IN THE final game of the regular season, in March of 1985, Villanova got pounded at Pittsburgh. It was so bad that coach Rollie Massimino benched his starters for almost the entire second half. Even after winning a game at the Big East Tournament, that Pitt game still lingered. The Wildcats were a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and expectations were low. Then when they saw their first game in the bracket - against Dayton, at Dayton - the expectations were non-existent.
But then it began - a last-minute win over Dayton followed by the felling of mighty Michigan, No. 2 in the nation. The next weekend it was on to Birmingham, Ala., where two ACC powers awaited, Maryland and North Carolina. Villanova beat them both. Massimino was a great tournament coach, and now they were headed to Lexington, Ky., for the Final Four.
Again, they were underdogs, first against Memphis State, then against Georgetown. Again, it didn't matter. Their roster was sprinkled with character and with characters - Ed Pinckney, the underrated star who battled an illness through part of the run; Gary McLain, the mouthy, confident point guard who had only 13 turnovers in six games; Dwayne McClain, the swooping, stylish assassin who led all scorers with 17 points in the title game; Harold Jensen, the unpretentious sixth man who apologized to Massimino for his struggling play during the Big East Tournament and who shot like almost nobody has ever shot in the tournament; all led by Massimino, who could play the tough card when he wanted, or the family card, or the Italian card, and who had an uncanny ability to get the most out of what he had, especially in March.
Dayton and Michigan, Maryland and North Carolina, Memphis State and Georgetown. It was six games, six games played over 3 weeks that no one will ever forget. The day of the championship was April 1, 1985 - 30 years ago today. What follow are quotes from the participants and excerpts from stories written from Lexington by Daily News writers Dick Weiss, John Schulian and Rich Hofmann.
"If they're a Cinderella team, then Cinderella wears boots.''
- Dana Kirk, Memphis State coach
"We're going to have to play a perfect game. We know they're the No. 1 team in the United States, one of the best teams ever assembled in the history of college basketball. One thing we have in our favor is that we've seen them play an awful lot during the year. They're in our conference and we've played them twice. We have a little better feel for what they do.''
- Rollie Massimino
The fact: That in both of (Villanova's) games this year against Georgetown, they were ahead in the last four minutes before sputtering to defeat. And that in tonight's national championship game, played without the 45-second shot clock, they might be able to preserve just enough fuel to make a final push.
"Yeah, you might say we've thought about that,'' said Harold Pressley.
"When we played with the clock,'' said coach Rollie Massimino, "there were times down the stretch when we had to shoot the ball because of the clock. Without the clock, it might be different.''
- Rich Hofmann
Ed Pinckney is feeling better. The thought of playing Georgetown tonight for the NCAA championship has Villanova's senior center up and around again after a stomach virus left him sick on the bench midway through the second half of Saturday's 52-45 national semifinal victory over Memphis State.
"I definitely don't want to feel like I felt Saturday - ever again,'' said Pinckney, who was placed on a light diet yesterday. "The last couple of minutes of the second half, I really didn't want to be out there. I think Monday night I'll feel much better.''
- Dick Weiss
Al Severance, the man who coached Villanova's basketball team into the first NCAA Final Four, died here yesterday morning, just hours before the Wildcats played for the national title.
Severance, 79, suffered a massive coronary in the hotel that is Villanova's Final Four headquarters and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
- Rich Hofmann
With all the dire predictions of what mighty, misanthropic Georgetown was supposed to do to Villanova, the date had been forgotten. It was as if everyone was so eager to be done with the ugly business of an NCAA championship execution that the page on the calendar had already been flipped. The only problem was, no one imagined that John Thompson and his Hoya horde could be disposed of as easily.
But now something was happening on Rupp Arena's court, and it had nothing to do with them. It was too sweet, too joyous, too surreal. Every blessed soul in the joint was cheering the team that was supposed to have had a better chance peddling space heaters in hell. Rollie Massimino, the stumpy, salty coach of the Wildcats, had so many hands to shake that he wished he were an octopus. Dwight Wilbur was giddily wrestling with the human rocket launcher who had replaced him at guard, Harold Jensen. And Ed Pinckney and Dwayne McClain were hurrying to tell the world what day it was before the clock struck midnight.
"Everybody thought Georgetown, everybody thought Georgetown!'' Pinckney shouted.
"Yeah!'' McClain shouted back. "April Fools'!''
- John Schulian
Villanova, which had lost to Georgetown twice during the regular season, shot like true winners the third time around. The Wildcats set a championship game record by hitting 22 of 28 shots (78.6 percent) from the field. They were an incredible 9-for-10 in the second half against a team that led the country in field goal percentage defense.
The 'Cats also received an all-time performance from Jensen, who had struggled for most of two seasons before coming to life in the tournament.
Jensen was a perfect 5-for-5 against the Hoyas, knocking down a 16-foot jumper from the right wing that gave Villanova a 55-54 lead with 2:36 to play. It set the wheels in motion for the 'Cats' finishing kick.
"If I'm wide open, Coach always tells me to put the ball up in that situation,'' Jensen said. "And, fortunately, it went.
"We got up one and it seemed to give everyone a boost. We had gone down and, after you get behind against Georgetown, some people crack. Fortunately for us, we didn't tonight.''
- Dick Weiss
Every time he tried to bring the ball up the floor, Villanova point guard Gary McLain fought a mini Battle of the Marne with Georgetown's Michael Jackson.
Every time, they battled over inches of territory. Every time, the front shifted back and forth, back and forth. Trench warfare is what it was . . .
"Gary, to me, is the most unsung player in the tournament,'' said Rollie Massimino, his coach. "He had seven turnovers [actually 13] in six basketball games, playing against the best guards in the United States.
"He has to be a little cocky. He has to feel he's good. Without him, there's no way we'd win. Especially against this team.''
- Rich Hofmann
"I really didn't think I could. But I just knew I had to concentrate, to play hard, to do what we had to do to win. But I never thought I could play a game like this. And to be MVP, well, I'm surprised I got it. I just came in and tried to work hard. I mean, he's such a great player, [Georgetown's Patrick] Ewing. This is all astounding to me. It's such a great feeling.''
- Ed Pinckney
Rollie Massimino pulled two lucky charms out of his pocket early this morning after he had coached Villanova to its first NCAA basketball championship.
One was a miraculous medal that had been given to him by former Eagles general manager Jim Murray and had been blessed by the pope. The other was a gold key chain. It was inscribed: "Miracles Do Happen.''
- Dick Weiss
"[President Reagan] congratulated me. I never heard his voice before. I mean, I didn't really know if that was him or not.
"He said something about us being a complete underdog and what a great thing for the United States. I just thanked him very, very much. I thought that was wonderful for him to do that.''
- Rollie Massimino
"No one believed but us. It was difficult to read the papers, to read all the quotes. No one thought we had a chance but us. It really bothered me that everybody wrote us off. You don't win the kind of games we did without having a lot of talent. Maybe because of all that, we were relaxed coming in. We felt we had nothing to lose. If there was pressure, it was on them. I'm sure everybody but the people in this locker room wrote us off.''
- Dwayne McClain
"In the country, I don't think there were more than five people out of 250 million who would have said, 'Villanova's going to win tonight.' I'd like to thank those people.''
- Harold Jensen
"It's too bad he [Severance] couldn't be with us. Father Lazor, our team chaplain, made the statement that hopefully Al was somewhere in heaven today, swatting the ball from the basket to give us a shot to win.''