(Published in Daily News, March 18, 1985)
DAYTON, Ohio - From the beginning, they played as if they were the keepers of a deep, delicious secret.
Ed Pinckney looked up and saw no Patrick Ewing or Bill Wennington, looming 7 feet above ground. That was a plus.
Gary McLain looked up and saw no 45-second shot clock frowning on him - if he had the lead, he knew he would hear Rollie Massimino yell, "We got enough!", the signal for the no-rush delay game that Villanova has longed to run all season.
Harold Pressley looked up and saw Michigan's Butch Wade at power forward. Wade pumps iron during the offseason, but only hits iron on the court. Pressley could then rebound and roam for steals, which happens to be his biggest strength. And Villanova's coaches had already taken a look at Michigan, beyond its obvious strengths and all the way into its quiet weaknesses. "To be truthful, we felt maybe our toughest game would be Dayton Friday night," assistant coach Harry Booth said.
Only in the national headlines would Villanova's 59-55 Southeast Regional win over Michigan be classified as a "surprise." It was almost too perfect - the basketball players against the athletes, the upperclassmen against the rookies, the warriors against the untested. From the beginning, it was a setup.
"We practiced twice a day since we got here," Massimino said. "We practiced here (at the University of Dayton Arena) once yesterday, and then went over to Bishop Alter High and practiced again.
"We were going from 9 until 7 yesterday, preparing, working, getting everything down. Marty (Marbach, an assistant coach) had six tapes of Michigan. We knew their offenses, and nothing surprised us. The defense, that's what you win games with in this tournament, and we had that. Before this game, I got 'em together and I said, 'Guys, I don't know why, but I got a feeling. We're going to play great today. ' "
Great? If Villanova had been really great, it might have been too gory to watch. Dwayne McClain - yeah, the "D-Train" runs on Sunday - hit one from the corner with 4:14 left in the first half. The next field goal by a Wildcat starter came from Pressley with 11:23 remaining in the second half.
Villanova was outrebounded, 28-21, and outshot 51 percent to 48.6 - and the Wolverines had 16 more field goal attempts. Normally, that's fatal. But, with precious little pressure from Michigan, the 'Cats hung on to the ball (they've made six turnovers in their last two second halves) and their we-got-enough game got them to the foul line a staggering 31 times.
"Go ahead," Booth said. "Check what our record was in close ones before this year, before they put in the clock."
Done. In games decided by seven or fewer points, the Wildcats were a tidy 29-9 the last three seasons. This year, they're 7-6.
Let's also check Villanova's record in NCAA tournaments, when the opponents are usually strangers, and the preparation time favors the best coaches.
This senior class is 7-3 in the big show. Villanova, Georgetown, Virginia Commonwealth, North Carolina and Memphis State are the only clubs who have won NCAA tournament games for four straight seasons.
"There's something about it," Pressley said. "It's do or die time. It's one loss and out. Regular season games, you say there's a tomorrow if you lose. You don't say that here."
Look a little further into the postseason story, and the Wildcats look a little better. The last three years they were eliminated by North Carolina (1982 NCAA champion), Houston ('83 NCAA runner-up), and Illinois ('84 finalist in the Mideast Regional). Three teams, in other words, whose talent edge precluded all of Massimino's preparation.
That is a roundabout way of saying that if the 'Cats have any chance of winning an NCAA game, they do. And since the competition in Birmingham, Ala., is Maryland, North Carolina and Auburn, Villanova - strange but true - has an easier road to the Final Four than it ever has had in the Massimino years.
True, Villanova lost to Maryland, 77-74, Jan. 27 in a made-for-TV event. And Massimino afterward blasted his team for committing a most uncharacteristic sin - not playing hard. But Pinckney did an impressive tap-dance that day on Maryland's freshman center Derrick Lewis. Lewis is still there and so is Pinckney. Winning the rematch is well within the Wildcats' power.
What got into this club after its 85-62 bottoming-out game at Pitt March 2? A better question concerns what came out of the Wildcats. Pressure, for one thing. "Everybody wrote us off," Dwight Wilbur said. "Getting the tournament bid relaxed us."
Yesterday, there was none of the wild-eyed hyperactivity that has cost the 'Cats in some Big East showdowns. Finally, the maturity that you'd expect to see in players who have been around Villanova, it seems, since the Eisenhower administration.
"I looked at Gary Grant (Michigan's hotshot freshman guard)," McLain said. "I looked at it as something of a challenge. I said, 'OK, he might have all this publicity, but he's a freshman, I'm a senior.' And today, there were times when he played like a freshman."
Grant gave Michigan a goose egg, shying away from the obvious shots, never coming close to disrupting McLain's ballhandling game. At the other guard, Antoine Joubert played as if he got points for time of possession. Time and again he surveyed Villanova's zone, looked at his forwards, looked at his crowd, looked at the ceiling, held it, held it and held it - and, then, more often than not, shot.
Michigan's paralysis gave Pinckney time to rest, gave Pressley position for rebounding. "They didn't move the ball as well as some teams," Pressley said. "We knew they hadn't seen that many zones."
But all of it would have added up to goodbye if McClain, the X factor, hadn't come up with an A-plus effort. The D-Train packed 20 points and only two turnovers into his 36 minutes, and he would have had 24 if not for some wayward lob passes in his direction.
McClain, who seems to need a challenge at times, gave himself one when he said the Big 10 was more physical than the Big East. That got under the skin of Big East cheerleader Massimino. "You big-timer," he told McClain. "Today, you get your chance to play physical."
McClain responded by striking quickly against Richard Rellford, another Michigan guy whose body came from Fisher. Then, when Michigan needed points, Bill Frieder used Leslie Rockymore as a third guard. "It was taking a chance," Frieder said, and McClain cashed in on that chance by scorching Rockymore with an eight-point run that pushed Villanova ahead 48-43 with 2:10 remaining. "We got enough!" Massimino proclaimed. Michigan had had enough, too.
Pretty soon they were placing a little green St. Patrick's Day hat on Jake Nevin's head, and making travel plans to Alabama.
"I had a great feeling," Rollie Massimino said.
From the beginning, they all did.