(Published in Daily News, March 25, 1985)
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Ed Pinckney does not care whether folks refer to Villanova as the Cinderella team in this weekend's NCAA Final Four.
"Hey," the Wildcats' 6-9 1/2 senior center said, "we'll wear that glass slipper if you want, but we don't consider ourselves a Cinderella. I don't have to pinch myself anymore. This is reality."
Reality for Villanova yesterday was a berth in the Final Four after a 56-44 beating of North Carolina in the Southeast Regional final at the Birmingham Civic Center. Reality was a celebration that was as emotional as it was joyous.
There was Pinckney standing atop the scorer's table with both arms raised in a Rocky-like pose. There was coach Rollie Massimino and his son R.C. embracing on the sideline as the game ended. There was a tearful Gary McLain hugging his coach amid the hysteria. And there were Villanova's players gently placing one of the game nets around the neck of longtime trainer Jake Nevin.
Villanova, the eighth seed in the Southeast Regional, had completed its fairy tale pilgrimage to Lexington, Ky., where it will join fellow Big East teams Georgetown and St. John's. No conference ever has had three teams in the Final Four before.
The lone non-Big East entry, Metro Conference champion Memphis State (31-3), will be Villanova's semifinal partner Saturday at 3:45 p.m. at the Rupp Arena.
"I was talking with Brent Musberger after the game and he told me that (Memphis coach) Dana Kirk said that they don't care who wins our game because the winner of the Memphis State-Oklahoma game was going to go to the finals," Massimino said. "I think he still has to worry about us."
Massimino, who was superstitious enough to wear the same tan suit he wore a week ago when Villanova beat Michigan in a second-round game at Dayton, is a firm believer in the theory that all 'Cats have nine lives.
How else do you explain the fact that Villanova went from the ridiculous to the sublime in the second half against North Carolina?
The Wildcats (23-10), who shot a brutal 6-for-26 in the first half and struggled to score 17 points, played a near perfect second half against the Tar Heels (27-9).
Villanova, a questionable perimeter shooting team throughout the tournament, lit up Carolina from the outer limits in the final 20 minutes, shooting a blistering 16-for-21 and outscoring the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season tri-champions, 39-22.
The Wildcats also shut down the Tar Heels' normally efficient offense, using a carnivorous matchup zone to take explosive guard Kenny Smith out of the flow by forcing Carolina to play a halfcourt game and diluting the Heels' inside game to a point where only 6-11 junior Brad Daugherty was effective.
"Their defense was much more active than I'd seen it on tape," North Carolina coach Dean Smith said. "And, out of their matchup zone, they became active, and we just didn't look sharp. We could have gotten it inside if we were patient. But we didn't. The combination of our offense and their defense was the difference."
All it took was a soul-searching halftime speech by Massimino to bring out the fire. Massimino, who usually huddles with his assistants before talking with the team, went right to his players, pulling up a chair in the middle of the room. "We tried to let them know how we got here," he would say later.
Among other things, Villanova largely has come this far on perseverance. When Pinckney, Dwayne McClain and Gary McLain were freshmen four years ago, they made a pact to reach the Final Four before they graduated. Villanova came close twice, reaching the regional final in 1982 and 1983.
"When there were about five seconds left in the game," Pinckney said, "we just ran up to each other and hugged each other and thought back to that moment."
And soon Pinckney would be on the scorer's table, standing out in a crowd the way he had during the entire Southeast Regional, a performance that earned him Outstanding Player honors. The senior has given this Villanova team the same leadership qualities that Howard Porter offered when he led the Wildcats to the national final in 1971.
Pinckney's statistics against Carolina - 9 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks - were modest, but, once again, he helped key an aggressive defense that stifled Carolina's enormous frontline once the 'Cats extended their 1-3-1 zone out to the key area.
"We denied the high-post player and they weren't able to lob the ball over the zone," Pinckney said. "Those guys are like trees. I don't know what their arm spans are. They just throw it over you and if you jump for it, it's going to be a foul. We just extended the zone and tried to flatten out their guards."
McLain, who played the point of the zone, did an excellent job controlling Smith, the 6-3 sophomore whose nickname is "The Jet."
Smith burned Auburn in the regional semifinals, scoring a career-high 22 points and playing a flawless floor game. But Smith had just four nondescript points against the Wildcats and committed three of Carolina's uncharacteristic 19 turnovers.
"I thought it was my duty to create a little bit defensively," McLain said. "Kenny Smith is so effective penetrating and dishing off to the open man, I felt by extending myself, I would make the wings think twice about passing the ball back to him."
Villanova had Smith and the rest of the Tar Heels thinking twice when it started to send down jumpers. Forward Harold Pressley, who put up nothing but bricks during Friday's win over Maryland, shot 7-for-13 and scored 15 points. Dwayne McClain and Gary McLain each had 11 and guard Harold Jensen came off the bench to shoot 5-for-7 and score 10 points in a masterful 31 minutes.
"I said the last couple of days that we are a very good shooting basketball team," Massimino said. "But I think we were nervous in the beginning, in awe of where we were, playing North Carolina. I even took Dwayne out at one point and he said, 'Coach, I know. I just have to settle down.' Then he came back in and made a couple of big shots."
McClain made one of the biggest when he scored on a tip-in at the end of the first half and was fouled. He converted the free throw and the three-point play reduced an eight-point Carolina lead to 22-17.
The high-flying 6-6 senior forward also managed to give Massimino a scare when he appeared to strain his back after missing a reverse dunk with 12:50 to go. McClain tumbled to the floor in a heap and left the game. But he was back on the floor two minutes later.
"It was just a miscalculation on my part," McClain said later about the missed dunk.
It was one of the Wildcats' few miscalculations in the second half, when they stormed back to take a 27-26 lead on a breakaway layup by Pressley with 17:25 to go.
Then, after Jensen stuck a 13-foot jumper from the left baseline and Pressley exploded for a slam dunk to send Villanova ahead, 43-33, with 8:31 to go, Massimino began to slow the tempo even more.
"Once there was eight minutes to play, we said, 'We're only going to take a baby jumper or an uncontested layup,' " Massimino said. " ... Dwayne, I think, hit one that was uncontested and, from there on, we just tried to control the tempo of the game."
Villanova went to the spread with 7:34 to play and orchestrated it to near perfection against a team that is notorious for its use of the four-corners.
"We practice it and we just feel we're going with the percentages," McLain said. "We haven't lost too many games (in the delay). When we go into the delay game, we feel we're just as good as anybody in the country. We did today and they fouled and we hit our foul shots and that's what it's all about."
Villanova made seven of its last eight free throws and turned the ball over only twice in the last eight minutes to give Massimino the biggest win of his career.
"I might have a glass of wine, something to relax me," said Massimino, whose players lifted their coach onto their shoulders when it was over. "I'm totally exhausted right now. I think it's because of elation. We may as well hang in there and win one or two more."