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April 04, 2016

Villanova students euphoric as Wildcats beat UNC in NCAA Championship game

Ten minutes after Kris Jenkins launched the three-pointer that instantly turned The Pavilion into a state of euphoria, Tom Brawley couldn't resist mimicking the exact same shot. After all, it's a basket that will forever stand among the biggest moments in Philadelphia sports history.

Bouncing a mini basketball on the mostly barren Villanova hardwood, Jenkins dribbled over to the wing and mimed the shot as the few remaining Villanova students meandered out of the gym.

"I was sitting there saying 'It's going to go in,'" Brawley said. "And then it went in."

The swish of Jenkins' shot clinched the NCAA Championship for Villanova, handing the Wildcats a dramatic, 77-74 win over North Carolina.

For Brawley, a senior from Rehoboth, Massachusetts, the moment was particularly special. His father, Bob, graduated from Villanova in 1985, the last time the Wildcats won the National Championship.

"We knew it was going to happen," Brawley said. "It was our year."

Some year it was. And 4,800 Villanova students crammed into The Pavilion to enjoy its final moments.

"I have no words," said Greg Affrunti, a freshman from Glen Cove, New York. "There's nothing to say. My phone's ringing off the hook right now."

Throughout the second half, the hardwood shook as students leaped up and down in excitement. Piercing shouts of jubilation ascended into the rafters. And bottled water was sprayed everywhere in celebration.

But nothing compared to the moment when Jenkins' last shot fell through the basket.

Astonished faces were everywhere. Students jumped into one another's arms. Fist pumps, high fives and shouts of joy spread across the gym. Confetti fell and Queen's "We are the Champions" naturally blared from the speakers.

The students quickly rushed out onto to campus to make sure everyone on the Main Line, if not Philadelphia, knew the Wildcats are National Champions.

Congregating at the corner of Lancaster and Ithan avenues, some waved flags while others hoisted fellow students onto their shoulders. A handful climbed on top of the stone entrance sign or up nearby stoplight posts. A few scattered fireworks were shot off in the distance.

A line of police dressed in riot gear watched, but an hour after the game ended, the celebration mostly remained peaceful.

"I can't believe it," said Katherine Dimeo, a freshman from Wayne. "(Jenkins) worked so hard. It's the biggest game ever and he makes a three-pointer like no other."

Throughout the game, every Villanova basket, rebound and steal drew a deafening roar. Equally audible groans erupted following every Tarheels point or Wildcats turnover.

"They keep going back and forth," said Ryan Bradley, a freshman from Swathscott, Massachusetts, after halftime. "Last game (against Oklahoma), the crowd was used to getting a lead. ... This is crazy. This is a classic basketball game. I don't know what to expect."

With three TV screens showing the game overhead, many students crowded shoulder-to-shoulder onto the Pavilion hardwood as if they were standing in the general admission section of a concert. Others found seats in the bleachers, but they only sat down when TBS cut to commercials.

"This is the greatest atmosphere that you can ever be in," said Colin Ushkowitz, a freshman student from Yardley, Bucks County.

At halftime, Nova trailed UNC, 39-34. 

Ushkowitz was dismayed by the Tarheels' ability to drain three-point shots, but was confident 'Nova could go on run of its own.

"UNC can't miss from three right now," Ushkowitz said during the intermission. "It's absolutely unreal, but once we get on a run, this is going to be a show that you don't want to miss.

How true that proved to be. 

Many of the students began gathering outside The Pavilion more than three hours before tip-off, chanting and cheering despite a consistent drizzle.

Patrick Kunetz was supposed to be taking a test in his mythology class early Monday evening. But with the class canceled, the Villanova freshman instead found himself standing in the rain among a lengthy line of students waiting to get into The Pavilion.

He wouldn't have it any other way.

"This morning during classes, nobody was paying attention," said Kunetz, a freshman from Darien, Connecticut. "During my math class, everybody was like, 'We just want to leave.'"

Villanova bested Oklahoma Saturday in the Final Four, giving the Wildcats a chance to win their first national championship since 1985. Students described the Main Line campus as being in a mixed state of delirium, celebration and anticipation.

That school spirit was on fully display three hours before game time, as students burst into cheers of "Let's go 'Nova" and "Go Cats" as they stood in a line that stretched from the Pavilion doors to Lancaster Avenue. One student who dared to wear a Michael Jordan UNC T-shirt was booed heavily as he walked toward the end of the line. Naturally.

"It's unreal that we get to have the longest season possible," said Kelly Dillon, a senior student from Cleveland. "Freshman year, they were not very good. Being loyal and seniors, to reach this point in our senior year, has been incredible."

Dillon said many students simply wanted the Wildcats to reach the Sweet Sixteen, a feat they had not accomplished since 2009. That also marked their last Final Four appearance.

"We've waited long and hard," Dillon said. "To have us keep winning has been absolutely incredible."

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Claudia MacPherson, a freshman from Portland, Oregon, did not have to endure the disappointments that the seniors have experienced. But she said she still kept limited expectations when Nova opened the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed.

"I was obviously hoping for the best after the March Madness exit last year," MacPherson said. "By the time we saw them play Miami, we knew it was a completely different team and had a chance of going all the way."

Inside The Pavilion, many danced on the hardwood to pop music as they awaited the start of the game. Others packed the gym's bleachers, watching for the pregame show on a trio of video screens. Overhead, a string of chrome balloons spelled 'Let's Go Nova.'

"It doesn't matter that we're not in Houston," said Bryan Ramirez, a sophomore from Long Island, New York. "It feels very much like the game's happening right here."

Ramirez has followed the team as member of the pep band. Watching the team rout Oklahoma in the Final Four was "out of this world," he said.

"It's been really surreal," Ramirez said. "It honestly feels like a dream for us. We just can't wait to see how the night's going to end up."