Related topics

Villanova’s Joke on Georgetown

March 22, 1995

It was like a bad April Fool’s joke, the kind of gag anybody with an ounce of common sense would almost certainly see right through.

To work, such a prank has to be plausible. And 10 years ago, thinking that Villanova could win the NCAA championship against Georgetown, well, that just didn’t seem very plausible.

Defending champion Georgetown was loaded, equipped with the nation’s best defense. The entire starting five, led by Patrick Ewing, would move on to the NBA. Villanova was a 9 1/2-point underdog in the championship game and that seemed low. The Wildcats had been stumbling before the tournament, hardly regarded much of a title threat.

April Fool’s.

Villanova won it all on April 1, 1985, in as unlikely a finish as the NCAA tournament has ever seen. All it took was a practically perfect game, and even that very nearly wasn’t enough.

This championship crusade began in a most unlikely way, with Villanova’s entire starting team on the bench, exiled there by coach Rollie Massimino, who was disgusted with their performance against Pitt in the last game of the regular season.

``I told them at halftime of the Pitt game,″ Massimino said. ``I said, `You guys have three minutes to play in the second half. If you don’t start playing, I’m taking you all out.′

``And that’s what I did.″

Ed Pinckney, the centerpiece of that Villanova team, thought the coach had gone off the deep end. ``I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, `We might not get to the tournament, now,‴ Pinckney said. ``I’m a senior. This is my last chance. We’re on national TV and he took the five of us out. How could he do that to us?″

Pitt beat Villanova that day. ``They didn’t beat us,″ Pinckney corrected. ``They blew us out.″

He’s right about that. The final score was 85-62. ``I think I remember that game more than anything else that happened after it,″ Pinckney said.

And plenty was about to happen.

The Wildcats, 18-9 and heading for the Big East Tournament, were in some trouble. Next up was a rematch with Pitt.

Massimino was cool in the crisis. ``We felt if we beat Pitt in the Big East, that would give us a chance to get into the tournament,″ he said. ``That was critical.″

Final score: Villanova 69, Pitt 62.

``The players thought we needed two wins to get in,″ Pinckney said. ``We lost the second game to St. John’s.″ Again, it was a blowout, with Villanova beaten by 15 points. It was not the very best recommendation for a tournament bid.

On the bus back to Philadelphia, Villanova learned its fate. The NCAA tournament committee had decided the Wildcats were worth a bid. After all, Massimino was a colorful coach with his tie loosened and his coattails flapping. He’d put on a good show. Sometimes, it seems, that’s as important as anything else to the committee.

Villanova got the No. 8 seed in the Southeast Region. Its first game would be against Dayton. At Dayton.

``Dayton at Dayton,″ Pinckney said, his mouth curling into a grin. ``How’s that?″

That kind of hometown edge isn’t allowed in the tournament anymore. In Las Vegas, where Massimino would later migrate for a brief, unhappy stretch, bookmakers considered Villanova’s condition and its draw and decided 75-1 would be reasonable odds for its chances. That, too, seemed low.

The first game was typical of Villanova’s tournament _ a tight, low-scoring affair that wasn’t settled until the end. Throughout the tournament _ the last one played without a shot clock _ Villanova used a controlled offense, working the clock, taking only good shots.

``If there’s a shot clock,″ Pinckney said, ``there’s no way we win.″

In the opener, the score was tied at 49 and Dayton was holding for a last shot. There was a steal by Harold Pressley and suddenly, sophomore Harold Jensen was scoring the winning basket.

It was the start of a marvelous two-week run for Jensen and the Wildcats.

``I don’t think we snuck up on them,″ Jensen said. ``I think maybe some people were a little surprised at the ability of our front court. Those guys could play with anybody in the country.″

The Villanova front court was Pinckney, Pressley and Dwayne McClain _ all three still playing pro basketball. Street-smart Gary McLain was the point guard and Dwight Wilbur and Jensen shared time at the shooting guard.

Pinckney, McClain and McLain were the seniors and the team leaders. ``We had a pact that this was going to be our team and our year,″ McLain said. ``We were not going to let anything ruin our moment.″

Next in the draw was Michigan, the No. 2 team in the country and No. 1 team in the region. The Wolverines had won 17 straight and were top-heavy favorites. Again Villanova won. ``Not by a lot,″ Massimino said, ``but we won.″ The score was 59-55.

``The way we won games in the tournament,″ McLain said, ``was the systematic application of offense and defense. We were dissecting other teams.″

Two down, four to go.

Now the Wildcats were in the Sweet Sixteen and on their way to Birmingham, Ala. Waiting was Maryland, led by All-American Len Bias, a team Villanova had lost to during the season.

``One of the reasons we did what we did,″ Jensen said, ``was we were such a confident bunch. Our preparation before each game was better than anybody else. A lot of it was Rollie’s doing. Every game, we put in a little wrinkle.

``Against Maryland, they played a lot like we did. They wanted to get the ball up and down. They played with patience and took only good shots.″

Villanova took better ones and wound up winning, 46-43.

One more win and the unlikely Wildcats would be on their way to the Final Four. All they had to do was beat North Carolina, the No. 1 team in the nation. At halftime, the Tar Heels were up by seven points and Massimino was livid.

It was the beginning of the coach’s pasta strategy.

``I never yell,″ Massimino said. ``I said to them, `Relax. To heck with the Final Four. I’d rather be someplace else, having pasta and clam sauce with a lot of cheese.′

``I don’t know why I said that, but I did.″

Jensen recalled the speech a little differently. It had nothing to do with the coach being relaxed. ``Massimino sensed we were so tight and playing too cautiously,″ he said. ``He blasted a few guys. Then he said if we were going to play this way, what he’d rather be doing would be eating a big plate of pasta with clam sauce.

``It was something unique. In a way, it was inspiring. It broke the ice and released the tension.″

Villanova won by 12 and if Massimino had his pasta, it was only after the game.

Now the Wildcats were on their way to Lexington, Ky., for the Final Four, joined by Big East partners St. John’s and Georgetown, as well as Memphis State. Villanova drew Memphis State in the semifinals.

Massimino’s team had gotten this far, mostly on nerve, and most of the nerve belonged to McLain, the point guard. ``I told McLain before the tournament that he was going to be facing some of the best point guards in the country,″ Massimino said. ``He handled all of them.″

``We were cocky,″ McLain said. ``That was our team, a players’ team. All four years, we were snapping and ranking on each other, instilling confidence and tenacity.″

They would need it all in those last two games. ``Memphis State was good,″ Jensen said. ``They had Keith Lee and Vincent Agnew. And remember Baskerville Holmes? Our preparation was critical. They dropped a guard back to clog the middle against our size. It was another low-scoring game, 52-45.″

That put the Wildcats in the final against Georgetown, which had lost just twice all season. Jensen said the players were confident, despite the odds. ``They had beaten us twice, but we had played them well,″ he said. ``We lost to them in overtime at the Spectrum and then by two points in Landover.

``To us, it wasn’t a national championship match. It was just another Big East game. We knew them like a book and we didn’t think there was any way they could beat us three times.″

In the hours before the game, Massimino gathered the team. ``It was a time to be together, enjoy each other and have some fun,″ the coach said. ``I told them there would be a parade when we got home, no matter what. And then I told them to go to their rooms and visualize us winning. I told them they had to play to win.″

To do that, many people thought Villanova would have to be perfect. And the Wildcats were very nearly that. They made 13 of 18 shots in the first half and led by a point. In the dressing room, Pinckney said Massimino went back to the pasta strategy that had worked so well against North Carolina.

``He said, `There’s no reason to be nervous. If we were home, I could be eating spaghetti. But I’m here.′ ″

The players digested that for whatever it was worth and went back to work. If they were good in the first half, they were nearly perfect in the second. They would miss just one of 10 shots in the final 20 minutes and finish with 22-of-28 for the game, an astounding 78.6 percent. Jensen was 5-for-5. McLain was 3-for-3. Pinckney missed just two of seven shots.

And they still almost lost.

Georgetown kept waiting for the Wildcats to crack. With just over 10 minutes left, the Hoyas led by a point. There would be five lead changes until Villanova quietly opened a five-point edge. Georgetown came right back and with 4:50 to go, the Hoyas led by a point, 54-53, and had the ball.

Villanova still would not go away. McClain stole the ball and Jensen’s 16-footer with 2:36 to play put the Wildcats back in front.

``We were so focused,″ said Jensen, whose only miss all night was on one of his five free throws. ``There was no time to think about what we were doing. We controlled the tempo. We kept playing for good shots. We wanted to prevent their spurts. They could score 10 points in a minute.″

They never did.

Down the stretch, Villanova kept making foul shots and with 18 seconds left, the score was 65-60. It still wasn’t over, though. Georgetown narrowed it to two points, 66-64 and with two seconds left, Ewing punched the ball out of bounds, stopping the clock.

On the bench, Massimino was terrified.

``Patrick made a great play,″ the coach said. ``The official called time. He should have let the clock go. It meant we had to set up an in-bounds play. They could have stolen the ball and scored.″

McClain, who had tripped and fallen, caught the in-bounds pass on the floor. In an instant, it was over and gleeful Villanova players, led by Pinckney, were climbing on the press table, stepping gingerly over telephones and computers, celebrating a most improbable victory.

``All night, I think Georgetown felt at any moment, something would happen to blow it open and they would win,″ said Pinckney, who is still in the NBA, now with Milwaukee. ``That one play when Patrick punched the ball, you think _ `That’s it.′ You believe you just can’t make any mistakes.″

McLain, who sent a shudder through Villanova with drug disclosures two years after the championship, now works for a telecommunications company in New York. He remembers mugging for the cameras after the game. ``I was the hot dog, waving my finger, telling everybody we were No. 1.

``It was a blessing to be part of that, to be part of that destiny.″

``It was a good night for all of us,″ said Jensen, who now owns his own business outside Philadelphia. ``We were nearly perfect and we won by two points.

``I watch the tape maybe once a year. That’s enough. I don’t want to give them any more chances than that to beat us.″

End ADV For Release SUN March 26

Update hourly