One For The Ages: Hail To The Cats!

It’s time to Break It Down!

As readers who know me are aware, I seldom determine what I will write about until it times to generate a post. Today is no exception. Occasionally, I can commit from the outset the post will not be a long one. Consider that a made promise.

Sports are a significant element of our national culture. In general terms, I am a casual sports fan. There are sports whose nuances I do not fully grasp (football and soccer come to mind), sports that I watch every now and then (if a favorite player is competing; e.g., Serena or Tiger), sports that I once played, but seldom watch now (Thanks for the memories Little League Baseball), and then there is basketball…the sport that I still play twice a week, even at my advanced age. No surprise that is my fave.

Monday night, the Wildcats of Villanova University captured the 2016 NCAA Division I College Basketball National Championship in a game played at NRG Stadium in Houston. Championships are hard to come by, so it goes without saying, the fact ‘Nova won was huge in and of itself. The Cats played five games in the Tournament prior to the Championship tilt. They won those contests by more than 24 points per game on average. Not only that, but they beat the overall Number 1 Seed, Kansas University, holding them to a season low 59 points in the process. They demolished a Number 2 Seed, Oklahoma University, holding them to 51 points, and winning by 44, the largest margin of victory in Final Four history. They did this despite facing the Tourney’s leading scorer, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, who scored 37 points (including 8 straight 3’s) against Number 1 Seed Oregon in the Elite 8 game before playing Nova in the Final Four. The Cats held him to 9 points in their 44-point victory.

In Monday’s Title Game, Villanova, a 2 Seed, was matched up against the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, another Number 1 Seed. The teams were similar in that they both entered the contest with a measure of feeling underappreciated and over critiqued. It’s fair to say, both teams (and their respective fan bases) had a proverbial chip on their shoulders.

The Heels managed to gain a narrow advantage in the first half, going up by as many as 7 points, and leading by 5, 39-34, at the half. The Cats responded by rallying and ultimately leading by 10 with 5:29 to play. It was the Tar Heels’ turn to rally, and they did, tying the score at 74 all with 4.7seconds left on an improbable double clutch 3-point shot by the Tar Heels’ Academic All-American Marcus Paige.

The two heavyweights had each had their moments, and while Nova had managed to gain the bigger advantage at a more critical point in the game, with less than 5 seconds left, it was essentially 0-0. The Carolina faithful, undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief, while the Tar Heel team exhorted by their venerable coach, Roy Williams, and their inimitable senior leader, Marcus Paige, exited their huddle understanding their mission; play 4.7 seconds of defense and get to overtime.

Alas, Villanova left the timeout on a different mission. Win the game in regulation! With .4 seconds remaining, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins made the play of the game, the play of the Tournament, and quite possibly the single most notable play in the history of the game, and certainly of NCAA Title Games. Quite simply he hoisted a shot that while traveling through the air toward the basket would not end its flight until there was nothing but zeroes on the clock. Oh by the way, it went cleanly through the net. With that, the Tar Heels’ mission was exploded, while Nova’s was both realized, and immediately celebrated. For the first time in the history of the Tournament, which launched in 1939, the game ended with a made 3-pointer at the buzzer deciding the outcome, with no time on the clock.

There are those who might argue some other (Title) game was higher scoring, or more aesthetically pleasing, or perhaps more physical. But for sheer optics, pure excitement, between two teams playing the best basketball of the season, and a spine-tingling knockout punch at the-last-possible-moment finish, I submit to you Monday Night’s contest was the unparalleled defining shining moment of NCAA Title Games.  P.S. I fully understand that means that ending not only makes the game an “Instant Classic,” but assures we will see “the shot” an infinite number of times between now and forever.  Oh joy!

As a passing FYI, I must add a moment of self-disclosure. The Heels are my team. I count myself among alumni and fans. I confess, had Carolina won, I would not have written about the Tourney/this game. My opting to do so is in an odd way cathartic (for me).

I’ve observed, heard, and read about others who focused on the officiating. Most, but not all the observations came from Tar Heel fans. I understand fully that the conventional view of such commentary, especially those emanating from fans of the team that lost, are prone to be viewed as sour grapes. But just to be clear, while I do not subscribe to the notion that Nova won because of officiating (they played hard, they played smart, they played with pride, and perhaps most important, they played hard, smart, and with pride, until the final buzzer sounded. That is, in my opinion, why they won the game.  One more thing; having said all that, I am a Tar Heel, all day, everyday.  GO HEELS!

Yet, there are insightful fans that are not UNC alum or fans that also questioned “the Stripes.” Just for chuckles, see below a couple of examples tweeted Monday night by two distinguished gentlemen who attended a prestigious University not named UNC:

Retweeted 2,355 times

Jay Bilas

Verified account

‪            @JayBilas Apr 4

Officials have had a tough night. Unfortunate.

2,355 retweets/2,167 likes

Jay Williams ‏‪@RealJayWilliams Apr 4

I feel bad for both teams. This is one of the worst officiating championship games I have ever seen. ‪@ESPN ‪@Sportscenter

2,115 retweets/1,766 likes

For the millions of Tar Heels who have lamented the outcome, and/or commiserated with others about Monday’s big game, I offer you a small, but powerful dose of perspective.  Consider Tar Heel player Nate Britt.  Britt and Nova’s Kris Jenkins are adoptive siblings.  So basically, for the rest of their natural lives, Kris and his brother Nate, both juniors in their respective programs, will have the 2016 Title Game as a shared experience…and Kris’ shot as a reminder of one’s transcendent sports moment and the other’s hoops nadir.  With that I close by reiterating the Title thought…”One For The Ages: Hail To The Cats!” I’m done; holla back!

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