By Mike Jensen
April 3, 2018
Coach Jay Wright tends to an emotional Jalen Brunson late in the NCAA championship game. (Yong Kim)
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — There was celebration mayhem all around. Jay Wright got in a group hug with his family and moved over to the side of the raised court, pointing at people as he focused on them in the closer stands, yelling out first names. Wright saw a guy in the front row. Billy! (Billy plays golf with Villanova’s coach sometimes.)
In the front row, Donte DiVincenzo’s mom, wearing one of the Villanova cowboy hats bought for all the moms by Jalen Brunson’s mom, was trying to keep it together while watching her son get interviewed by Jim Nantz up on the stage, his voice blasting around the Alamodome. Nantz announced “One Shining Moment” was coming up. “Oh God, don’t play that song!’’ DiVincenzo’s mom said, making it clear she’d lose it completely.
At the precise emotional center of it all was Villanova’s point guard. Jalen Brunson always has been. Except the core of this group all along was a portrait of steadiness, almost a stubbornness, a declaration that this group would not be rattled.
On this night, however, Brunson came out at the end and was full-out bawling before he reached his head coach. When the scoreboards read Villanova 79, Michigan 62, Josh Hart, a hero of the 2016 NCAA champions, got in on the 2018 celebration and hugged the point guard. Kris Jenkins, author of the game-winning shot two years ago, moved in right behind and picked Brunson up off the ground. Kerry Kittles, star from two decades back, pointed to the stage, time for Brunson to get up there.
On that stage, the tears kept flowing even as Brunson held up two fingers to the crowd, making it clear this wasn’t just a “V” — it was two fingers for two titles.
“I blame Jalen,’’ DiVincenzo, 31-point star of this night, said later of why he had immediately lost it, too.
“He actually showed emotion on the court,’’ freshman Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree said. “I felt like that just opened up everybody. Everybody kind of, like, lost it.”
This was the guy about whom Xavier’s coach had said, you peel his face off, he’d probably have wires coming out of it?
“I just knew that it was bound to come out eventually,’’ Brunson said long after he had regained his composure, back in the locker room. “Just to be with these guys, obviously they mean the world to me. You cannot trade this for anything ever — anything else I want.”
He’d swept the national player-of-the-year trophies and talked about how “this trumps it all. You get to lead a team, that makes it so special.”
Go back to the beginning of the game. Brunson had set a little tone right then. If everyone thought three-pointers were all Villanova was about, Brunson showed another way, driving into the lane for a pull-up jumper on Villanova’s first possession, hitting one of his turnaround specialties on the next one.
All season, you saw the nuances of his game. Fall for one of his tricks, and he’ll make sure the officials see there was a collision. Brunson also never hesitated to point out to the striped guys what he saw was going on.
Some of the emotion maybe came from the knowledge that this was it, that Brunson will be moving on. The fact that he left as a starter on two national-title teams — a feat no other Villanova player can claim — can’t change the realization that it’s over.
There was some reminiscing afterward in that locker room, especially since reporters were suddenly intensely interested in the whole Donte DiVincenzo story. Brunson was asked about first meeting DiVincenzo, while traveling to an AAU tournament. DiVincenzo already had committed to Villanova.
“Donte just came up and said, ‘What’s up, what’s up? Come to ‘Nova!’’ Brunson said. “I looked up at him and said, ‘Oh yeah — hell no!’ ‘’
He knew DiVincenzo was a big-time guard. Take two of them in the same class? Midway through high school, he didn’t think like that. You know they’ve laughed about it since.
“Looking at it now, it was pretty stupid of me to say,’’ Brunson said. “From that point on, I met a best friend.”
Someone asked Brunson, who had scored 19 points, about whether he’d hold up the national player-of-the-year trophies if DiVincenzo threw the Final Four outstanding-player thing at him.
“I’ll just say, I played in two national-title games instead of one,’’ Brunson said.
This was the loose Brunson you knew was part of the package but kept hidden from public view.
“We try to be the nastiest on the court, but off the court, we try to be genuine people as much as we can,’’ Brunson said.
A text came in from a former coach who had known Brunson for a long time through his father, Rick, the former Temple and NBA player and now an NBA assistant.
“The term ‘great kid’ is overused,’’ the former coach said. “He deserves a much better adjective. Exceptional kid. If he wasn’t practicing, he was reading. There isn’t a person there who gave more of his childhood with purposeful practice. Simply not possible. He’s been working for this since age three.”
When Brunson said he knew those emotions were bound to spill out eventually, we should understand how far all this goes back, and it simply came out to meet the occasion, setting the tone for Villanova, even after it was all over.