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Tim Layden
March 29, 2004
Villanova's seismic victory over Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA final was a life-altering experience for the Wildcats. The coaches and players of that miracle team are still feeling the aftershocks
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March 29, 2004

The Upset

Villanova's seismic victory over Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA final was a life-altering experience for the Wildcats. The coaches and players of that miracle team are still feeling the aftershocks

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This game never lets go. Nineteen years are gone now since Villanova senior forward Dwayne McClain stumbled to his knees and elbows on the floor of Rupp Arena, then cradled the last precious in-bounds pass in his right arm and shot his left fist skyward as time expired. Nineteen years have passed since Villanova's 66-64 victory over Georgetown on an April Fools' night thrust the Wildcats into underdog lore as a team that played the perfect game on the grandest stage against the toughest foe. Coaches everywhere were instantly and forever given license to dream aloud, inspiring their teams to do the impossible: Boys, let me tell you a story about a basketball game back in 1985. Nineteen years, yet this game hasn't loosened its grip. Lives turned on the outcome, and lives are affected still: touched, guided, haunted. The 14 Villanova players who dressed in blue that night in Lexington, Ky., are immortalized in a 150-foot-long mural just inside the main entrance to The Pavilion, where present-day Wildcats play their home games and are measured against the images in tight shorts on the wall, always falling short. The memory of the game moves many of the 85s to the edge of tears. "Just talking about it, right now, the hair is standing up on the back of my neck," says Wyatt Maker, a reserve sophomore center on the championship team, who sat on the bench during the title game, clutching the hand of junior teammate Chuck Everson, twin seven-footers willing balls into the basket like schoolgirl cheerleaders.

Others hold more than just memories. Harold Jensen, the sophomore head case recruited from Trumbull ( Conn.) High to shoot from the outside, conquered his self-doubt only during the tournament run and made the most important shot in Villanova history, an 18-foot jumper that gave the Wildcats a 55-54 lead with 2:37 to play in the tide game. Four years later, at the age of 24, Jensen and a partner started Showtime Enterprises, a marketing company that now employs 125 people in six offices. "That season, that tournament was a turning point in my life beyond the sport," says Jensen. "It taught me to believe in myself, and I've taken that through my whole life."

The championship elevated spidery 6'9�" center Ed Pinckney to the 10th pick in the NBA draft, launched a workmanlike 12-year NBA career and eventually steered him back to Villanova, where he is now a first-year assistant coach under Jay Wright. Not a day passes when somebody doesn't ask him about 1985, and just last month a security guard gave him a yellowed copy of the Philadelphia Daily News from April 2, 1985. Pinckney pulled it out of his desk drawer recently, held it up for a visitor and shook his head in disbelief.

They were an unusually close group of players and resistant to common obstacles. On the day before his team beat Memphis State in the Final Four semifinals, Villanova coach Rollie Massimino allowed the players to choose sides for a public workout at a nearly packed Rupp Arena. Villanova elected to make it black players versus white players, seven-on-seven. They called the scrimmage "the Brothers versus the Joeys." Their bond was tested and their cherished memory dented two years after winning the title when Gary McLain, the relentless cherub they all called Giz (short for Gizmo, the wide-eyed character from the 1984 movie Gremlins), the point guard who played 40 minutes against Georgetown's suffocating pressure and committed only two—two!—turnovers, wrote an 18-page, first-person story in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, detailing his cocaine use during the championship season. McLain vaguely implicated his teammates with broad generalizations and also implied that Massimino did little to stem his drug abuse.

The coach, a round, cartoonish man with a special gift for building team chemistry and employing zone defenses to confuse opponents, would leave Villanova seven years later and spend the rest of his coaching career simultaneously chasing the standard his Wildcats set in Lexington—"As close to the perfect game as any team [has played], ever," says San Antonio Spurs assistant P.J. Carlesimo, who was then the head coach at Seton Hall—and insisting that success hadn't made him a different man. The McLain story would scar him terribly. "How long did it take me to get over it?" Massimino said recently. "It took a long time."

Massimino's assistants would quickly become head coaches. "Not because of [how good] we were," says UMass coach Steve Lappas, a first-year college assistant on the '85 Villanova staff, "but because we were Rollie Massimino's assistant coaches." The profession would not be kind to any of them

The title game, stolen from Georgetown, deprived coach John Thompson's hard-ass Hoyas of their second consecutive national championship and status as a minidynasty. "It was painful," says Thompson, "but I would be disappointed as hell if the sum total of any of our guys' lives was that loss to Villanova." And yet the sadness lingers. Billy Martin, the power forward whose pass bounced off teammate Horace Broadnax's shin while the Hoyas were holding the ball and a lead late in the second half, can sit in his office outside Chicago and describe the critical play as if it had just been on SportsCenter.

"We made a mistake, turned the ball over, and the better team did not win the game," says Patrick Ewing, whose four-year era at Georgetown ended that night. "I said it then, and I'll say it now."

Nineteen years. But in many ways it is April 1, 1985, forever.


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