In the middle of their euphoria over Villanova's Big East tournament championship, its first in 20 years, the Wildcats players felt their level of joy rise even higher Saturday night when they saw JayVaughn Pinkston climb the ladder to finish cutting down the nets at Madison Square Garden.
Normally, that duty goes to the head coach, but Jay Wright wanted this to be Pinkston's moment. The fifth-year senior from Brooklyn endured his share of challenges at Villanova, a place where his career almost ended before it started but now is nearing its conclusion amid a shower of respect and admiration from teammates, coaches, and the university community.
"It was just an honor, a great honor, to cut down those nets last," Pinkston said the next day. "I've been here five years. I've been through it all. So just for Coach to show his appreciation for me, I felt great."
"He means so much to our team," Wright said. "He really exemplifies what our guys are all about. He came in as a McDonald's all-American. He was a leading scorer on this team. In his senior year, he just did whatever the team needed him to do, not score as much. He just sacrificed all year.
"That was a beautiful experience for all of us to watch him" cut down the nets.
Pinkston's is a continuing story of the growth and maturity of the only child of a single mother, a son who arguably was the best high school player to come out of New York in 2010. The start to his Villanova career, however, was delayed after he was arrested and charged by Upper Merion Township Police that November in connection with a fight at a party.
Pinkston, who went to 'Nova thinking he'd be "one-and-done" before heading to the NBA, was suspended from the university for the rest of the year and banned from playing basketball. He needed to pay rent and for food on his own, so he got a job in a factory "packing boxes, taking out garbage, a lot of things no 18-year-old would be doing," he said.
But he stayed with it. Wright thought he might transfer, but Pinkston remained loyal, saying, "I felt 'Nova was loyal to me, I felt obligated to be loyal to them because they stuck by me when I got in trouble. They could have said, 'Let's just get rid of him.' But they stuck by my side."
He also heeded the words of his mother, Kerry Pinkston, who "always kept me humble. She always told me, 'Men don't run away from their problems.' "
Pinkston was accepted into Montgomery County's Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program in May 2013. Looking back, Pinkston, 23, says the incident was the best thing that could have happened to him.
"It made me mature as a person and as a man," he said. "When I came here, I was really immature. I liked to joke around a lot. Over the years, I've cut that back a little bit, but it's all about basketball now."
Teammate Darrun Hilliard said Pinkston was "kind of like a closed book" when Hilliard joined the team in 2011.
"He didn't want anybody to kind of get a read on him," said Hilliard, the Wildcats' leading scorer. "But he's opened up even more. Coming forward into his senior year, he just let people in and let people help him as a person and as a player, and it just worked out for him.
"He was always warmhearted and truly cared about the other person. I think in my freshman year, he didn't want anybody to know that. But he truly cares about you on and off the court."
Pinkston's maturity extends to the basketball team. The 6-foot-7, 235-pound forward and Hilliard set the tone as seniors, assisted by juniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu.
Pinkston led the Wildcats in scoring (13.3 points per game) as a sophomore and was second (14.1) last season. Entering the 2015 NCAA tournament, his scoring average is down to 9.6 points. He took fewer than six shots per game during the 18-game Big East regular season. Wright, however, said his defense has improved significantly.
"It's just being a good teammate, being a good person," he said. "Everybody does something to sacrifice. I sacrifice for the better of the team. I've sacrificed my scoring, but I've gotten better on defense. Coach is always preaching to me, 'You've got to get better on defense' and that's what I've done."
Frankly, Wright seems a little stunned at Pinkston's transition from scorer to one of the team's best defensive players.
"He's a hardheaded dude, which is what makes him great," he said. "We really don't want to know yet what changed, we just want him to keep it going.
"He likes to be told what to do and then it's 'leave me alone and let me go do it.' That's kind of what I'm doing with him right now. He knows what a senior is supposed to do here, and from the summer he just took it. He watched all the other guys and he's been outstanding, and I'm not asking why."
Now Pinkston prepares for his final games in the NCAA tournament. A liberal-arts major with a concentration in communications and a minor in education, he is on schedule to graduate in May motivated by "the greatest feeling in the world, to show my mom that I have a degree," he said.
It's the same way for Wright, who did everything he could to hold the tears back after Pinkston held the cut net in the air.
"To see him cut the net was awesome. For me it was awesome," he said. "That's what it's all about."
Pinkston on the Main Line
Here are JayVaughn Pinkston's statistics during his career at Villanova:
YEAR FG% FT% REB BLK STL TO PTS
2014-15 .447 .769 5.4 0.9 0.9 1.7 9.6
2013-14 .521 .744 6.1 0.6 0.9 1.7 14.1
2012-13 .464 .710 5.0 0.5 1.0 2.5 13.3
2011-12 .408 .669 5.2 0.4 0.6 2.6 9.6