That was the championship that was

April 8, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 8, 2016

Going into Monday night, it had been an entire year since a team from the Research Triangle — the cities and surroundings of Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh — had won an NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship game. The top-seeded University of North Carolina Tar Heels hoped to end our region’s long title drought when it took on underdog Villanova, a No. 2 seed that had upset No. 1 Kansas in the Elite Eight and steamrolled fellow No. 2 Oklahoma in the Final Four with a 95-51 win Saturday evening.

Because I’ve been suffering from a low-level cold and/or mid- to high-level allergy attack for much of the past two weeks, I considered not watching any of the title game. (I don’t have a television at home, and I forgot that the game was available online.)

After some hemming and hawing, I decided that I would watch the game at a local bar. At that point, the contest had already started. Since I didn’t want to watch the end of the first half, I noodled around on my phone on a bench at one edge of Durham Central Park before strolling over to my destination: Motorco, which was showing the game for free in its main hall and which has a late-night restaurant that it calls Parts & Labor. (The building housed a car dealership for nearly two decades.)

I ordered some food and set myself up at a high table on the patio where I could watch one of the projection-screen televisions. I ate a couple of chicken sliders while the second half got under way; once that was done, I grabbed my glass of water and the remnants of my bottle of Miller High Life and walked over to the music hall. I picked out a seat on one of the tables that had been arrayed there.

But before I get to the game, a little personal history…


This is the fifth time that a local school has played in the men’s college basketball national championship game since I moved to North Carolina in January 2004. It’s the first time one has lost the title game, following UNC’s victories in 2005 and 2009 and Duke’s in 2010 and 2015. I watched the 2005 game by myself in a bar, and I don’t remember where I was in 2009.

I watched the 2010 game with a group of friends and strangers at the Champps sports-themed restaurant at Southpoint in Durham; I wore my red Stanford basketball warmup jacket and cheered loudly for Butler. If Gordon Hayward’s desperation halfcourt shot at the buzzer had hit, I could potentially have been lynched.

Last year, I went by myself to James Joyce Irish Pub (I think) and watched Wisconsin build a nine-point lead seven minutes into the second half before Duke stormed back to tie and then take an eight-point advantage for itself. The Badgers narrowed the gap to three points with slightly less than a minute to play before losing by five points.

I was once again dressed in red that night, and as I walked back to my car, a man wearing Wisconsin gear spotted me and began singing, “On, Wisconsin,” the school and state song. Although I would have preferred to see the Badgers win, I interrupted by telling him, “I’m a Stanford fan.” Having just walked past him, I turned around and called out, “I was at the last Rose Bowl you guys were in!” It was kind of an obnoxious thing to say, especially because, had Wisconsin won, I would probably have just high-fived him.

And now, back to Monday night’s game…


The first five minutes of the first half (which, again, I didn’t watch) had been nip and tuck before Nova built a five-point lead. UNC had gone ahead with around seven and a half minutes to play. The Wildcats had then tied the game, 30-30, with less than four minutes to go before the Tar Heels went on a small run that gave them a 39-32 lead with about 40 seconds remaining. The score at intermission was UNC 39, Villanova 34.

But the Wildcats, who as the lower seed were wearing their dark-blue road uniforms, began chipping away at the score shortly after halftime. Nearly six minutes into the second half, the teams were tied, 44-44.

After the squads traded baskets, Villanova reasserted its muscle. A little past the halfway mark of the second period, the Wildcats went up by seven points, 46-53.

UNC whittled the deficit down to three points with seven minutes remaining. I think that’s when I tweeted that “[a] magical run for Villanova may be coming to an end as UNC starts to reassert itself.”

But I was wrong. The Wildcats went on a 7-0 run to take a 10-point lead, the largest by either squad the entire game.

They couldn’t sustain their dominance, however, and UNC — which wound up shooting 34.3 percent in the second half — began hitting a few field goals. In the final 90 seconds of the game, the Tar Heels twice got within one point before Villanova pushed its lead back to three.

The second such occasion came on Marcus Paige’s bucket with 22 seconds left. Weirdly, the Tar Heels didn’t foul Villanova following the inbound pass for nine seconds. When they did, Josh Hart hit both of his free throws, putting his team up, 74-71.

Amazingly, Paige hit an off-balance three-point jumper with 4.7 seconds to play, tying the game. The crowd inside Motorco went crazy, to the point where you’d have thought the Heels had just cinched the championship.

Well, maybe they had. “Heck of a game, heck of a late comeback by UNC,” I tweeted. “Are we going to overtime?”

We were not. As any fan knows, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins inbounded the ball to Ryan Arcidiacono. After he drew a double-team thanks to a Daniel Ochefu pick, Arcidiacono noticed that Jenkins was wide open and passed the ball. Jenkins pulled up and shot a three-pointer that found nothing but net as time expired. The game was over, and Villanova had won its second national championship by a 77-74 score.

I am something of a contrarian, and I was rooting for Villanova. I was the only person audibly doing so in the music hall, although it seemed a trio of guys watching on the patio were pulling for the Wildcats. (At least one of the guys was rooting for the Roman Catholic university; I’m not sure whether all three of them wanted ’Nova to win.)

When the shot fell true, I excitedly said “Yes!”, stood up, sipped some more of my water (the beer was long finished) and walked over to the bar, where I handed my glass to the bartender. “Wow,” I told him, and I said something similar as I walked out past a young woman in powder blue who looked somewhat shell-shocked.

I walked back to my car, which I’d left near Durham Central Park, kind of smiling to myself. It had been a thrilling second half.

The day after the game, I wore a Duke T-shirt beneath a baby-blue sweater. (Baby blue? Powder blue? Whatever — it was a light blue reminiscent of Carolina’s primary school color.) It was a classic trolling move, but because it was so chilly that day, no one ever got to see the T-shirt I was wearing.

(Aside: I bought that Duke T-shirt to wear when I watched Alabama’s football team paste the Blue Devils, 62-13, in Durham in September 2010. I’ve worn it maybe once or twice total in the years between then and this week.)

By the way, it’s not that I have anything against Duke or UNC or their fans. It’s just that when those teams win basketball championships, those fans get awfully smug. And I love rooting for underdogs — the role filled by Butler in 2010, Wisconsin last year and Villanova this year.

All in all, Monday night’s championship game was a very exciting contest, with nine tie scores and nine lead changes. “The only people happier than Villanova fans tonight,” I tweeted, “are N.C. State and Duke fans.”

When I thought about it the next day, I realized that Monday night’s game had gone almost ideally for fans of the North Carolina State Wolfpack (who haven’t seen their team win a basketball crown since 1983) and the Duke Blue Devils. If their clubs can’t win the title, their ideal outcome is seeing their biggest rival get humiliated. Villanova was a worthy opponent, but it was immensely painful for UNC boosters to see the Tar Heels late-game rally to fall short

All in all, it was a pretty good night for a lot of local basketball fans.

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