Every time a shot goes up in the air now, souvenir seat cushions start flying like frisbees of pure joy or utter dread. The orange squares are flung straight up and sent airmailing across several sections, turning NRG Stadium’s indoor sky into a stream of plastic and foam projectiles. Many unsuspecting fans get bonked — on top of the head, across the neck, against their shoulders.
Needless to say, it’s a safe bet that the NCAA will never again greenlight a promotion that puts potential projectiles — even decidedly non-lethal ones — in every fan’s hands.
On Monday night, it’s just part of the unforgettable scene, another bit of madness in March. Houston finally gets the Final Four game it long deserved — and all happy hell breaks loose.
It ends with two back-to-back incredible shots, either one worthy of one of the best national championship games in college basketball history. Put both together though — and you have the best finish in Final Four history. Better than Keith Smart’s 15-foot jumper to win it for Indiana in 1987, better than Michael Jordan’s game winner in 1982, better even than North Carolina State’s airball-dunk crazy upset of that future NBA star-packed University of Houston team in 1983.
Marcus Paige hits a no-way, double-pump, mid-air-adjustment-needed, 24-foot 3-pointer that’s worthy of the best of Stephen Curry to tie things at 74 with 4.7 seconds left. Then, Villanova one-ups him, thanks to an unnerving calm that a high-wire skyscraper walker would appreciate.
This verve is personified in Jay Wright, the impeccably tailored Villanova coach who spent most of his long weekend in Houston being compared to George Clooney. Before Wright could be painted as the seasoned gentleman hunk, he had a long run as college basketball’s version of Kliff Kingsbury before anybody knew who Kingsbury was. Wright was the good-looking coach who made many swoon, but could never win big.
That guy is nowhere to be found on college basketball’s biggest stage. Instead, Wright’s the guy who draws up the perfect play in the wild chaos of a timeout huddle with 4.7 seconds left in the national championship game — and then simply stone-cold blooded utters “Bang!” when that play results in the greatest finish in Final Four history.
“We just needed 4.7 seconds of defense,” Paige quietly laments later.
Kris Jenkins — the junior forward from Washington, D.C., who calls himself “chubby” and gives no quarter — hits the 25-footer at the buzzer to win it. Jenkins is the one who goes running down the court, screaming, “I’ve got ice in my veins!” But it’s the perfect setup that makes it all possible. It’s the ultimate act of selflessness from Villanova point guard Ryan Arcidiacono.
Arcidiacono has the ball in his hands in the closing seconds of the national championship game. He has the chance to live every little kid’s dream, the chance to grab a buzzer-beater for himself. Instead, he serves up the ball to Jenkins on the ultimate pass back, giving his teammate a much better and more open look.
Bang! National champions.
“Every kid dreams about that shot,” Arcidiacono tells CBS Jim Nantz, another proud Houston guy, on the confetti-filled court afterwards. “I wanted that shot, but I had confidence in my teammates.”
How great is that? How many times have we seen seasoned NBA pros who should know better absolutely butcher late-game situations because they’re selfishly determined to be the one and only hero? It’s such a phenomenon that it has its own name: Hero Ball. Do you think James Harden is ever passing up a shot like that?
But the 22-year-old college senior who has little chance of playing in the NBA does. Ryan Arcidiacono has the presence of mind to put his team first in the most frenzied and nerve-racking of moments. He just makes the right basketball play. If Arcidiacono forces up his own prayer in that situation, North Carolina likely rides the momentum of Paige’s no-way shot to a national title in overtime.
He doesn’t — and Houston gets the greatest finish ever. If any city should have had this game, it’s Houston. Even though this is the second time the Bayou City has hosted the Final Four in five years — an unprecedented modern-day stretch — this is the first great game — or even really good game — it’s ever had. The 2011 Final Four was marred by horrific shooting and arguably the ugliest championship game in NCCA history. This year’s semifinals couldn’t have been worse — with two blowouts and the most lopsided combined victory margin ever.
Then, on Monday night, it finally happens. A classic. An all-timer. In NRG.
Houston’s done so much right as the host city for these Final Fours. It’s amazing to see how quickly the crowd of 74,340 — the second largest in Final Four history — is able to get into the stadium. So many other big-time venues absolutely fail at this — and end up with endless lines snaking around stadiums. That Houston doesn’t is a large credit to Doug Hall, the Houston Final Four CEO who’s been the driving force to make these events world-class festivities.
Good luck with replicating this smooth crowd movement into NRG in next February’s Super Bowl. Speaking of the Super Bowl, Villanova’s buzzer-beater starts the real unofficial countdown to Houston’s mega spotlight moment. Forget what those football clocks that have already been ticking away around the city tell you; this is when Houston’s Super Bowl starts to truly take center stage.
There won’t be anywhere close to as many Houstonians in the crowd at Super Bowl LI as there were for this Final Four, though. On Monday night, it’s easy to get into the championship game for less than $50. And decent seats (everything’s relative for a basketball game in a football stadium) in the lower level could be had for less than $200. The idea that it’s hard to get into the games themselves is largely an NCAA-created myth. Unless you’re in the market for the very best seats, the secondary ticket market is often cheaper than Final Four face-value tickets.
The Super Bowl’s an entirely different animal — and you’ll need thousands just to get in.
In many ways, this is Houston’s last bit of major-event sports innocence. Only Michael Jordan himself, decked out in a garish sweater that’s supposed to be some shade of Carolina blue, is there. The icon’s left nodding his head at the final buzzer, doing his best to not appear floored by the kind of dagger he dropped on so many. Some Villanova fans have the presence of mind to mock him with a little “..Mich-ael Jordan, …Mich-ael Jordan” as he walks away.
Still, the sight of Villanova star Daniel Ochefu taking a mop from the overmatched kid trying to clean up a wet spot on the floor and doing the work himself before the Wildcats’ title-winning play is a more fitting image for this night. All around, the post-Millennials generation is taking initiative and getting things done.
Even if getting things done means flinging a souvenir seat cushion to the rafters — and watching it flutter down and plunk somebody in the head. “Please refrain from throwing things,” the public address announcer pleads/begs over and over again. There’s no chance of this stopping, though. This is no time for restraint.
The Madness has finally really arrived in Houston. Just in time. Let the seat cushions fly.