This story originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
The play of the year, the dagger to eclipse all NCAA tournament daggers, happened in a sliver of time—10:27:49 to 10:27:56 p.m. in Houston on April 4—that has been elevated to Laettnerdom, isolated and replayed ad infinitum: la fabula Villanova in 4.7 seconds on the game clock, Kris Jenkins to Ryan Arcidiacono to Kris Jenkins for three and the national championship over North Carolina 77–74. But it was much more than five seconds in the making. Like a canonical hip-hop track, the play is rife with samples, influences and allusions, some years old and some just weeks, some intentional and some instinctual. The story of how this play came to be could begin in many different places, but let’s start on March 28, 2009, at a press conference.
Three Villanova players sit at a dais in Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden wearing gray-and-black hats—commemorating the fact that they’ve just earned a spot in the Final Four—at three different angles, each with a snippet of white net tied to the backstrap. The East Regional trophy is at the center of the table, and their coach, Jay Wright, sits to their right, hatless. The first question is for junior guard Scottie Reynolds. It is, not surprisingly, about his shot that just beat Pittsburgh.
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The three-footer has instantly become a candidate for the most thrilling field goal in school history, as it sent the Wildcats to their first Final Four since they won their lone national title, as a No. 8 seed in 1985. Reynolds’s game-winner was the culmination of a full-court play directly following a made free throw by Pitt. It began with 5.5 seconds left and the game tied at 76. Guard Reggie Redding threw a high inbounds pass, over the first line of the Panthers’ press, to a leaping 6’8” Dante Cunningham just beyond the top of the key in the backcourt. He turned left and dropped the ball off to a streaking Reynolds, who took four dribbles in a flash, then hit a hanging shot in the paint. Now, in response to the reporter, he spares no detail.
“It’s something that we do every day in practice,” Reynolds says. “They face-guarded me, and when that happens, Dante makes a flash to the middle of the floor and I make a second cut away from him, going towards the basket. We have a stagger going on, on the opposite side—.”
At which point Wright cannot take it anymore, this public revelation of an endgame script he’s used since the 1990s at Hofstra. It’s now called Nova, and the team runs it when there’s between four and seven seconds left and the Wildcats need to go the length of the court for a bucket. “All right! All right,” the coach says. “That’s—that’s good.”
Laughter ensues. Reynolds’s eyes widen; he is both surprised and amused by Wright’s paranoia. “I’m just sayin’!” Reynolds protests. “I’m just sayin’!”
“You can coach with me when you’re done playing,” Wright replies.
When Reynolds resumes addressing the media, he changes course: “Well, I just made a layup ... “—and there is more laughter—before he adds that he made an “instinct play” to keep the ball rather than pass it ahead. Later in the press conference, Wright laments, “I think Scottie gave up most of the play. Anybody that listened can diagram that now.”
Most is the key word. Certain variations and options, including a last resort, were left unsaid. Nova could live on.
For many years—Wright can’t remember when he started this habit—he has said one of two things when a key shot is in the air: Bang, if he wants it to go in, or No f------ way, if he wants it to miss. “As a coach, that’s all you’ve got at that point,” he says. “That’s just me thinking I can have some control.”
There are less than nine seconds left in the 2016 national title game at NRG Stadium, and how much control does Wright have now? Villanova has let a 10-point lead shrink to 74–71. North Carolina guard Marcus Paige has the ball on the right wing, and though the Wildcats have followed their defensive plan—switch every screen, deny passes to shooters to prevent threes, aggressively hunt for steals without worrying about fouls—things went awry when 6’11” senior center Daniel Ochefu, switching onto Paige, dived to steal a pass and completely missed the ball. That created a situation that Wright calls “unthinkable”: Point guard Arcidiacono and wing Mikael Bridges scramble to help on Paige, but he lets fly a double-clutching, legs-kicking three ... and all Wright can do is follow the ball’s flight and say, to himself, No f------ way.
This mental Mutombo act had worked in 2009, after Reynolds’s shot went in and the officials put 0.5 of a second back on the clock. Pitt guard Levance Fields had enough time to launch a three-quarter-court attempt from a few feet in front of Wright. It looked, at first, as if Fields’s aim was true. Wright said N-F-W, and the ball hit the backboard and the rim but didn’t go through the net.
No such luck with Paige, who sinks the shot of the year—to date—to tie the game. Villanova calls a timeout with 4.7 seconds left and once again assumes command of its fate. Players run back to the bench repeating the mantra of Wright’s program—Attitude! Next play!—and they already know what that next play is. The script from their Wildcat Minute, the endgame sequence they run three or four times a week in practice, dictates that when there’s between four and seven seconds left in a tie game, they run Nova.
There is no question that Arcidiacono, a senior and four-year starter, will play the Reynolds role. But as the team huddles, Wright faces one critical decision: Should he move his best shooter, the 6’6” Jenkins, upcourt so he can come off a screen, or leave him in his normal role as the inbounder? The inbounder on the 2009 Nova play, Redding, was nearly called for a five-second violation—and had committed a turnover inbounding on the previous possession. And in the 1985 title game, which Wright (a Churchville, Pa., native) had attended as a Villanova fan, inbounding against Georgetown’s press in the final minutes had been nerve-racking. Ultimately, Wright recalls, “my biggest concern was, tie score, get the ball inbounds.” Jenkins, the team’s most intelligent passer, would trigger the play and then serve as the trail man.
Wright assigns the positions for Nova on his dry-erase board, but the players’ chatter is just as crucial. The last time they ran Nova in an endgame scenario—at Seton Hall in January 2015—Arcidiacono passed ahead to shooting guard Darrun Hilliard, who missed a three at the buzzer. Ochefu makes eye contact with Arcidiacono and says, “Shoot it. You’re the one I want to shoot it. You’re the one everyone wants to shoot the ball.” Jenkins, however, has an addendum: “I’m gonna be trailing, and I think I’m gonna be open. [North Carolina] hasn’t put anyone on the inbounder all game.”
Arcidiacono hears him but thinks, I’m gonna shoot this. The right play is gonna be for me to shoot. It’s a dream shot; who wouldn’t take it? Also: In all the hundreds of instances they’ve run Nova in practice, Arcidiacono has shot it plenty and not once passed to the trail man.
He does, however, have extra time to consider his options. In a post-timeout move that seems trivial to the audience—but shows, as Villanova assistant coach Baker Dunleavy puts it, “a remarkable level of poise for that moment”—Arcidiacono and Ochefu call for a ball boy to dry the giant wet spot Ochefu left with his dive. And when Ochefu sees the ball boy struggling with the mop, he says, “Let me see that,” and attacks the puddle with a peculiar sense of purpose.
Ochefu is not doing this out of charity. “In terms of basketball IQ,” says backup center Darryl Reynolds, “Daniel is one of the most strategic guys I’ve ever seen.” Ochefu had recently seen Arcidiacono slip on a final sequence: In the team’s last loss, to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament final, the Wildcats ran a different full-court play off a missed free throw, Arcidiacono stumbled on a wet spot in front of Villanova’s bench, and all he had time to do before the buzzer was launch what he called “a halfhearted prayer” that air-balled.
The ball boy, Zachary Hall, a high school freshman from Pearland, Texas, whose father is the head of the local organizing committee, figured he’s probably on television as he stands next to Ochefu. But mostly Zachary is watching the Wildcats’ center and thinking, He wouldn’t be so insistent about getting that mopped if Villanova weren’t planning something. I might be about to see something great.
Jenkins’s decision is easy, and the play begins to reveal itself, like a pixelated image loading into higher resolution. The Tar Heels allow Arcidiacono to catch the pass near where Paige took his three, and Ochefu, manning the position Cunningham did in ‘09, sets a ball screen in—aha!—almost the exact spot he volunteered to mop. Arcidiacono dribbles past the right edge of the screen, taking a left-to-right diagonal path into the frontcourt as he’s chased by his defender, point guard Joel Berry II, as well as Ochefu’s, forward Isaiah Hicks.
As Arcidiacono crosses the UR in the FINAL FOUR half-court logo, his read on the play changes from shoot to pass. North Carolina has two men on him and no one checking Jenkins. (Coach Roy Williams later says that the Tar Heels were concerned about a repeat of a full-court, baseball-pass play that Villanova used to score on Kansas in the Elite Eight, and thus stationed Jenkins’s man, Brice Johnson, back in the paint, with instructions—that went unheeded—to come forward if there was no Hail Mary.) Also, Jenkins is yelling “Arch! Arch! Arch!” the whole time.
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Jenkins has spent three years planting seeds in his teammates’ minds, telling them that if they get stuck on a drive to find him for a three, which he most certainly will make. He even coined a phrase: “When in doubt, I’ll bail you out.” That kind of confidence, says Darryl Reynolds, “is who Kris is to his core.” He is shooting 47.1% from deep in the tournament at this point; ask him what location he’s most comfortable firing from and he says, “I’m comfortable in every spot. From half-court. From the bench. From when I walk in the gym, I’m comfortable.”
He does, however, automatically drift to a familiar place on the final play. In the four-out, one-in motion offense that Wright developed in his Hofstra days and uses at Villanova, there are four designated perimeter positions—the two corners and two “slots” a few steps to the right and left of the top of the key. Managers tape X’s on those spots in practice, and Jenkins has taken thousands of threes from those X’s. When he catches Arcidiacono’s pitch-back pass with 1.5 seconds left, he is one step behind the right slot, about 24 feet out.
Now watch Jenkins’s feet: the way he flows from catch to shoot, without dribbling, is habitual. His inside (left) foot lands first, then his outside (right) foot, slightly in front; Wright indoctrinates his players with this two-step approach, as opposed to a jump-stop. He learned it as a teenager in the ‘70s, attending a Philadelphia-area clinic by ABA three-point record holder and mechanics guru George Lehmann, and made it one of the tenets of Villanova’s shooting curriculum. Catch to shoot, one-two step.
As the buzzer sounds with Jenkins’s shot in the air, most of the Wildcats’ bench is raising up, sharing in his belief that it’s good. Bridges has a foot up on the raised court, trying to get a head start on his celebratory sprint. But Wright still needs to will the ball home. His head turns to follow its arc, and for the first time in his career, due to the number of cameras in NRG Stadium, one catches him mouthing Bang, emotionless, before Jenkins’s shot grazes the back of the rim and splashes through the net. Even this development cannot stir Wright, who turns toward the handshake line. In truth, he’s worried about time getting put back on the clock, but he looks like the epitome of cool. GIFs of him mouthing Bang and his nonreaction soon go viral. “Stone cold,” Ochefu says. “That deserves to be a meme forever.”
Jenkins rejoices—as he well should—freeing himself from the teammates who mob him, and eventually making his way to the edge of the court in front of the Villanova family section, where he points to his inner left forearm and yells, “Ice in my veins!”
While this is a new one-liner for Jenkins, it has associations with old Wildcats magic. Scottie Reynolds could not be in Houston—he was asleep in Tel Aviv, needing rest the night before an important Israeli pro game—but nine of the 14 members of the 1985 title team are there, including Harold Jensen, who’s seated a few rows back from where Jenkins is celebrating. It was Jensen who sank Villanova’s go-ahead field goal in that miracle upset of Georgetown—a jumper with 2:36 left that inspired CBS announcer Billy Packer to declare that Jensen had “ice water in his veins.”
Jensen and his old teammates have been flashing back to ‘85 all evening, glancing at one another, nervously and hopefully, as the game got tighter. He feels a connection with Jenkins; they are both deadeye shooters and designated inbounders, separated by 31 years. The ‘85 Hoyas, whose coach, John Thompson Jr., is calling the 2016 game courtside for Westwood One radio, used a frenzied press to claw back to within two points in the final seconds and had tried to fluster Jensen into making a critical passing mistake on the final possession.
Jensen surveys the court on the final play in 2016 and is surprised that the Tar Heels aren’t making the first pass difficult. “They’re giving us a couple of seconds back,” he says to a friend. “We could get a good look.” The ‘85 win is known as the Perfect Game, because the Wildcats shot 22 of 28 from the field, but it ended on an inbounds that ran out the clock—Jensen to forward Dwayne McClain, who had slipped and was on his knees when he caught the ball. Now Jensen is witnessing the Perfect Ending: an uncontested inbounds, an unguarded trail man running into the biggest three ever and Hicks lunging too late to affect it.
“Moments like that can freeze you, and it looked like North Carolina froze a little bit,” Jensen says. “I think that was our time. That’s not to say that if we had played them 10 times they wouldn’t have won seven, but in those last few seconds, we executed better than they did. We stayed present, in the moment, better than they did.”
A moment like that is no time to ponder all that led up to it—although there is much that did—or all that might come after. You just read and act, one-two step and fire. And, Bang, it explodes into something of permanence: 4.7 seconds that run off the clock but never fade away.