Original Old School: Perfect Game
SLAM 41: On one April night in ’85, the Villanova Wildcats couldn’t miss. They were rewarded with a national title.
With March Madness around the corner, we dig into our archives to bring you a story about one of the greatest upsets ever. (And all it took was a near perfect game.) With Villanova and Georgetown both guaranteed spots in the Madness this year, this should whet your appetite for all the goodness coming to college fans in March.
Originally Published in SLAM 41
by Michael McNulty
Chuck Everson played only three minutes. He never scored. Never grabbed a rebound or made an assist. Never committed a stupid foul. His name, with more zeroes next to it than Donald Trump’s paycheck, sits inside the box score like a lonely footnote to one of the most startling chapters of American sports mythology.
That doesn’t stop people on Long Island from walking right up to him and acting like his long-lost cousin. They tell him everything there is to know about Villanova-Georgetown. Even rattle off shooting percentages. Who remembers shooting percentages? The strangers recount exactly where they were when they screamed their voice hoarse for his school.
And they invariably bring up The Play. “My 15 minutes,” Everson says.
As the first half of the ’85 NCAA Final ended at Lexington, KY’s Rupp Arena, Everson, Villanova’s backup center, boxed out Georgetown’s Reggie Williams underneath the basket. Probably out of frustration, Williams shoved Everson in the face with both arms. The camera caught the blatant infraction—worthy of at least a technical foul and possibly a trip to the principal’s office. The officials missed it. A seething Everson stood there. Georgetown players quietly jogged away. The crowd of 23,124, mostly pulling for unheralded ’Nova, acted as if it had witnessed a drive-by shooting.
Villanova coach Rollie Massimino, who looks like he belongs at a horse track chomping on a cigar while wearing a plaid jacket, didn’t quite agree with the official’s casual dismissal of the tense situation. After hopelessly pleading his case, he angrily sprinted into the locker room, Don King hair swaying like a windy wheat field, fists clenched tighter than a militant rebel’s and a legendary halftime speech boiling in his gut. He yelled. He fumed. He got in his players’ faces and told them they could use the cheap shot to pull off one of the biggest upsets in the history of college basketball. It was April Fool’s Day and only 20 minutes remained until the Wildcats would own a piece of history. ’Nova had secured a 29-28 lead over the heavily favored Hoyas after stalling for the final 1:45 of the half and the patriarch challenged his team—his family.
“They disrespected Chuck!” he barked. “They don’t respect us!”
Villanova’s Harold Jensen, the guard who subbed for starter Dwight Wilbur and performed shooting miracles on that spring night in Bluegrass Country, remembers everybody in the room stewing in Massimino’s outrage.
“That was definitely a big motivational thing,” says Jensen, then a sophomore. “Massimino took advantage of it; we came out breathing fire.”
And shooting better than any team had ever done in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats attempted only 10 shots in the second half. They would make nine of them.
The media hadn’t given Villanova a chance. Even though the Wildcats had played Georgetown tough in two close losses during the Big East schedule, this was the Tournament. Aside from hundreds of writers who wrote that Philly’s most famous Catholic institution couldn’t handle DC’s most famous Catholic institution, CBS play-by-play announcer Brent Musburger backed up his doubts with his wallet. Off air, Musburger and Massimino engaged in a friendly debate over ’Nova’s likely demise. Massimino noticed Musburger’s stylish suede coat and made a bold suggestion: If we win, you have to buy me the same coat you’re wearing right now. Musburger agreed.
The selection committee had hardly given Villanova a chance. With 19 wins, 10 losses and an embarrassing blowout defeat at Pittsburgh to close out the regular season (Massimino benched all his starters in the second half), the NCAA assigned the Wildcats an eighth seed and then watched them take this pothole-laced road to the Final: Dayton on Dayton’s home court; Maryland with Len Bias; Michigan with Roy Tarpley; North Carolina with Brad Dougherty and Kenny Smith; Memphis State with Keith Lee and Andre Turner; and lastly, Georgetown with one of the most dominating centers in college history.
Even one Wildcat player’s family didn’t give Villanova a chance. Ed Pinckney, the undersized senior center assigned to contain Patrick Ewing, remembers his mother and father accompanying him to Lexington for the Final Four. They sat their son down and told him, more or less: Eddie, you’ve made your parents proud. This has been a wonderful journey. But don’t be disappointed. After all, it’s Georgetown.
The Hoyas endorsed 40 minutes of hell before Nolan Richardson coined the phrase. And Georgetown’s version produced more heat stroke. Dubbed Hoya Paranoia, they pressured, provoked, pressed, intimidated and pounded teams into submission with dizzying scoring spurts and constant energy.
“Their pressure was idiotic,” Pinckney says. “It was a 10-second call, steal, a deflection off the guard’s foot. Anybody off the bench was quick. You were lucky to get it up court.”
Fresh off a championship game win over Akeem (No H then) Olajuwon’s Houston Cougars in ’84, Georgetown reigned over the college basketball scene the following season as well—winning 35 times and losing only to St. John’s and Syracuse by a combined margin of three points. In the process of dominating for a second straight season, Ewing and his crew became the hated Hoyas.
“They had the dark uniforms,” says Pinckney. “They wore the dark shoes. Nobody did that. People hated that stuff. People hated Georgetown.”
One of the reasons was jealousy. Coach John Thompson’s team was so dedicated and so in-your-face it often suffocated slower, weaker teams with paralyzing runs and palm-on-forehead athletic talent. If the initial shot didn’t drop, the second and third efforts surely would.
Hoyas point guard Michael Jackson says Thompson kept a deflated basketball on his desk to remind players “life is bigger than a game.” But once the whistle blew? Life became the game.
“We played hard; we knew what our roles were; we demanded nothing but 100 percent. A lot of what we did appealed to people’s manhood,” says Jackson, who recorded eight points and nine assists in the championship.
Yet one of the reasons the Hoyas were hated was a perceived arrogance or cockiness. When Jackson says, “I feel we were the best collegiate team to ever play” 15 years after the classic in Lexington, how do you perceive it? Is it arrogance or honesty? Maybe both. Most fans sided with arrogance. They didn’t care for Georgetown’s swagger. So when supporters of St. John’s, Memphis State and college basketball in general got a chance to rebel against Darth Vader, they seized their final opportunity.
Massimino called in two priests, not one, to preside over the pre-game meal. Before heading to the arena, he told his team: Go back to your rooms and think positive thoughts. After some meditation (and maybe a rosary or two), the Wildcats rolled into Rupp and prepared for a night that would become the zenith of Big East basketball and the pinnacle for many young men’s athletic careers.
“I remember the electricity when we came out of the hallway at Rupp Arena,” Jensen says. “It was a genuine roar. The energy that was in the arena—that was something special. If I had to say, three quarters of the fans were pulling for us…We became the emotional favorite.”
‘Nova pg Gary McLain had to handle Georgetown’s pressure most of the evening. McLain scored eight points (three of three from the field; two of two from the line) and made two assists. But his ballhandling was vital. Without it, the Hoyas win by 20. McLain was on top of the sporting world for two magical hours, yet he shocked the nation a couple years later when he admitted to drug use throughout his career at Villanova and at the ’85 Final Four.
“I was standing in the Rose Garden, wired on cocaine,” McLain said about his celebratory visit with President Ronald Reagan in the March 16, 1987 cover story in Sports Illustrated. “Nothing new about my being that way. I’d been high on cocaine a lot during my college days at Villanova. I’d even played wired in some games, including our semifinal win over Memphis State.”
McLain, who said he wasn’t high in the championship against Georgetown, describes horrible lows like the time he smuggled dope in his underwear while flying home from an ’82 summer game in Angola. And he also discussed the time Massimino confronted him about possible drug use.
“He had me in his office and said, ‘I hear you’re on cocaine, or selling it. If I find out, you’re gone,’” Massimino said, according to McLain. “The only way to find out was by urinalysis. But we never had one.”
The innocence was tarnished. His revelation caused an awkwardness among teammates that still exists to a degree. While Pinckney, who says people make mistakes and that McLain regrets his tell-all story with Sports Illustrated, is probably the most forgiving, Everson was disappointed with how McLain went public, saying that McLain embellished his story, claiming the drug use wasn’t that pervasive and that his teammate was looking for attention and money from the magazine. McLain couldn’t be reached at his Florida home, and Massimino wouldn’t discuss the subject.
“He’s very hurt by it,” Everson says about Massimino. “You don’t do that to your family.” In fact, the Villanova team, including Coach Mass, has never all been in one place since ’85.
But they were together in Lexington fighting as a family.
Villanova retreated its defense close to the basket (no three-point line to worry about) and challenged the Hoyas to convert outside shots. Massimino, mainly using a zone, intelligently draped Pinckney and forward Harold Pressley on Ewing.
The only time Georgetown’s seven-footer truly exploded came with 2:30 remaining in the first half. Ewing, who recently refused to discuss the game, scored on two electrifying alley-oop passes on two straight possessions as the momentum shifted. The raucous building, inhaling deeply, braced for one of those notorious 10-0 spurts—one that would place a sizable game-ending cushion between the teams.
“I’m thinking, OK here we go,” Pinckney says. “In every game that we played there’s always a run; you turn the ball over and that’s it.”
But the Wildcats remained poised and did something they would do the entire night—they looked for an intelligent shot. This time it was Jensen.
“Like we’d practiced, we didn’t take a shot unless it was a good shot,” Pinckney says. “And in the title game, we worked the time. Nobody took a shot unless it was wide open. We did that to perfection. I don’t think I’ve ever played in a another game like it. Thank God there was no shot clock.”
Actually, the lack of a shot clock is perhaps the biggest misunderstanding about this game. People incorrectly remember ’Nova stretching possessions for over a minute. One problem: It didn’t happen.
Massimino and Jensen both say possessions—on average—lasted between 35 and 45 seconds, which the videotape confirms. The only time ’Nova did stall was to end the first half. Inexplicably, Thompson allowed Massimino to do it—and the Cats escaped with a halftime lead.
Motivated, but as calm as James Bond facing death, the Wildcats’ only missed field goal in the second half was credited to senior Dwayne McClain, who scored a team-high 17. That shot never reached the rim; it was blocked by Ewing instead.
When asked who surprised him the most on April 1, Pinckney laughs loudly. “You know who I’m going to say, right?” he says. “Harold Jensen.”
Georgetown’s David Wingate, who led his team with 16 points, agrees. “The one guy that hurt us was Harold Jensen,” Wingate says.
Massimino couldn’t take this kid out. He shot from the left side. He shot from the right side. He made five of five from the field and four of five free throws for a total of 14 points.
“You feel very confident with shooting the ball,” says Jensen. “Nothing else exists. It’s just you and the basket. That’s the feeling I had that night.”
And even with Jimmy Chitwood in his own galaxy, Georgetown had a chance to win. The Hoyas, up 54-53, broke out their own version of the stall offense with 3:50 left. But Billy Martin threw an inadvertent pass to Horace Broadnax. The ball bounced off Broadnax’s leg—and into Villanova’s hands. Jackson takes responsibility for the bad pass because he says he was the point guard on duty. Yet others accept blame.
“It was a bad pass,” Broadnax says. “But I should have caught it. I think about that play…but you can’t beat yourself up.”
Massimino immediately called timeout. ’Nova methodically worked the ball around the perimeter until—surprise—Harold Jensen hit a 17-footer from the right elbow. The Cats never trailed again as the game mutated into a nerve-racking free-throw contest.
“I thought we played well enough to win,” Broadnax says.
Georgetown did play well enough to win. And the Cats did turn the ball over 17 times. But ’Nova shot a record 78.6 percent from the floor—against a Hoya defense that held their opponents to 39.4 percent during the year.
Final score: Villanova 66, Georgetown 64. Why is this game so significant? The fact it was a big upset in a championship game is too easy of an explanation. There is more here. If you examine the game closely, you’ll realize it was the last old-school college basketball game ever.
The lack of a shot clock allowed teams to stretch possessions and stall, a definite potential for boredom. But it also made fundamentals vital. Stalling requires that you pass effectively, move without the ball and shoot, which may not produce late-night video highlights but is fascinating in its own, unique way. A shot clock appeared the following year.
There was also no three-point line, which now dominates the sport. The game was also played in a genuine, intimate basketball arena, not an 80,000-seat airplane hanger where fans sit six blocks from the action like current Final Fours. And—perhaps this was the greatest reason for its stature—you actually saw big-name, talented upperclassmen playing each other. You would never see seniors like Patrick Ewing, Billy Martin, Ed Pinckney, and Dwayne McClain compete in a title game today–they would have bolted for NBA deals much earlier. And college basketball is worse off because of it. Pinckney says he remembers hearing about Ewing when he was playing in the streets of the Bronx. Pinckney had memorable matchups with his rival-but-current-friend for four straight seasons. The familiarity between the teams made this game so intriguing.
Rollie Massimino now coaches Cleveland State. John Thompson does television commentary for the NBA on TNT. The two will talk in the middle of the night if one has a problem.
Massimino still has the suede coat Musburger gave him hanging in his closet. He even wears it out in public. But there’s one thing he won’t do.
“I never watch the film because I still think we’re gonna lose,” Massimino laughs.