by Aaron Kaplowitz
It’s a designed last-second play that the Villanova Wildcats rehearse at the end of every practice. The ball is inbounded near half-court to Dante Cunningham who hits a streaking Scottie Reynolds. The rest is up to him.
“That play works maybe once every 500 times,” Villanova assistant coach Doug West said.
The Wildcats tested the odds and put the ball—and their season—in Reynolds’ hands. The junior point guard dashed toward the basket and hit a desperate runner over Gilbert Brown with five-tenths of a second remaining to give ‘Nova the 78-76 victory over Pittsburgh in Boston.
Players rarely execute desperation plays the exact way they are drawn up in practice, but those who do in late March secure their legacy in the Tournament’s heroic lineage. Christian Laettner begat Tyus Edney who begat Bryce Drew who begat Scottie Reynolds.
“It’s something that you think about as a youngster,” Reynolds said, “advancing yourself to the Final Four or winning the championship. And to do it with these guys on my back…”
Before ‘Nova Nation could celebrate, Pitt had one last shot to salvage a stellar season. With half of a second remaining, Levance Fields took one quick dribble before heaving the ball 65 feet. The ball’s parabolic flight arced on line toward the rim. The 18,871 in attendance fell silent, expecting the unexpected in one of the wildest games in NCAA Tournament history. The ball caromed off the backboard to cue the Villanova celebration.
“I was scared to death [during Fields’ shot],” Wright said. “We could have lost this game, but they still would have earned the right to be good enough to play in a Final Four, just like Pitt did. We just happened to win this game.”
After Reggie Redding hit one of two free throws to put the Wildcats up by four with 20 seconds to play, Villanova appeared Detroit-bound. But on the Panthers’ next posession Villanova focused entirely on its perimeter defense, allowing Fields to find DeJuan Blair wide open for a quick layup, cutting the gap to a basket, 76-74, with under 11 seconds to play.
On the inbounds, Redding slung the ball downcourt, looking for Cunningham on the deep route. Cunningham handled the pass while falling out of bounds and tried chucking the ball off Jermaine Dixon’s leg. He missed, allowing Dixon to scoop the ball up and push it forward to Fields, who was fouled. Calm, Fields hit both free throws to tie the game at 76 with seconds remaining to set up Reynolds’ career-defining play.
“Somebody had to lose today,” said Pitt’s Sam Young, who led all scorers with 28 points. “Unfortunately we came up short.”
The selfless Dwayne Anderson led Villanova with 17 points and six rebounds. Reynolds finished with 15 points on his way to being named the East Region’s Most Outstanding Player. For Pitt, Blair had 20 points on 9-9 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Villanova is heading to Detroit for its first Final Four since 1985, when Rollie Massimino led the Wildcats to their only national championship.
In the locker room following the game, Cunningham allowed himself a moment to reflect on all the hard work he and his teammates invested to get to this point:
“This means the six A.M. workouts we fought each other over, the five A.M. runs on the football field with the dew still in the air, this means the busted lip, the messed up knees and ankles we came across, everything that just hurt, and now we don’t feel no pain,” he said.
Villanova has a date set with North Carolina to determine who will earn the right to play for the national championship.
“I hope they enjoy it,” Massimino said.