Jared Trexler, Contributing TSN Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Not many of the 10,300 total students at Villanova remember forward Ed Pinckney. They were in diapers or an apple in their parents' eye when the eighth-seeded Wildcats made 22-of-28 field goal attempts to shock defending national champion Georgetown in the 1985 title game.
Twenty-one years later, the largest Catholic university in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania continues to be shaped by its religious heritage and breathtaking campus. St. Thomas of Villanova Church reflects the school's Catholic identity. Outdoor cramming in Kennedy Plaza signifies the beginning of Spring. The "Oreo" is the student's universal meeting place. The Grotto welcomes in- coming freshman to the best four years of their lives.
An 18-year-old heads to college to grow as an individual, create life-long friendships and prepare for the ever-changing world ahead. They also travel sometimes thousands of miles away from the safety and security of home in search of a story.
Students in Austin understand. Undergraduates in Chapel Hill celebrated last April on Franklin Street. Seniors along the Southern California coast know the feeling. College just isn't complete without a championship. Michigan alumni still recall Chris Webber's timeout. The Longhorn student body still relishes in Vince Young's solo act of heroism.
A championship defeat scars. It effects test-taking skills and the ability to enjoy Friday night's toga party.
"This is as good a college basketball atmosphere as you are going to find in the country. It starts with the students and this is a very difficult place to play," said Villanova coach Jay Wright.
A title is sacred. College athletics are the only in sports where the fans truly can claim part of the prize. They go to class with the team. They party with the team. Some individuals even date members of the team.
That is why this season is so special. Villanova is so close. And while it is important to discuss strategy with head coach Jay Wright and dissect Allan Ray's jump shot, it is even more important to delve in-depth into the pulse of a campus.
The story has a beginning and a middle with the hope of a fairy-tale end. The title has been etched in passion from the season's opening tip: The Main Line's Mission to March.
It all started when Villanova, untested and undefeated, walked into a sold-out Pavilion on December 3rd for a non-conference bout with the methodical, physical Oklahoma Sooners led by the frontcourt duo of Kevin Bookout and Taj Gray. Philadelphia's version of Cameron Indoor Stadium shook. The Wildcats received 10 major points from Jason Fraser and took home a convincing 85-74 victory.
After the game, while Wright mentioned the effort of Fraser and big-game ability of Ray and Randy Foye, he couldn't stop singing the praises of the atmosphere created by the student body.
"This is as good a college basketball atmosphere as you are going to find in the country. It starts with the students and this is a very difficult place to play. Our guys love to play here and we feel like we have an advantage in here. It's hot, there are people on top of you and they're loud," said Wright. "It's just a great place to play college basketball. I've always thought its one of the best. I don't know if there's anywhere in the country with a wall of human beings like that behind one basket that can create that noise. We love it."
Many miles to the north in Killington, Vermont, a group of Villanova students demonstrated that the passion does not die outside the city's limits.
"We were in our hotel watching the game, and even though we were 400 miles from home, we were so into it," junior Chris Saveri said. "It felt like our own student section."
In-between skiing and snowboarding, the Wildcat faithful still had time for hoops. Instead of hitting the slopes, they watched their classmates hit the boards and win the first big test of the season.
The Wildcats continued to win -- including a trap game at Bucknell, three straight Big Five contests and a national-television bout at Louisville -- before suffering their first loss of the season against West Virginia.
Even after a second loss in three games at Texas, the team and its fans were still confident.
After the setback in Austin, Villanova won eight straight games to set up the much-anticipated clash with top-ranked Connecticut. The hype leading up to the contest was one that students live for.
The festivities started well before the 7 p.m. (et) tip-off, as the parking lots flooded with fans several hours in advance.
"We tailgated for four hours before the game, and stayed in the lot for another hour afterward. The atmosphere that day for that game was a once in a lifetime experience," said Saveri.
United they stood, making their way into the Wachovia Center for an unforgettable evening.
"It's nice to see how united all the Villanova fans can be," said junior Emilie Galligan. "Between the tailgating and the cheering, I hope the basketball team knows it has major support on this campus."
If the team didn't know before, it found out on that February 13th evening. A crowd of 20,859, the largest to watch a college basketball game in Keystone State history, filled the arena to witness the Wildcats' official entrance on the national stage.
Beating the talented, balanced Huskies seemed too daunting a task after a 13-0 sprint to start the second half gave UConn a 45-33 lead. However, Ray started finding his stroke and the comeback was complete after Mike Nardi -- who had missed the previous two games with tonsillitis -- drained a three from the right wing to send the crowd into a frenzy.
"Nothing compared to Nardi?s three-pointer that gave us the lead," chimed Saveri. "I have never heard a sports arena so loud in my life."
The celebration was even louder.
When the final horn sounded, capping Villanova's first victory over a top- ranked squad since beating UConn on February 18, 1995, the Wachovia Center's floodgates opened. Students hugged students. Players embraced players. Sorority girls made a mad dash to share a moment with Wright.
"It's at the basketball games where I have some of my most unforgettable memories," said junior Mike Mainardi. "None is more memorable then storming the court after the UConn game."
Another memory reflects on the Wildcats' team-first philosophy. With the club's February 23rd game at Cincinnati tied at 72-72 in the closing seconds, the ball went inside to Dante Cunningham, the lanky freshman forward who averages 2.2 points per game. Cunningham delivered with the game-winning layup, a moment that sticks in junior Jane Chalet's mind.
"This year's team is all about working together and winning games through teamwork, which is what makes us so unique and so strong," said Chalet. "Cunningham's layup was just an example of that."
The story is not complete.
Nothing would be more special than a repeat of 21 years ago, when Villanova's Cinderella ride never struck midnight. Now, Pinckney is an assistant coach on the Wildcats' staff and every student will surely remember him if he climbs that ladder on the first Monday in April to help cut down the nets.
A line from Saveri would fittingly close the final championship chapter.
"It will stick with us for the rest of our lives."