By Daniel Popoloski
Madness reigned supreme Monday as the NCAA D-I men’s basketball tournament ended in a last second buzzer-beating three-point shot by Kris Jenkins of Villanova, toppling UNC for the national championship, 77-74.
The Wildcats secured their first national championship since 1985 under the level-headed coaching of Jay Wright and led by senior guard Ryan Arcidiagono, who was named Final Four Most Outstanding Player. In the title game, bench player Phil Booth led the way with 20 points, helping to keep the Wildcats in the game until Marcus Paige drilled an off-balance three-pointer with just 4.7 seconds left.
Between Monday’s game and the start of the tournament on March 15, there were massive comebacks, huge meltdowns, big upsets, blowouts and buzzer beaters. Each region featured a little of everything, including 15-seed Middle Tennessee State’s victory over tournament favorite Michigan State in the first round, led by Reggie Upshaw. The Midwest region exhibited the most volatility when Syracuse became the first team in tournament history to make the Final Four as a 10-seed.
In the West region upsets abounded left and right starting with 14-seed Stephen F. Austin over No. 3-seed West Virginia, led by bearded wonder Thomas Walkup; and Wisconsin over Xavier, following Bronson Koenig’s buzzer beating three-pointer. However, it was North Carolina who surged to the Final Four behind the leadership of seniors Paige, and Brice Johnson.
In the South region, the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks looked to be running the championship game unopposed until they met Villanova in the Elite Eight and were promptly blown out. Elsewhere in the region, No. 7-seed Iowa knocked down an overtime buzzer-beater tip-in to send No 10-seed Temple home. No. 11-seed Wichita State, led by experienced seniors Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, looked like they would be able to upset their way through the tournament, but No 3-seed Miami, led by Angel Rodriguez, stopped their Cinderella run short. But it was Arcidiagono and his timely shooting that led Villanova to the Final Four.
The West region had arguably the most exciting games, stemming specifically from the University of Northern Iowa. First UNI upset Texas in the opening round following a half-court three-point buzzer-beater by Paul Jespersen. In the next round, UNI led by 12 against Texas A&M with only 30 seconds left. What ensued was the greatest comeback in the history of college basketball, as A&M stormed back following a flurry of UNI turnovers. Texas A&M edged out UNI in double overtime. No. 12-seed Yale also knocked off No.5 seed Baylor in the first round in a big upset, led by Makai Mason. However, it was the top two seeds in the region, Oregon and Oklahoma, that led the way, with Oklahoma going to the Final Four behind the leadership of Buddy Hield.
In the Final Four, Villanova dispatched Oklahoma with ease, 95-51, while UNC destroyed Syracuse, 83-66, to set up the championship game. In the final, both teams stayed close to each other, with neither team pulling ahead by more than five points. Paige’s big three with only 4.7 seconds left was the equalizer, but it wasn’t enough to counteract Jenkins’ buzzer-beater to give Villanova the crown.
While recent tourneys have been headlined by the top-ranked freshmen, such as Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky’s Karl Anthony-Towns, this year was all about teams featuring seniors as the linchpins. Top freshman, Ben Simmons of LSU didn’t even make the tournament. Oklahoma’s Hield, Kansas’ Perry Ellis, and Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon were just a few of the seniors who led their teams past squads reliant on freshmen standouts.