC’s big men into mismatches.
With seconds left on the first-half clock, they scrapped. And with seconds left on the final clock, they made history.
“I told my team when I made the shot … we got 4.7 seconds to play defense and this game is ours,” Paige said.
“There are 75 possessions in the game. They just happened to get the last one and make the shot.”