They made themselves into underdogs, if you think about it. The 1984-85 Villanova Wildcats returned six of the top seven players from a team that the year prior had won 75 percent of its Big East Conference games and reached the NCAA Tournament second round. They featured a veteran point guard, three future NBA players and a coach, Rollie Massimino, who’d become a March Madness regular.
Center Ed Pinckney had twice been named All-Big East. Forward Dwayne McClain was one of the most dynamic players in the country, a physical force few could contain. Junior forward Harold Pressley was a McDonald’s All-American in high school, and Villanova won a furious recruiting battle to sign him. Point guard Gary McLain was in his third year as a regular and had averaged more than five assists in his junior season.
“We had this team that’s supposed to be good and we had just, really, a decent regular season,” Steve Lappas, then a first-year assistant coach with the Wildcats and now a CBS Sports analyst. “I remember how disappointed Coach Mass was in these guys, thought they’d be better.”
Eventually, they were. They would become the lowest-seeded team ever to win the NCAA Tournament, entering the 1985 NCAAs as an 8-seed and somehow progressing all the way to one of the great upsets in Final Four history: Villanova 66, Georgetown 64, a performance that soon became known as “The Perfect Game.”
This is a timeline of that improbable run:
Nov. 24, 1984: Villanova opens its season with an 80-56 rout on the road at Vermont’s Roy L. Patrick Gymnasium. It was the start of a two-game road trip that also included a trip to Marist College — a 56-51 Wildcats victory. The Wildcats then played Temple at the Palestra as part of the Big 5 competition. They did not play their home opener at the Villanova Fieldhouse until the fourth game, a Dec. 5 matchup with Monmouth. (Man has college basketball changed).
Jan. 22: After defeating Boston College and Seton Hall, the Wildcats reach 12-3 and see their AP ranking peak at No. 14. They added one more victory the following day, against Providence, to reach a season-high 10 games over .500.
March 2: The Wildcats arrived at Pitt’s Fitzgerald Fieldhouse for the final game of the regular season on a three-game winning streak but just a 5-5 record over the previous 10 games. They were unranked, but well behind St. John’s and Georgetown in the Big East standings.
“I’ll never forget. We were playing CBS. They were good, and we were terrible,” Lappas told SN. “We were down like 20 points at halftime. He tells the starters, ‘You’ve got four minutes. If you don’t get this together, you’re coming out. And sure enough, four minutes in he took them out and put in walk-ons and everybody. We ended up losing by 35 or whatever.”
The final score was Pitt 85, Villanova 62. It only seemed like 35 points.
March 9: Having avenged the Pitt defeat in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament before then losing by 15 in the semifinals to St. John’s, the Wildcats were 19-10 and received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. They were assigned the No. 8 seed in the Southeast Region, which meant facing No. 9 Dayton on the Flyers’ homecourt at UD Arena.
“I remember Coach Mass, we were sitting at his house. He said, ‘I got one more game with these guys,’” Lappas told SN. “‘One more game.’ They really drove him nuts. We weren’t going to have a long run, because we really weren’t that good.”
March 15: Villanova 51, Dayton 49. In a 49-all tie with 2:30 remaining, Villanova’s Pressley stole the ball from Dayton’s Anthony Grant (yep, that Anthony Grant, Sporting News’ 2019-20 Coach of the Year). There was no shot clock in college basketball then, so the Wildcats spread the floor and endeavored to attempt the game’s final shot — or any open layup. As it happened, wing Harold Jensen popped into the clear with 10 seconds left and put the Cats ahead.
Sedric Toney, heavily defended by the Wildcats, missed a 16-footer to tie at the buzzer.
“Really, that’s how close we were to ’85 not happening,” Lappas said. “Then we just started playing better and better.”
March 17: Villanova 59, Michigan 55. Wolverines star Roy Tarpley managed 14 points and 13 rebounds and the team shot 51 percent, but the Wildcats’ defense bothered the Wolverines into 13 turnovers. And Villanova’s ability to get the ball to the lane led to 31 free throw attempts to just five for Michigan. Guards Gary Grant and Antoine Joubert fouled out of the game.
Michigan became the first No. 1 seed of the expanded bracket era to lose short of the Sweet 16.
March 22: Villanova 46, Maryland 43. With the action shifted to Birmingham’s Jefferson Civic Center, the Wildcats were faced with a matchup of a regular-season game they’d lost at Cole Field House, 77-74, with Len Bias scoring 30 points for the Terps.
The Villanova matchup zone didn’t let that happen the second time. “Our defense was unbelievable,” Lappas said. Bias went 4 of 13 from the field for eight points. The Terps shot 19 of 53. Only Adrian Branch, now an ESPN basketball analyst, was effective. He scored 21 points. The rest of Maryland’s team, seven players in all, scored 22.
Pickney punished Maryland inside for 16 points and 13 rebounds.
March 24: Villanova 56, North Carolina 44. This was the third time in four years Villanova had advanced to the Elite Eight. They lost the other two by a combined 28 points.
“I know people talk about getting hot in March,” Lappas said. “No, no. It’s getting hot during the tournament. “Winning that game at Dayton, winning it the way we won it, almost at the buzzer, that really carries you.”
Carolina center Brad Daugherty was able to get inside for 17 points, but the Tar Heels were only able to get him nine shots. They turned over the ball 19 times, nine of which came from three reserves who played a combined 52 minutes.
The Tar Heels held a 22-17 halftime lead but were blitzed by Villanova in the second half; the Wildcats scored nearly as many points in the final 20 minutes (39) as Carolina did in the entire game.
One of the heroes of that game was reserve Harold Jensen, who came off the bench to score 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting and pull off three steals. He would be heard from again.
INSIDE THE MADNESS: 80 years of Final Four memories
March 30, 1985: Villanova 52, Memphis 45. The Wildcats were one of three Big East teams at the Final Four, a development whose lack of precedent was not surprising (it had been less than a decade since multiple teams from the same league could make the NCAAs) but that never has been repeated.
The Tigers featured all-time great Keith Lee along with 7-footer William Bedford, dynamic wing Vincent Askew and point guard Andre Turner, four of the most gifted players in the Memphis program’s history.
Lappas said the Wildcats were delighted not to be in the opposite half of the bracket playing St. John’s, because they already were 0-3 against their Big East rivals. “Chris Mullin, the way he shot the ball, was a very difficult matchup for us,” Lappas said.
Villanova’s primary concern against the Tigers was slowing down the game, so Massimino ordered his players to put seven or more passes on the ball before even thinking about shooting. At halftime, the game was tied at 23. But Bedford and Lee both encountered foul trouble in the second half, and coach Dana Kirk somehow allowed Lee to foul out with more than 10 minutes remaining.
The Memphis coaching staff also missed that Dwayne McClain went to the line instead of Pressley, the player who’d been fouled. Those two free throws made it an 8-point lead. The Wildcats were tied afterward, but never trailed again.
April 1, 1985: Villanova 66, Georgetown 64. It has become one of the most famous scorelines in college basketball. Those numbers still resonate, as does the fact the Wildcats shot 9-of-10 from the floor in the second half. That’s why they call it The Perfect Game, because Villanova had to shoot 78.6 percent from the field to win.
It wasn’t perfect, though. The Hoyas’ pressure defense forced 17 turnovers, including a combined 11 by Jensen and McClain. The Hoyas shot 54.7 percent — 57.1 percent if you counted just starters Patrick Ewing, David Wingate, Reggie Williams, Michael Jackson and Bill Martin, all of whom eventually played in the NBA.
“Georgetown was not a good shooting team,” Lappas said. “People forget that Patrick Ewing, as great a player as he was — one of the greatest players of all time — he was not a scorer in college. Now, he dominated games defensively, there’s no doubt about it. And that year, they beat us once by four and once by two. Our guys were not afraid.
“We thought we could stop them. The question was could we score enough. Now, we shot 79 percent and won by two, so you know how great they were.”