Villanova's sensational April Fools joke

(Published in Daily News, April 2, 1985)

LEXINGTON, Ky. - With all the dire predictions of what mighty, misanthropic Georgetown was supposed to do to Villanova, the date had been forgotten. It was as if everyone was so eager to be done with the ugly business of an NCAA championship execution that the page on the calendar had already been flipped. The only problem was, no one imagined that John Thompson and his Hoya horde could be disposed of as easily.

But now something was happening on Rupp Arena's court, and it had nothing to do with them. It was too sweet, too joyous, too surreal. Every blessed soul in the joint was cheering the team that was supposed to have had a better chance peddling space heaters in hell. Rollie Massimino, the stumpy, salty coach of the Wildcats, had so many hands to shake that he wished he were an octopus. Dwight Wilbur was giddily wrestling with the human rocket launcher who had replaced him at guard, Harold Jensen. And Ed Pinckney and Dwayne McClain were hurrying to tell the world what day it was before the clock struck midnight.

"Everybody thought Georgetown, everybody thought Georgetown!" Pinckney shouted.

"Yeah!" McClain shouted back. "April Fools'!"

Villanova is the national champion.

The joke is on everybody who thought it couldn't happen. The disbelievers were legion, of course. But only the ones wearing Georgetown beanies could fail to appreciate the way they were put in their place last night, for what they witnessed was far, far more than an upset. It was a 66-64 masterpiece that Villanova painted, a work of art that deserves to be hung with the greatest college basketball games ever played.

Look at it from any angle and you will see why. There was Massimino, who concocted both the defense and the state of mind needed to spit in the eye of a dragon that had feasted on the Wildcats twice already this season. The two teams were old enemies from the Big East Conference, but Georgetown was said to belong in a league in another stratosphere, a league boasting the dynasties from UCLA, San Francisco and Kentucky. As surly as they were talented, the Hoyas were a sight that had turned many knees to jelly, and yet Villanova refused to quiver.

So what if Georgetown had held its opponents to 39 percent shooting from the field? The Wildcats were going to shoot 78.6 percent. They were going to miss just one shot in the second half and just six the whole game. And they were going to do it amid the mortal combat that saw the Hoyas' Reggie Williams throw a forearm shiver at Chuck Everson and Williams's tag-team partner, Horace Broadnax, wallop Harold Pressley where the sun doesn't shine. But there was no sway to the Wildcats. Their spines were made of steel.

"None of us has the personality that we're going to go out and fight on the street," said Pressley, who sometimes seems more like a budding talk-show host than Villanova's best defensive forward. "But everybody works so hard that they're just not going to let people take what they've accomplished away from them without a fight."

It was easy to forget that pride when the Wildcats were losing 10 games during the season, including those two to No. 1 Georgetown and three to No. 2 St. John's. What people remembered was the swoon that saw them fall to Pitt, Syracuse and Boston College. Never mind that they had five straight tournament victories going into last night's tea dance. They were still regarded as great pretenders.

"Underdog, I can understand," McClain said. "But nobody even thought we had a chance."

The Wildcats could have folded right there. Or they could have given up when they saw ESPN rerunning their 57-50 February loss to Georgetown yesterday afternoon. Or they could have headed for the exit when the virus-stricken Pinckney vomited just before halftime. "Oh, I threw up worse than that in our game Saturday," he insisted. This was no time to doubt him, so the 'Cats played on.

"We really believed we could win," assistant coach Mitch Buonaguro said. "If we didn't think that, there was no point in playing, and coach Mass really did a great job of convincing the kids they belonged here."

Little by little, the evidence to convince the rest of the world trickled in. When Williams shot Georgetown to a 20-14 lead, Massimino restored order by climbing all over Pressley, who then did likewise to the Hoya marksman. But the real test came when Patrick Ewing, seven feet of as great a center as you may ever see, flushed three straight stuff shots while the first-half lead went back and forth. "Once Georgetown gets those dunks, they usually start trampling all over people," said Villanova point guard Gary McLain. "They're like sharks smelling blood in the water." The Wildcats proved to be bad bait, though. They were too tough to chew.

They proved that when Pinckney went up to shoot in Ewing's face and came away with a three-point play that gave them a 34-30 lead. There was no backing down after that. There was just a game within a game, one that involved proving who had the biggest heart and the thickest hide. And the winner was a sophomore reserve guard who had gone through much of the season with a broken thumb and a battered self-image.

"I thought I could contribute and I'm not," somber Harold Jensen said when he met Massimino behind closed doors. "I feel like I'm letting you down."

"You're not letting me down," Massimino replied.

The coach amplified his message by encouraging Jensen to shoot, getting louder and louder until even the 23,124 crazies in Rupp Arena couldn't drown out that surprisingly soothing voice. By the time Villanova was fighting back from a 54-53 deficit last night, the kid was acting like angels were singing in his ear. "We were trying to get the ball into Ed (Pinckney)," Jensen said, "but I got open on the right wing and coach is always telling me not to hesitate." He didn't. He hit his fifth straight shot from the field, and with 2 minutes and 36 seconds to go, Villanova had the lead it would never lose.

The Hoyas didn't die easy, though. Defending champions seldom do. They made Jensen and Dwayne McClain run a gauntlet of one-and-ones in the dying moments of the game. And when the Hoyas scored, they made those same two Wildcats realize that getting the ball inbounds can be as difficult as convincing John Thompson to guest host the "Tonight Show."

There were two seconds left the last time Jensen started looking for a friendly face. "All I wanted to do was get rid of the ball," he said. For an instant, McClain was standing 12 feet away, and then he was falling, his legs tangled with those of Georgetown's David Wingate. But the tumble didn't rob McClain of his voice. "Go!" he yelled. Jensen threw him the ball as he lay on the court and McClain smothered the pass lovingly. When the clock showed nothing but zeroes, when Villanova had the victory that turned out to be a joke on Georgetown, he looked up at the press table and said, "That's it."

No fooling.