SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The Michigan fans at the bar in Honolulu couldn’t resist teasing the sole Villanova fan.
They saw Father Chris wearing a T-shirt from the Salesianum School in Wilmington, so they assumed he was pulling for the Wildcats, and when they found out he has a graduate degree from Notre Dame, that didn’t help. He seemed unusually interested in a redheaded bench player, and he confessed that he’d coached the kid in high school.
By the time the Wolverines took a seven-point lead nine minutes into the game, the Michigan folks started riding the priest.
“Hey,” said one man dressed in maize and blue, “your boy hasn’t done much, huh?” Donte DiVincenzo then scored 18 points in the first half, 13 more in the second and finished with 31, a record for a bench player in a title game. He hit five three-pointers, blocked two shots at the rim and led the team with three assists. DiVincenzo was named most outstanding player of the Final Four. As he accepted the award, Father Chris got off his barstool.
“Yeah!” he yelled. “That’s my guy!”
Keeping the faith
DiVincenzo’s story is a distillation of patience, perseverance, and humility. As Delaware’s player of the year in 2015, he expected to play an important role right away at Villanova, but he broke a foot eight games into his freshman season and was forced to redshirt. He has started just 11 of his 84 games at Villanova, virtually all of them in place of an injured teammate. A spectacular athlete, his defensive lapses and erratic offensive play made him a liability in Jay Wright’s precise systems.
“The lowest point? Probably that initial reaction when I found out I was injured,” DiVincenzo said. “But I had to grow up a lot this year, too. Early in the year, it was difficult, not being a starter.”
Both times, he sought the counsel of the Rev. Robert Hagen, the team chaplain. “Father Rob is everything,” DiVincenzo said. If it seems odd that a 21-year-old NBA prospect would seek comfort from the cloth, consider that it isn’t the first time.
“In high school, my principal was a priest, and my assistant basketball coach. We were close,” DiVincenzo said. “In high school, I would talk to him a little bit.”
That’s how he became Father Chris’s guy.
Donte DiVincenzo could not have been a bigger deal in 2015: a senior who led Salesianum to its first state basketball title as a junior, already committed to Villanova, the No. 1 school in the nation. And he was losing.
Things bottomed out on Feb. 20, 2015, at rival Smyrna High. The hosts led by one point and were at the free-throw line with 1 second to play. They missed. DiVincenzo grabbed the rebound, and, incredibly was fouled. He went to the line with no time on the clock. Hero moment.
He missed the first. He missed the second.
Selesianum lost the next game, too. The defending state champs, gutted by graduation, entered the playoffs 10-10, and the star player was foundering.
That’s where the Rev. J. Christian Beretta stepped in. Father Chris carries three graduate degrees, one of them a master’s in kinesiology and sport psychology. The year before, he’d helped DiVincenzo decide on Villanova over Syracuse and Notre Dame. Once again, he saw the big man on campus struggling with some pretty big issues.
“His senior year, when all the recruiting was done, living up to that status … that really started to wear on him,” Beretta said by phone on Tuesday, on vacation on the island of Oahu. “You have so few people you can turn to. And you have people who imagine how cool it must be, to have all that attention. But they don’t understand the stress involved with trying to live up to that.”
On Monday night, DiVincenzo credited his many failures at Villanova with preparing him for the ultimate success in the Final Four, just as his high school failures prepared him for the 2015 state tournament.
“As a senior, his successes and his failures were magnified,” Beretta said. “Missing those free throws — that propelled him. He played lights-out after that.”
DiVincenzo averaged 27.7 points in the four state tournament games. After he dropped 23 on St. Georges Tech in the final, the opposing coach, Rod Griffin, told the Wilmington News Journal that his team had been beaten by Donte and The Miracles.
The struggle is real
As he sat with a championship hat on his head and the championship trophy in the locker next to his, DiVincenzo seemed energized by his backup role.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way, honestly,” he said. “If I was starting this year, it would’ve messed up what we had.”
The reality is that Villanova couldn’t afford to start him, and he knows it. DiVincenzo was a defensive liability that Wright had to manage.
“Multiple times this season, if I took a break, he’d get me out, talk to me, clear my head and put me back in,” said DiVincenzo. He just lost focus. “Especially when it’s going well on offense, when you’re off the ball defensively. You think you can take a break, catch your breath. At this level, you can’t do that at all.”
Wright let him know that, loudly: “He’d just make a lot of mistakes defensively, and it would break us down.”
Father Rob helped him cope with his coaches’ criticisms.
“I can catch him on the rebound and we can talk it out,” Hagen said. “He had some time adjusting; some time growing. Then he had to accept the sixth-man role. It’s been a growth process.”
“I look at these guys almost like they’re my sons,” Hagen said. “You know they have to be challenged. You try to pick them up when they’re down, and you rejoice with them when they succeed.”
Just how much does Father Rob mean to Villanova? Well, Wright made sure he got to cut down the last piece of the net at the Alamodome. He understood how much the priest had meant to his MOP.
“About halfway through the year, Donte stopped making mistakes, so it kept us connected defensively,” Wright said. “Then, toward the end of the year, he became one of our better defensive players.”
DiVincenzo said he chose Villanova because it’s close to Delaware and he loves the “family atmosphere.” Father Chris understands.
“Villanova, as a Catholic school, has built that bond and sees this team as a community within a community. I think that’s what Donte was really drawn to,” he said. “That’s what we try to do at Salesianum, too. I think that won the day.”