Sielski: Arcidiacono shows his worth in his final game
HOUSTON - The day before the biggest basketball game of his life, before he handed off the basketball to Kris Jenkins for perhaps the greatest single moment Philadelphia college basketball has seen, Ryan Arcidiacono told what sounded like a marvelous and profound little fib.
HOUSTON - The day before the biggest game of his life, before he handed off the ball to Kris Jenkins for perhaps the greatest single moment Philadelphia college basketball has seen, Ryan Arcidiacono told what sounded like a marvelous and profound little fib.
He and four of his Villanova teammates and their head coach, Jay Wright, were answering questions Sunday afternoon at NRG Center, the Wildcats' remarkable 77-74 victory over North Carolina still more than 24 hours away. Seated at the end of a long table, Arcidiacono was asked whether he had thought about the one certainty of Monday's game: that regardless of its result, it would be the last of his college career.
"This is what you always want your last game to be," he said. "I think for myself . . . no matter what happens in this game, we really just want to go down playing basketball the way we've learned to love and grow and play these last three or four years.
"For us, it would just be a beautiful game if we weren't making shots and we just defended, rebounded. Even if we ended up losing, we could still look each other in the eye and just know all the struggles we've been through, but we went down knowing what we know how to do best."
They did not go down, and on a night that will always represent the best of Villanova's basketball program, the gritty unwillingness to yield that this team embodied, no one stood taller than Arcidiacono. This was the 144th game at Villanova, the most in the program's history, and it was his finest hour: 16 points - some of them clutch in the second half when the Wildcats needed them most - and two turnovers. If that 1985 title-game victory over Georgetown and Saturday's stunning rout of Oklahoma in the national semifinals were the Wildcats' perfect games, here was the perfect ending for one of the program's forever players.
There he was, with 4.7 seconds left in regulation, dribbling like a demon down the floor, North Carolina's Marcus Paige having tied the game with a desperate three-pointer of his own just moments before, freeing himself just enough to tuck the ball to Jenkins for a shot that no one will forget, finally shaking the sense over the last few minutes that everything might fall apart for the Wildcats. They had led by 10 points deep in the second half, and the Tar Heels had whittled that edge to three points with just more than a minute left in regulation.
Arcidiacono threw a long pass toward a teammate in an attempt to break a full-court press. The ball sailed out of bounds. North Carolina scored on its ensuing possession to pull within one. He had made so many clutch plays over the final 20 minutes Monday: taking a charge by North Carolina's Joel Berry to spark a Villanova rally, finding Mikal Bridges on a backdoor-cut dunk to tie the game at 44, scoring seven points himself in a three-minute span to help the Wildcats widen their lead. Now, this. And somewhere among the 75,000 spectators inside the stadium, Joe Arcidiacono - Ryan's father, a fixture on the six telecasts of Villanova's games in this NCAA tournament - was surely dying slowly inside.
Last week, Joe had spoken on the phone about all the elements that made this Villanova group so special, the togetherness that coach Jay Wright had fostered among his players, and the toughness that allowed them to beat Kansas - the tournament's No. 1-overall seed - just to get to the Final Four, when Ryan had made a series of free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.
"That comes from that complete discipline that Jay instills, that Ryan has, that Josh [Hart] has, and they've just stuck to those kinds of principles," Joe Arcidiacono said. "It's that all-for-one, one-for-all thing, whatever you want to call it. They never lost that. That all stems from Ryan and Jay and these kids."
What was it like to watch Ryan on the foul line against Kansas?
"I was just thinking, 'God, I don't want his final chapter to be written that he missed the foul shot, and they went down and scored,' " Joe said. "It's been just a lovefest of great moments for the kid, and now to have that possibly go the other way, it was gut-wrenching. Of the 140-some games he's played, that was probably the most gut-wrenching."
Monday's surely topped it, but for all the agita that his father had to endure, Ryan, named the Final Four's most outstanding player after the game, made certain that it was worth it. It was all worth it. Everyone will remember that gorgeous shot by Jenkins and the sequence that led to it, the sight of Ryan Arcidiacono, touching the basketball for the last time at Villanova, igniting that brilliant moment. This was the best kind of beauty for him and all the Villanova Wildcats, the kind that isn't tinged with what-ifs and might-have-beens, the kind that will stay with them forever.