BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — At the end, there was (E-Z) Ed Pinckney standing atop the scorer's table, arms outstretched, the world spread out before him. Dwayne McClain sat at center court, his palms together in prayer. Their teammates, meanwhile, sought out the coach in the post-game madness. And finally Rollie Massimino, Villanova's long-denied cherub-with-a-whistle, emerged above the crowd, lifted to the net.
In fact, Sunday's celebrating had begun minutes before, with the game still in progress, with North Carolina vainly scrambling around the court, as if trying to correct some stupid mistake, as if it still weren't too late to retrieve customary victory.
The Wildcats would pass-hug, pass-hug, to the Tar Heels' ultimate frustration. Gary McLain, like Pinckney and McClain, could hardly believe that this time, in the seniors' third try, they had advanced to the Final Four. He dribbled in and out, killing the clock, his eyes as big as dinner plates, a silly smile on his face.
Villanova had won, 56-44, to capture the NCAA's Southeast Regional, to finally overcome the stigma of tournament failure. Villanova's three seniors, of course, had been this way before, or part of it anyway. But in two previous tries, they had never gotten beyond the final eight. And against North Carolina! Describe that. "There aren't any words for that," Pinckney said.
The emotion in this victory may have been especially keen in that Villanova (23-10) had been stopped short of this same milestone by this same North Carolina team (27-9). That was in 1982 and North Carolina went on to win the NCAA Tournament. Though still in high school at the time, Villanova sophomore savior Harold Jensen even remembers the game. "We held off high school practice to watch it on TV." Imagine how the three seniors recall it.
The amazement of Villanova finally reaching the Final Four is only surpassed by the amazement of Villanova coming back from one of the all-time worst first halves to beat North Carolina. It was only the luck of a three-point play at the buzzer that the Wildcats trailed by just five at the half. Up to that point, they had made just 5-of-25 shots from the field and 4 of 8 from the free throw line. Their adventures on offense were near comic and baskets seemed more a result of the physics of random particles in collision than aim. If a ball went in, it was probably just luck.
But a spirited halftime talk by Massimino and a whim to start the second half with Jensen in the lineup, seemed to change all that. The Wildcats made 12 of their first 17 shots, behaved like madmen on defense (stealing the ball eight times in the second half) and even made all but one of their free throws.
North Carolina Coach Dean Smith wondered if his team wasn't just out of it, mentally. On offense, North Carolina just wasn't clicking. "They felt like, after the tough games to get here, 'Hey, we got it,' " Smith said. "Just misfiring on things. Threw a couple of passes I just couldn't believe we threw." North Carolina, the second-best shooting team in the country couldn't make even half of its shots; only 6-10 Brad Daugherty was effective, scoring a game-high 17 points.
But the way Villanova played in the second half could put anybody in a strange frame of mind. Jensen, who only averages 15 minutes a game, certainly helped, coming out firing. Massimino said he started him on a whim. "I hadn't done that all year. It was just an intuition."
Jensen sank five-of-six shots, all but one from the wing, to give intuition a good name. "I was just looking to get open," he said. "I was very surprised."
Massimino's halftime talk helped, too. Harold Pressley, who led his team with 15 points after a five-point first half, said the coach didn't finesse the pep. "He yelled at us," Pressley said. "He told us we were throwing it all away. He couldn't believe it was happening."
Said Dwayne McClain: "A lot of truth there."
Massimino agreed. "I never did what I did in halftime before," Massimino said. But, he downplayed the psyching of Villanova. To him, it was a matter of restoring a rhythm to the game, to making the four passes before each shot. "In the first half, we'd shoot and their big guys would get the rebound. Just gave us one shot."
The second half should best be remembered for Villanova's defense, one "more active than I'd seen on tape," according to Dean Smith. The Wildcats actually went ahead, 27-26, while on defense, scoring on two fast breaks (one on a steal). Nobody fast breaks on North Carolina. Even though the Tar Heels are big, they get back faster than anybody.
Villanova's lead mounted, 37-31, when Gary McLain knocked the ball away, leading to another of Jensen's 20-footers. Later, a Villanova player tipped a pass away and North Carolina players stood watching it go, apparently out of bounds. "The ball was only 5 or 10 feet away," said Jensen, "and they were just standing there."
So Jensen darted for the ball and raced down the court for an uncontested layup to make it 47-36.