For the past three months I have had the good fortune to be the Heimbold Visiting Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University, northwest of Philadelphia. Last night Villanova was in the final of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship for the first time since winning in 1985. (I am not claiming there is a connection with my being here, but any American universities willing to take a punt on next year are free to give me a call.)
The 64-team play-offs, known as March Madness, began on St Patrick’s Day. Villanova and last night’s opponents, North Carolina, played six games in 18 days, crisscrossing the country in between, they and their thousands of supporters, most of them students.
I couldn’t get far enough away from team sports at my rugby playing school; at university, I sneered at anyone who even mentioned the rowing eight or the cricket eleven. I followed only football and then only the professional game. More accurately, I followed only Manchester United. I still follow them, but even though technology allows me to keep up with every game anywhere there’s an internet connection (the man beside me on the train into Philadelphia the other day was watching Arsenal v. Watford on his phone), I have been following a little more distantly since coming to the US.
I tried a few years ago switching off the Premier League, going instead to watch my local Belfast side, Dundela, on a Saturday afternoon. I wanted simply to enjoy watching how the games turned out. I felt like that when I arrived in Villanova and started following basketball. Friends here explained that they preferred the college game to the professional because the latter had more or less dispensed with the art of defending. At my first Villanova game I was intrigued, and heartened, to hear thousands of students chanting ‘defence, defence, defence’ with the same urgency that crowds at Old Trafford roar ‘attack, attack, attack’.
Over the weeks I counted down with colleagues and students from 64 teams to four, at which point half my class gave notice they were going to Houston for Saturday night’s semi-final and last night’s final: a 23-hour car ride or eye-watering plane fare away.
I joined the 4000 students who stayed to watch the game on the big screens at the Pavilion, the university’s basketball arena. I feared Villanova might be going to lose. I’d seen North Carolina’s game on Saturday against Syracuse and they looked close to unbeatable. I told myself it didn’t matter: it was enough to have got to the final for the first time in 31 years. Villanova were down 39-34 at half time. They pulled ahead but North Carolina scored to level the game at 74-all with 4.7 seconds on the clock. I was still telling myself it didn’t matter if Villanova didn’t win.
Then Kris Jenkins passed the ball to Ryan Arcidiacono, ran the length of the court to receive it back, and with barely a tenth of a second remaining launched it through the hoop for three points and the championship. And, what can I say, my heart could have broken for North Carolina, as it had nearly broken several times for several other teams since March Madness began – for many players, defeat marked the end of their college careers – but I was too busy in those first moments after the buzzer jumping up and down like a mad thing with 4000 other people in the Villanova Pavilion.