Donte DiVincenzo was not a sophomore bench player on Monday night. He was when the game started, but by the final horn he was the man who had saved a national championship for Villanova.
On the biggest stage in college basketball and in the most important game of his life, DiVincenzo mercilessly buried a Michigan team that never had a chance. Villanova claimed its second title in two years thanks in large part to the Big East sixth man of the year, downing the Wolverines 79-62. The guard’s 31-point outing, on 10-of-15 shooting, is now officially the highest scoring output, ever, by a bench player in the NCAA title game; he added two spectacular blocks and five rebounds for good measure. DiVincenzo won Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four for his heroics, and he deserves it.
DiVincenzo wasn’t supposed to have this game, although that’s not to say nobody thought he was capable, or that Michigan supremely outmatched him. It’s just that it didn’t seem likely that the responsibility would fall to him. But Nova’s stars weren’t quite at their usual level—national player of the year Jalen Brunson was 4-of-13 from the field and weighed down with foul trouble most of the evening, and Mikal Bridges, while he finished with 19 points, wasn’t exactly having a repeat of his unconscious Alabama run. That left it to DiVincenzo, and he took it from there.
The redshirt sophomore scored 18 of Villanova’s first 32 points by way of deep, deep three-balls and swift slashes through the lane. While Michigan’s backcourt of Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Charles Matthews, Duncan Robinson, and Jordan Poole is usually quite good on both ends of the floor, the unit tightened up when Villanova made its push around the 11-minute mark of the first half and never truly regained anything close to resembling a rhythm. It was all green lights the rest of the way for DiVincenzo, and he cruised.
It’s one thing to know a player’s confident, and not an uncommon thing at that. The fun, on Monday night, was watching it unfold, which amounted to seeing DiVincenzo and Jay Wright’s faces slowly reveal the shared realization that this wasn’t just a good night for the third-year player, and that it was in fact something beautiful and strange and unprecedented. At one point, Wright just pointed at DiVincenzo while he brought the ball up the court, telling his team who the hell was taking the next five shots. Even as someone with no dog in the fight, I wanted to watch the phenom from Delaware drain all of them.
For the most part, that wish was answered. There were the long three-balls:
The soul-crushing chase-down block:
The somehow-even-more-soul-crushing-meet-you-at-the-summit-oh-my-god-Matthews-Is-Dead-you-a-legend-for-that-one-Donte block:
You know what, treat yourself to the whole dang highlight reel:
In the five tourney games leading up to Monday’s spectacle, DiVincenzo was on track to have a perfectly normal tournament. For DiVincenzo, that amounts to solid production from a solid player; the 31-point explosion was just just that: an explosion. In those first five games, DiVincenzo averaged 11.8 points, with the highlight coming when he doused Alabama with five threes; that, along with a scorching start to the second half from Bridges, was enough to swamp the Crimson Tide. DiVincenzo has looked like a very good college player throughout, but what he did on Monday night, in a game that should have belonged to Brunson or Bridges, left a lot of people muttering, “Damn, that guy might be the NBA player.”
DiVincenzo has clearly earned all the adulation and draft-status talk he’s going to hear for the next month—did you not see him extract Charles Matthews’s beating heart? But what made DiVincenzo’s performance more remarkable, though, is that were it not for his heroics, Michigan would have had a chance. That DiVincenzo-less championship game might have been close, but it would likely have been the ugliest title game since UNC stomped Michigan State back in 2009, especially when compared to the amazing trio of games we just saw in the women’s tournament.
Even with DiVincenzo’s transcendent showing, this final was no beauty. Something about the flow of the game, most glaringly from Michigan during the entire second half, seemed off. Yes, there were missed shots, but more than that, with the lead stuck at 15 for what seemed like the entire second period, it was that Michigan was settling. Unlike 2017's Tar Heels, who similarly struggled from beyond the arc, the Wolverines had no answer inside to make up for a deficient long-range game. Without that, the dramatic action of the second half downshifted from “Will Michigan cut this thing down to single-digits?” to “How many points can DiVincenzo rack up?” Both a comeback and a player going all the way off are fun to watch, but as was proven by Arike Ogunbowale, one makes for a notably better and more memorable championship.
Michigan emerged from a West region that sacrificed its top-two seeds to the god of March and then faced the winner of a region that offed its No. 1 seed in the opening round. Even still, the Wolverines—in their 27-point stomping of a Texas A&M team that had just stomped UNC in turn and also in their 12-point win over upstart challenger Loyola-Chicago—looked like a team that deserved to be in the national championship game. They weren’t the most talented team or the one best-suited for Villanova’s offense, but Michigan seemed up to the challenge and made a game of it early on, jumping out to an early seven-point lead as the Wildcats struggled to find their stroke.
But the margin was always going to be slim, and the combination of bad shooting and foul trouble for standout big man Moritz Wagner was all it took. A sequence in which Wagner and Villanova big man Omari Spellman got tied up fighting for the ball five minutes into the second half earned double-technicals for the pair, but it hit Michigan hardest. Not only did Wagner get the tech, but he had also just been whistled for a foul, forcing him to the bench right when the team needed to make its run.
They never did. With Wagner out and his teammates missing everything but free throws, the Wolverines had no looming threat on pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops, or post-ups; Villanova’s defense simply had to wait for Michigan to settle for a tough three-point shot. With Wagner out, the one advantage Michigan he gave them—interior size—took a seat as well. Abdur-Rahkman was the only thing working for Michigan, but his 2-of-7 performance from long range ensured that Villanova’s second-half lead always felt safe. With Abdur-Rahkman and every other Michigan man clanking his treys off the iron—they were a combined 3-of-23, which, yeah, that’ll do it—Villanova just needed to wait for its hero to show up, whoever that hero ended up being.
DiVincenzo wasn’t the most likely man for that role, but he played it to the hilt. We won’t know whether Villanova is ready to become college basketball’s next great dynasty until around this time next year. We won’t even know if DiVincenzo is going to put his name in the NBA Draft for another few weeks. But it seems a safe bet to say that DiVincenzo’s performance won’t be forgotten anytime soon.