Entries in Final Four (20)


The Eagles and Villanova — Philly laughs last

By Art Spander

SAN ANTONIO — Those Philly jokes, how the fans once booed Santa Claus before a football game, all the zingers by the comedians who had a reference about brotherly love? Well, look who’s laughing now. And cheering.

First the Eagles win the Super Bowl. Then Villanova wins the NCAA basketball championship. Any day now, the Phillies could win the World Series. Well, let’s not get carried away.

But Villanova certainly carried the title away, for the second time in three years, destroying what we believed to be a solid Michigan team, 79-62, on Monday night at the Alamodome.

The Wildcats had Michigan coach John Beilein sighing, “We didn’t make some shots we usually make ... We needed to play better, but even if we played our best it would have been difficult to win that game with what DiVincenzo did.”

That’s Donte DiVincenzo, who had 31 for Nova.

A little honesty there. A little candor. A lot of awe.

Villanova won all six of its tournament games by at least 10 points. The semi-little Catholic school (enrollment around 10,000) could be building a dynasty.

No seniors in the lineup, although both Jalen Brunson, the AP national player of the year, and Mikal Bridges will probably leave for the NBA. No one-and-dones. Just a lot of talented kids who were brought in by coach Jay Wright and allowed to develop.

Not that they don’t arrive ready to play. DiVincenzo, voted most outstanding player in the final, is a red-shirt sophomore. He got 19 of his 31 in the first half.

Scoring is what the Wildcats do. They led the country in that stat. 

They also lead the country in what matters most, winning the big one.

But what made the difference Monday night was the way Villanova played defense. Michigan jumped into a 21-14 lead midway through the first half. Nova was missing the threes it made in the semifinal against Kansas. But soon after, it wouldn’t miss the chance to dominate the game.

By halftime, Nova was up 37-28 and shooting 45 percent. Then they started connecting. Then the result became foregone. Villanova went ahead by 22. Cue up “One Shining Moment.”

The 31 by DiVincenzo, who entered with some two and a half minutes gone, were the most ever in a title game by a non-starter.

“All I was trying to do was play hard,” said DiVicenzo, who is from Delaware, near Philly.

Such humility. ”He’s a killer,” said Bridges. “He came out there and was aggressive, defensively and offensively. He carried us tonight.”

And he has two more years of eligibility.

“They saw a championship team two years ago,” said Beilein, referring to when Nova beat North Carolina in the last second of the 2016 final. “They said, let’s work and get better. So many young men are in a hurry to get out of the best years of their life. I like the way Jay Wright recruits, getting kids with the right values.”

That’s fine. But they also need the right skills. The Nova athletes certainly have them.

“Anytime you get in a rhythm like that,” Michigan’s Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said of DiVincenzo, “you can pull up from anywhere and just knock it down. It’s tougth to stop.”

Basketball is getting people who know how to play to improve as the days and months go on; to feel confident and comfortable with your teammates and yourself. Villanova has achieved all of that.

“Villanova,” said Beilein, “has done a great job of getting the right kids. And we try as well. When you look at the whole package, they have it, experience, rare in college basketball, shooters at every position and defenders.

“That team right there could win a lot of Final Fours, not just one in 2018.”



Newsday (N.Y.): Final Four: Sister Jean and Loyola-Chicago run out of tourney magic

By Art Spander
Special to Newsday

SAN ANTONIO — The official end of the miracle, if not the game, came with 1:39 on the clock. That’s when a crew brought the wheelchair that had been Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt’s throne the past few weeks down to the concourse in front of the stands, where she watched from near the tunnel.

Loyola, which had led by 10 in the second half, now trailed by eight. Not even the smile of the 98-year-old nun who had become the mascot of Loyola-Chicago — and, for much of March, the face of college basketball — was going to change the eventual result.

Read the full story here.

Copyright © 2018 Newsday. All rights reserved.


The road and the dream end for the Zags

By Art Spander

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The road ended here. So did the dream. So wonderful a story, the outsider, the small school with the big plan, to stand college basketball on its ear, to beat the big boys with some big men and tenacious defense.

Gonzaga, the “Zags,” as it said in white letters on their blue tops, was ahead, leading North Carolina by a point Saturday night in the NCAA basketball championship of 2017, 1 minute and 40 seconds from the win.

And then never scored again. And then thrashed and missed and fouled and fell. And just like that it seemed, so quickly, a royal coach turning into a pumpkin, a magnificent season turning into a disappointment: Carolina was a 71-65 winner.

There were the Zags, leaning on each others’ shoulders, fighting back tears, knowing the season was finished, the goal unreached. They had lost for only the second time, finished the season 37-2. But it was the wrong game to lose, the game that would have given the school the sporting respect it seeks.

For Carolina, with so much history and six national championships, there was redemption. A year ago, the Tar Heels were beaten in the NCAA final with a second to play by Villanova. This time, it was Carolina’s turn.

“One of the things we talked about,” said Roy Williams, the Carolina coach, “was whether this group was tough enough. I think they were tough enough tonight.”

Tough enough and relentless enough. Defense wins, we’re told, and defense means persistence, tenacity and resilience. Carolina shot 30 percent in the first half, 35 percent for the game. But it battered and badgered Gonzaga after intermission. The Zags shot just 27 percent in the second half.

You can’t lose if the other team doesn’t score. In the last 1:40 of the most important game in the Zags’ history, they didn’t score.

They had a turnover, missed a jumper and had a shot blocked. The one-point lead became a one-point deficit, then a three-point deficit. Then five. It was over.

Przemek Karnowski, the senior, the 7-footer from Poland, usually so capable under the basket with his twists and turns and hook shots, was a sad 1-for-8. If Carolina didn’t know how to get the ball in the basket, it did know how to keep the Zags from getting it in.

“We got good shots,” insisted Mark Few, the Zags' coach. “We had the ball where we wanted.”

Except going through the net.

“(Nigel Williams-Goss) is such a warrior. He blew his ankle and he still was able to get a shot. The kid’s just a flat-out winner, but we never would have gotten to this point without him. He’s about the only guy we could call on who’s really deliberate down the stretch there. We needed a defensive rebound after they missed on a shot that ended up bging a jump ball. That was a back-breaker.”

Gonzaga never had been this far before, never had made it to college basketball’s ultimate week, to the Final Four. So many doubts. So many questions. Still, the Zags couldn’t climb the full way.

“I think we’ll settle in here,” said Few about the Gonzaga program. "I’m hoping it will settle in and we’ll feel better tomorrow and in the days to come.

“It doesn’t feel that great right now for a couple of reasons. You’re on the brink of a national championship. You want to give that to your time. But at the same time, the thing that crushes you is you won’t get to coach these guys again.”

There will be other guys and other teams. Gonzaga can only wish for another result.


One game for Zags: So near, so far

By Art Spander

GLENDALE, Ariz. — One game now. So near. So far. A place Mark Few never had been. A place Gonzaga never had been. All the hopes, the disappointments, the slights, the dreams, distilled to one game.

The Zags have left base camp. Finally. The summit looms. That they’ve made it this far is more than many believed possible. The Zags, the little school that couldn’t but this magnificent season of 2016-17 certainly proved it can.

They’re 37-1, the best record in college basketball. They beat physical South Carolina, losing a big lead but not their poise, winning 77-73 Saturday night at University of Phoenix Stadium. The school that never could get to the Final Four is now in the final one.

The win had Zags coach Mark Few, a minister’s son, doing handstands in the locker room. The win had Gonzaga, named for a 16th-century Jesuit priest who died caring for epidemic victims, moving into the big time and out of that silly designation, mid-major.

“They’re always on me to show emotion after a win,” said Few of his acrobatics. “So that’s my fairly weak effort of showing emotion. I got out of it with a healthy rotator cuff and healthy Achilles, so I think I’m in a good place.”

Gonzaga, in Spokane, Wash., alma mater of Bing Crosby, with its roster of recruits and transfers, with its stress on defense, with its critics who insist the Zags — well, the official nickname is Bulldogs — play a weak schedule, is at worst going to be the No. 2 team in the country and very well could end up as No. 1.

Gonzaga gave up a 14-point second-half lead in four minutes — or, more correctly, South Carolina overcame that lead with defense and shooting. And then the Zags suddenly were down by two, 67-65, with 7:06 to play. Then all the coaching and hustle and skill came forward, and Gonzaga regained control. Zach Collins, a 7-foot freshman, made the most unlikely of baskets for a 7-footer, a three-pointer. Winners find a way.

“Our late-game execution,” said Few. “That’s been a topic of speculation because we haven’t really had many close games. But we practiced it a lot. And I mean the guys executed it perfectly down the last four minutes. So I'm really proud of them for that. And just ecstatic — to be still playing the last game of the year is just crazy cool.”

Few is 54, and you don’t picture or hear him saying “crazy cool,” but he does. He’s been at Gonzaga 18 years. He’s been chased by larger schools — UCLA was interested at one time — but seems satisfied and rooted.

Basketball certainly isn’t football, a sport that Gonzaga, like most smaller schools in America, have dropped. Get yourself two or three excellent players, one of them specifically a point guard, and several other competent ones willing to play roles and listen to instructions, and you can win a title, no matter the total enrollment.

Nigel Williams-Goss spent two years on the other side of the Cascades, at the U. of Washington in Seattle. He left, then heard Few’s call. The man can shoot. He had 23 points Saturday night, high for the game. He also can orate.

“The journey we’ve been on has been unreal,” said Williams-Goss. “We just never stopped believing, and we’ve had the utmost confidence in ourselves the entire season.

“I guess they were saying we were the most nervous team in the tournament. And you know we heard everything all year, haven’t played tight games, were not tough enough ... No one’s here by accident. You have 37 wins in a college season, that’s unbelievable. We’re here to win it.”

Williams-Goss and Collins are roommates. “He told me,” Williams-Goss said of Collins, the freshman from Las Vegas, “he wouldn’t want to be playing against (himself) today. And coach says all year we just can’t talk the talk, we gotta walk the walk.”

Hard to say about walking, but Collins made that go-ahead three-pointer, had six blocks and ended up with 14 points and 13 rebounds.

“He loves being part of the team,” Few said of Collins. “We trust him at the end of the game.”


Newsday (N.Y.): March Madness: Gonzaga heads to its first Final Four with victory over Xavier

By Art Spander
Special to Newsday

SAN JOSE, Calif. — All the years. And for Gonzaga the tears. “Tears of joy,” from Mark Few after at last making it to basketball’s promised land, the Final Four.

Gonzaga, named for a saint, Aloysius Gonzaga, nicknamed the Bulldogs but known as the “Zags,” had qualified for the NCAA basketball tournament 19 previous times and never got past the regionals. Until Saturday.

Read the full story here.

Copyright © 2017 Newsday. All rights reserved.