HOUSTON — The Villanova Wildcats have practiced the play that won the men’s national basketball championship so many times that they know its meandering route, its every step.
So as he took the court to run the play, called Nova, one last time on Monday night, after North Carolina had capped a roughly five-minute rally with a double-pump 3-pointer to tie the score with 4.7 seconds left, Daniel Ochefu, Villanova’s 6-foot-11 senior, grabbed a mop — more of a towel on a stick, really — and wiped a spot on the floor about midway down the court on the left side, near the benches.
He knew he had hurled his sweaty frame there moments earlier as he tried in vain to prevent Marcus Paige’s game-tying 3-pointer. And he knew that Nova — if run properly — would soon race over the wet spot he had left behind. “So I was, like, make sure the floor is dry,” Ochefu said.
“I knew exactly where I had to set the screen,” he said of his role, which was to spring guard Ryan Arcidiacono. “I didn’t want to slip. I didn’t want Arch to slip.”
So the mopping was the last morsel of preparation for a team that spent months preparing for this moment; for seniors who had spent four years preparing for it; for a coach, Jay Wright, who had spent more than a decade preparing for it.
In virtually every practice, the Wildcats have what they call Wildcat Minute. It is an end-of-game drill deliberately set near the conclusion of practice, when everyone is physically exhausted and mentally cranky — precisely as they would be at the end of a tight game. The Wildcat Minute starts with 60 seconds on the clock and a certain situation, and then Wright takes the clock and hacks more and more time off it, as if he is shaving slivers from a block of cheese, each new situation demanding a new play, a new solution.
The scout team is encouraged to be physical with the starters — no defender is going to be whistled for a blocking foul. The scout team knows the plays as well as the starters do.
“It never works in practice,” the assistant coach Ashley Howard said.
The Wildcats have practiced the Wildcat Minute since Arcidiacono and Ochefu arrived at Villanova in the fall of 2012. They have run through the Wildcat Minute since the associate head coach Baker Dunleavy arrived at Villanova as a player in the fall of 2002, Wright’s second season there.
Villanova had last done the Wildcat Minute at its most recent full practice, on Friday. The players ran Nova that day, but other plays, too. Different situations. Different solutions. On Monday, Wright tried another wrinkle, opting to have the reserve Phil Booth, a junior having the game of his life (20 points on seven shots), on the floor in place of the starter Jalen Brunson, a freshman.
Here is how Nova works: Kris Jenkins inbounds the ball from the baseline to a nearby Arcidiacono, who first must free himself from his defender to receive it. Ochefu sets a pick on Arcidiacono’s defender at halfcourt on the left side if Arcidiacono goes to his right, as he tends to do, and as he did on Monday — and as Ochefu had anticipated with his mop. Meanwhile, Booth heads to the far corner — the right corner — and Josh Hart sets a pick on Booth’s defender to pop open on the right wing.
In real time it is Arcidiacono’s read from there. If he thinks he can take the ball to the basket, he can do so; if he thinks he can pull up for a 3-pointer, he can do that. His next option is to follow his cross-court momentum and pass to Booth, coming off Hart’s screen, for a 3-pointer. If the defense, which should have five players to guard as few as three Villanova players, takes those options away, then Jenkins, trailing the play after starting it with an inbounds pass, can receive the ball behind Arcidiacono.
“He’s last look,” Wright said of Jenkins.
The play is not complicated, and it is less so since the Wildcats have practiced it hundreds of times in hundreds of Wildcat Minutes. (It was less complicated, still, because North Carolina declined to double-team Arcidiacono before the inbounds pass, even though he is Villanova’s best ballhandler, or to put a man on Jenkins during the inbound.) “We run that play every day — end of every practice,” Booth said.
In Villanova’s final huddle late Monday night, Wright called for Nova — not a surprise, since it is the team’s go-to option with that amount of time left — and emphasized a buzzword that had carried the Wildcats through the whole season: attitude.
Howard, the assistant coach, said he felt confident because Villanova knew the play, which was not complicated. Wright did not have the luxury of being confident or worried; in his head, he was on to the next play, the defense Villanova would have to play after its offense scored or missed in a tie game.
Video of Wright saying, “Bang,” as the shot went up and then quietly pacing away as if it were a routine first-half possession circulated on social media as evidence of Wright’s otherworldly poise.
But he was not being cool or serene. He was being focused. He said he did not know if Jenkins’s shot would count; the referees would surely review it to ensure it was released before the buzzer. (They did, and it was.) Be it practice or fate, Nova worked perfectly. Arcidiacono received the ball from Jenkins near the baseline. Ochefu’s pick allowed him to beat his defender, causing Jenkins’s defender to pick Arcidiacono up. Jenkins, the trailing man, sprinted down the floor and begged for the ball, screaming: “Arch! Arch! Arch!” “If I could get a shot, I was going to shoot it,” Arcidiacono said. “But I heard someone screaming in the back of my head. It was Kris. I just gave it to him and he let it go with confidence.”
Jenkins received the ball in a jump-stop and then shot it from a few feet beyond the 3-point arc. The way his legs flared out as he released the ball betrayed his inability to halt his forward movement completely, to gain full control over his body.
On the North Carolina bench, Roy Williams, the winner of two national titles, knew it was good.
“I saw Kris shoot it, his follow-through looked great,” Williams said. “I pretty much knew it was going in.”
The ball was in the air for about a second.
“It was the longest time a ball has been in the air,” the Villanova junior Darryl Reynolds said.
“It just felt like it was forever,” Brunson said.
Jenkins? He had no doubt. “I believe every shot’s going in,” he said.
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