A basketball game for the ages

This year’s NCAA men’s college basketball tournament delivered the usual thrills and spills in the Round of 64 and one of the most exciting Rounds of 32 ever. After that, it delivered mainly boredom until the final game between Villanova and the University of North Carolina (two teams featured at the top of my February report on college basketball).

Villanova and North Carolina then delivered what is arguably the best final ever. We’ve seen final games won at the buzzer before — by North Carolina (Michael Jordan) in 1982; by North Carolina State (Lorenzo Charles) the next year; by Indiana (Keith Smart) in 1987. But Monday, produced two game-changing long shots (two “shining moments,” if you will) in the last five seconds.

Carolina’s Marcus Paige tied the game with 4.7 seconds left on a double-pump long-range three-pointer almost from out of bounds. Then, with less than a second left, Kris Jenkins won it for Villanova with dead-on form three-pointer.

But it wasn’t just the ending that distinguished this game. Both sides played very well throughout. The coaching was excellent, especially by Villanova’s Jay Wright. Only the officiating left something to be desired (for the second final in a row, in my view).

The Wildcats and the Tar Heels both played outstanding defense, yet combined for 151 points. Villanova shot 58 percent from the field and 57 percent on three-pointers. The Tar Heels shot 65 percent on threes.

Carolina outrebounded Villanova 36-23 and 16-2 on offensive boards. The Tar Heels thus got the rebound on around half of their misses.

Yet Villanova didn’t rebound badly. As I saw it, North Carolina’s edge was due mainly to the fact that Villanova was switching so much on defense and fronting in the low post, and the fact that the Tar Heels are a great rebounding team.

North Carolina lost the game because it made only 16 of 46 shots from two-point territory. The Tar Heels failed to put back many of those offensive rebounds. Yet the Wildcats had a big hand in this, literally. They contested everything, swatting at balls they failed to rebound and harassing the shooter on follow-ups.

The coaching was good on both sides, with the edge going to Villanova’s Jay Wright, it seemed to me. The Wildcats used a standard zone defense to shut down Kansas star Perry Ellis in the quarterfinal. In the semifinal, they played mostly man-to-man, but ran players at Buddy Hield to limit severely the best scorer in big-time college basketball.

On Monday, they seemed to mix up their defenses, but mainly played man-to-man, while switching constantly and fronting Brice Johnson, Carolina’s star big man, in the low post. They contained Johnson, but were vulnerable to offensive rebounds.

You can’t shut down everything against a team of North Carolina’s quality. But it was the three-pointing shooting of the Tar Heels, normally their weakness, that enabled them to keep pace with the Wildcats.

At the other end, Roy Williams had Carolina play less venturesome defense. The Tar Heels swarmed Villanova’s star Josh Hart when he got anywhere near the basket, but did not double team 6-11 Daniel Ochefu in the low post. Nor did they double 6-3 Ryan Arcidiacono when he posted up smaller guards.

Ochefu shot 4-5. Arcidiacono shot 6-9. But I doubt that many coaches would have played it differently than Williams did.

The difference between the two coaching styles was evident on the final, defining two plays. With Carolina needing a three pointer, Villanova’s center, Ochefu, was 35 feet from the basket harassing Paige. The pressure caused Paige to take a circus shot (which he made), but left Joel Berry, Carolina’s best shooter on the night, wide open. With a three point lead, most coaches would have played it more straight up on defense or else fouled someone, forcing Carolina to make a free throw, then rebound a miss, then make a basket.

On Villanova’s ensuing possession, Williams applied only token pressure in the back court. This enabled Arcidiacono to push the ball quickly into shooting range, with Jenkins trailing him.

Williams’ approach was sound. Trapping in the back court with time running out can stymie an opponent, but it can also lead to an easier shot than Jenkins had to make.

They say that fortune favors the brave. This is true in coaching sports if you have exceptional players. Jay Wright had them. He was the brave coach on Monday. Fortune smiled on him and his courageous team.