Donte DiVincenzo's amazing performance in the NCAA title game puts Villanova among the best ever
The Big Ragu had the biggest game of his career on the biggest stage in the sport
On Monday night, the bang needed not wait until the end. Instead, the audacious Donte DiVincenzo erased all doubt long before the final buzzer sounded with a shocking performance that lifted the Wildcats to a second national championship in three years and cemented this program's case as a modern blue blood in the sport and affirmed the school's place atop college basketball.
Villanova 79, Michigan 62: The conclusion to a crazy college hoops season. All too easy for the Wildcats and Wright, who punched his ticket for an eventual Hall of Fame induction ceremony some time down the road.
The 2017-18 Villanova Wildcats were a force of nature, an arsenal with a 3-point attack that fired hot like jet fuel. Villanova's all-around proficiency, and efficiency, separated them from every other team in the sport. You can call them the Golden State Warriors of college ball if you'd like, but this group established a style all its own at this level.
Not every NCAA Tournament ends with a champion that is apt to its season's arc. But Villanova, undoubtedly, did so this season. Virginia was the No. 1 overall seed, but Villanova was the best overall team. The bracket worked this year. The right team won.
"That team right there could win a lot of Final Fours not just the 2018 one," Michigan coach John Beilein said.
And how incredibly fitting that Villanova, which now has a case as the best offense we've ever seen in college basketball, would romp its way to a championship behind the best game of DiVincenzo's career.
The guy came off the bench in the national title game and scored 31 points on the the third-best defense in the country and looked like an NBA All-Star while doing so. Sometimes sports can be incredible like that. The overlooked players who become the heroes on the main stage are always a fun plot twist.
Was DiVincenzo, who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, a secret weapon waiting to be deployed? Not at all. He was just ready for the moment and Villanova's had at least one player like that in almost every game this season. The cast rotates.
"Honestly, no, I did not think that I was going to have this kind of night, because every night I come into a game, I just try to bring energy," DiVincenzo said. "And if we start off, we get off to a good start, I try to take the energy to a new level. I try to defend and rebound to the best of my ability and just trying to get it going. And, like I said, these guys did a great job of finding me, and I just found myself in a rhythm."
It was so very Villanova to win like this. It wasn't player of the year Jalen Brunson who guided Nova to a title on Monday night; Brunson in fact failed to score in double digits for the first time in 45 games. It wasn't future lottery pick Mikal Bridges (19 points) that guided the way. It wasn't Eric Paschall or Omari Spellman, both of whom were outstanding against Kansas in the national semifinals, that put up repeat performances.
Nope. It was a red-headed redshirt sophomore out of Wilmington, Delaware, who came off the bench and came into his own as a college basketball star. The national title game provides the biggest stage for some of the best moments.
DiVincenzo automatically became a Philly legend and an NCAA Tournament hero.
"When he made those shots it was like, whoa," Beilein said. "And I didn't think we had the same fire on defense."
In addition to his 31 points, DiVincenzo had five boards, a couple of dynamite blocks and a performance that will go down in history as one of the best in title game lore. How amazing a thing, how appropriate a turn, that arguably the best, most devastating offensive attack in college basketball history winds up cinching a title with a player coming off the pine and displaying just how ferocious this team was this season.
Donte DiVincenzo played the game of his life in the National Championship. pic.twitter.com/99OzH7tb21— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) April 3, 2018
"He's worked so hard to make himself the best player he can be every day," Brunson said. "This is nothing surprising for us. We've seen Donte do this multiple times this year. But we just -- we just -- I'm just so thankful that he was able to have one of these nights tonight. It just shows you how much depth we have as a team and how we just don't care who gets the credit. If someone is hot, feed him. And just trying to play off each other and just trying to make sure we're all playing together."
Back in 2016, on that title-winning Nova team, DiVincenzo was a redshirt. He ran off the bench not in a uniform but in a suit when Kris Jenkins hit the immortal shot. But DiVincenzo was key to Nova that season, always playing the role of opponents' best player during scouts and practices. He was Buddy Hield, who was the national player of the Year that season, in practices and walkthroughs before Nova's national semifinal victory vs. the Sooners in 2016.
"In practice you could see: this guy's one of the best players," Wright said. "He knew it too."
You've heard of the Philadelphia 76ers' "Process." Villanova has its own and DiVincenzo is emblematic of it.
"Guys trust the process with us here," Brunson said. "They believe in coach Wright. Guys trust that their time will come. They just know that they have to be patient. Donte did that."
On Monday, DiVincenzo became only the sixth player in the last 40 years to go for 30 or more in the national title game. His 31 was the highest anybody scored on Michigan's tight defense this season. He'd waited years for a game like this. DiVincenzo was a great high school scorer, a guy who had a lot of games as a 16- and 17-year-old in the same way he wrecked Michigan. But Wright told him when he was recruiting him that he was never going to play at Villanova unless he learned how to defend and got better at rebounding. All of that was on display Monday night.
DiVincenzo competed, and badly wanted, a starting spot this year. It never came, but he was used, in essence, as a sixth starter. Patience pays off.
"Sometimes I think about, like, if I'm a good defender or not because sometimes in practice he just makes me look bad," Bridges said of the man they also call the Big Ragu. "But especially that year he sat out, when he played Buddy Hield, I think that really made it easier, when we went into that game, defending Buddy Hield because the did such a great job mimicking him, and knowing how he plays he really helped us out a lot. And I'm thankful to have him, and he's going to keep getting better from here."
Multiple players, and coaches, afterward referred to DiVincenzo as a "killer." Figuratively, it was true.
"I actually heard my assistants on the bench when he was starting to go off, I heard them saying: This is great for him; he deserves this," Wright said. "Because he really did. But he couldn't have done it if he didn't have a clear mind."
He showed up large and essentially ended Michigan's chances of coming back midway through the second half when he had nine points in a span of 2 minutes, 36 seconds and bloated the Nova lead from 53-40 to 62-44.
"That's sometimes how this game goes, and you really can't control it," Beilein said.
It all looked so easy in the moment. Funny to think Wright was paranoid a bit early because of how Michigan got off to a 21-14 lead. Wright was worried in the lead-up, in part, because of so many player-of-the-year presentations he had to attend this week for Brunson.
"I was paranoid all day," he said. "As a matter of fact, my poor wife sat here, I was antsy. I was driving her nuts."
DiVincenzo's command cooled his coach's nerves. You try to get some sort of sense of surprise from the players or coaches -- DiVincenzo put up more in a title game than anyone in almost 30 years! -- but no disbelief could be found.
"We're not surprised he's this good, you just don't know how fast it will click for this guy," Villanova assistant George Halcovage said. "Donte, of all our guys, can make great individual plays. You saw that tonight."
He did it earlier in the tournament too, scoring 18 points and making five 3-pointers vs. Alabama in the second round. Nothing is truly surprising with Villanova on an individual basis because all of its players foreshadowed at one point or another earlier this postseason, or in the regular season, what they could do. This team won every game in the postseason by double digits, pulling off one of the best March-into-April runs we've seen in the past 30-plus years.
Every player had a part in it, and every Villanova starter will share in the credit of Monday night's win. But the game belongs to the guy they call the "Michael Jordan of Delaware." He's not a dominating personality, DiVincenzo, just a maturing guy with a big-shot game and now, maybe, setting up to be one of the best players in college basketball next season.
That is, if he doesn't leave for the NBA. And isn't that an intriguing twist here? You play the way he did, on both ends, on this big of a stage? It's going to get you a lot of attention. He is an NBA-level player, to be sure.
"I don't have a great feel for how they make decisions on drafting," Wright said. "I probably would make a horrible GM. So I don't know. But we'll find out. We'll definitely look into it."
That will come soon. But in the early hours of Tuesday morning, after Villanova left the Alamodome, the team spilled into the boats on the famed riverwalk. They donned championship hats decorated with twine tied to them. They celebrated on the watercourse of downtown San Antonio, letting an incredible season soak in. Cruising together again, one last time.
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