The Ultimate Upset
Upstart Villanova proved March Madness, like life, is all bout your performance on the court.
The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is nicknamed March Madness for two reasons: One, that’s the month when the three-week tournament mainly happens each year and, two, the tourney’s legacy includes dynasty teams and dramatic underdog stories. March Madness, as in life, is all about how you perform on the court. Nothing else matters—your size, your fame or the name on the front of your jersey.
One of the greatest upsets in sports was played more than 20 years ago in a game pitting Georgetown, one of the most powerful dynasties in college basketball—led by the nation’s best player—against Villanova, a team of lesser-known talents.
No one, from college hoops experts to novice fans, gave the Villanova Wildcats a chance. But it happened. On April Fools’ Day 1985. And the “Perfect Upset,” as the game became known, was no joke.
Considered a good team, Villanova played as a great team against the Georgetown Hoyas. The underdog Wildcats were nearly flawless, missing only one field-goal attempt in the second half—and that came when Georgetown center Patrick Ewing slid across the lane and blocked Dwayne McClain’s baseline drive. The Wildcats shot an astonishing, NCAA recordsetting 79 percent from the floor to win 66-64.
When the scoreboard clock ticked toward zeroes at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., the game’s final play told a wonderful story of perseverance. It wasn’t about what the Wildcats couldn’t do; it was about what they did, and how they performed and relied on each other that particular day. It was also about how Villanova followed a well-scripted game plan and did not exhibit any fear, only confidence in every situation.
A pair of Georgetown defenders stood helplessly over Villanova guard Gary McLain, who had landed on his stomach to control the in-bounds pass in the final two seconds. McLain cradled the ball in his left hand, pumped his right fist into the air and flashed a bright smile.
The Wildcats, picked as 10-point underdogs, had done the unthinkable; they had beaten the defending NCAA champion Hoyas, who were considered perhaps the most intimidating team in the history of college basketball. It was as if Microsoft and its traditional model had been brought to its knees by a startup company that offers free software on a free operating system.
The Ewing-led Georgetown teams of the 1980s played for the national championship three times, winning in 1984. They were heavy favorites to repeat in 1985. The Hoyas had spent most of the season ranked No. 1, and also had beaten Villanova twice during the regular season.
Georgetown, starting with 6-foot-10 head coach John Thompson, was unapologetic and intimidating. They led the country in defense, holding opponents shooting under 40 percent. They finished the year 30-2, largely because they allowed opponents fewer than 60 points in 21 games. The Hoyas blocked relentlessly all over the court and always seemed to have everyone covered. The athleticism of Reggie Williams, David Wingate and Bill Martin only heightened the Hoyas’ invincibility. And, of course, the powerful Ewing was in the middle to erase any defensive mistakes.
“Put it this way,” Gary McLain said in an HBO documentary on the game. “They had a 7-foot center [Patrick Ewing] who was the best player in the country. They had some of the best athletes surrounding him and John Thompson, an experienced NBA backup center, as a coach. They had the best college program in the mid-80s by far. So, the Georgetown program was probably the most aggressively played, defensively minded program that I had ever come across at that time.”
Villanova, on the flip side, barely made it into the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed and hadn’t been ranked in the top 20 all year. The Wildcats, who played for the demonstrative Rollie Massimino, were 19-10 after they had lost to St. John’s in the Big East Tournament. But the Wildcats were a senior-laden team, led by center Ed Pinckney, that controlled the tempo and played sound defense. Pinckney had nice talent around him in Harold Pressley, Gary McLain and Dwayne McClain. Even so, the Wildcats, nicknamed “The Expansion Crew” by the media, were expected to be blinded by the glare of the national spotlight. One Lexington, Ky., columnist actually suggested the matchup against the Hoyas was so lopsided the game wasn’t even worth playing.
By night’s end, the columnist was eating crow and Massimino’s team had become the lowest seed to win the NCAA championship—a record that stands even today.
“There isn’t anywhere I go that I’m not asked about that night,” Pinckney tells SUCCESS. “It is the ultimate game for all underdogs, for anyone who goes into a challenge knowing that no one gives them a chance. That game provides valuable lessons in faith, humility and overcoming obstacles. I tell school kids, business executives and other athletes: Don’t let others tell you what is expected to happen. Make it happen. That night, we did. If you believe what others say, you’ll never beat Goliath.”
Pinckney, named the Most Outstanding Player of the 1985 Final Four and one of the few post players in the Big East who held his own against Ewing, pointed to the Wildcats’ faith and patience against the Hoyas. Villanova was determined not to panic under the Georgetown pressure and get the best possible shot it could—no matter how long it took (the 45-second shot clock was implemented the following season, in 1986).
“The most important lesson is to believe in what you are doing and who you are doing it with,” Pinckney says. “When you get an opportunity to perform, you are going to perform at a high level because you are prepared. And you are going to give yourself a chance to win that game through your hard work and preparation.”
That might sound like a simple game plan, but Pinckney, now an assistant coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves, believes the stars were aligned perfectly for the Wildcats. Pinckney remembered that most teams never got the opportunities that Villanova scripted against the Hoyas. “Everyone on our team played the perfect game,” Pinckney says.
Keep in mind that experts and foes alike had already declared Thompson’s ’85 team as one of the best college teams ever. “I’d have to put them with the great University of San Francisco teams of Bill Russell and the great Kentucky teams with Alex Groza and that club,” St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca told reporters after the Hoyas defeated his team 77-59 in the semifinals. “I’d also have to put them with the great UCLA clubs and the Indiana team  that had five [future] pros.”
The Wildcats controlled the pace of the game by making the most of every possession and keeping the ball away from Ewing. In the second half, Villanova shot a nearly impossible 90 percent (9 of 10 field goals). Villanova’s defense had also shut down the seemingly unstoppable Ewing, who scored only 14 points (eight of which came in the first half) in his final collegiate game. Georgetown shot 54.7 percent, a good mark for most games, but had nothing to show for it.
“We are remembered as the ultimate underdog,” Pinckney says. “Everyone has their defining moment in sports, and that was ours.” As the Wildcats mounted the victory stand, the Georgetown players stood and applauded. “Anytime you shoot that percentage,” Thompson says, “you deserve the praise. You couldn’t get much better.”
Villanova not only won the game, they brought down a dynasty. Since that game, the Hoyas have yet to appear in another NCAA title game.