This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.
It hadn't happened like this for years—for decades, really—one shot begetting another begetting another, the tension building and climbing and crawling up the back of your neck until finally a 22-year-old junior named Kris Jenkins called for the ball in the final seconds, lined up a three-point shot from the top of the key, and landed it in the instant before the buzzer sounded. Huh? What the hell was that? It was so batshit that it took your breath away. Maybe, like me, you shouted out loud in an empty room; maybe you hit the floor, and maybe you gaped at your flatscreen, and maybe you couldn't even bring yourself to react, the way Villanova's Jay Wright appeared to be sleepwalking through the aftermath, throwing his hands into the air as if he couldn't quite wake himself up from the damnedest dream.
I mean, before we get to the end, can we just rewind for a second? Because we need to mark that for posterity, too. Here is a look at the shot North Carolina's Marcus Paige made a few seconds before Villanova's Jenkins made the shot that will live on in NCAA tournament montages in perpetuity. And I know it may wind up being largely forgotten, but good lord almighty, Paige's shot was fucking incredible, a torqueing, twisting three-pointer that tied the game at 74 with 4.7 seconds to play. It was only invalidated by what is one of the greatest clutch shots in tournament history: Villanova advancing the ball up the floor and Wildcats point guard Ryan Arcidiacono pitching the ball to Jenkins for a three-pointer that immediately soared into the rarefied air occupied by Lorenzo Charles and Keith Smart and the tired and overplayed meme formerly known as Michael Jordan.
So go ahead and get nuts with your idiotic and humorless Crying Jordan iterations, Twitter, because here's the thing about that game: even the rampant overzealousness of social media couldn't possibly ruin it. Hell, even NCAA president Mark Emmert, making a brief and utterly unwanted cameo during the trophy ceremony, couldn't detract from the fact that college basketball had once again reached a zenith, a moment that lifted it out of the doldrums of the past several seasons and into what we can only hope is a new era of prosperity.
This game went wire to wire. Really. Even when Villanova was up 10 points with under five minutes to play, it never really felt over. And it never really was, not until Jenkins hit that shot, not until the replay had been checked and double-checked to be sure Jenkins got it off in time, not until Wright had come to and realized that Villanova had won its first national championship since stunning the hell out of Georgetown in 1985.
Of all the bizarre storylines in this game, this may be the craziest: Jenkins essentially grew up with the family of North Carolina's Nate Britt, and they consider each other to be brothers. "This right here is permanent bragging rights for the rest of our lives," Britt said the other day. "If we ever get into an argument or anything we can look at this game, whoever wins. Like I said, it's permanent bragging rights, and there's not a better place to be playing him than here."
Imagine that, then. Imagine being Nate Britt, and having to deal with watching that shot drop for the rest of your life.
Look, I know college sports are rife with problems, and I know amateurism as a concept is deeply flawed and utterly outdated and deserves a thorough and deep re-examination. But something like this happens, and I don't want to say it redeems the whole enterprise, but it does make the case that the college game should exist on a different level, that there is something raw and beautiful about the NCAA tournament being resolved in a single-elimination format, with luck playing a major role. The thing that went wrong with college basketball over the past several seasons, frankly, is that it began to converge too closely with the NBA amid the one-and-done era; the thing that freed it up to be itself again was both the rules changes of this season and the brilliance of upperclassmen like Oklahoma's Buddy Hield and Villanova's Arcidiacono and North Carolina's Paige. For once, we stopped talking about these players within the context of their futures and started focusing upon what they could in the present.
Someday, I imagine, when the mistake of the one-and-done era has been fully resolved (and it cannot come soon enough), we will remember this as the moment that college basketball found its voice again. This is the way it happened time and again back in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, when Chris Webber was calling phantom time-outs. This is what separates the college game from the professional game: that sometimes one miracle begets another.
"We just needed 4.7 seconds of defense," Paige said. "There's 75 possessions in a game, and they just happened to get the last one, take the last shot."
That's what will linger, of course, that last shot. But beyond that, I hope something else lingers, too. I hope we can celebrate this as the moment that college basketball started being itself again.