SAN ANTONIO — Ten seconds before the end of the 2017-18 season, a member of the most unselfish team in college basketball committed a rare act of greed.
As Villanova’s Collin Gillespie prepared to receive an inbounds pass and dribble out the clock in Monday’s 79-62 victory over Michigan in the NCAA title game, teammate Donte DiVincenzo stepped in his path.
“I got this!” DiVincenzo said as he caught the pass and began trotting up the court. “I got it!”
Moments later, as the final horn sounded at the Alamodome, DiVincenzo launched the ball toward the rafters and pumped his fists. Confetti danced in the air as his teammates engulfed him just past mid-court—a moment DiVincenzo will cherish forever.
“I wanted to be the one,” DiVincenzo chuckled about an hour later, “to throw the ball up in the air at the end.”
DiVincenzo certainly earned the celebratory heave. The Wildcats sixth man didn’t start Monday’s game. But, boy, did he finish.
In one of the top performances in NCAA championship history, DiVincenzo scored 31 points on 10-of-15 shooting to spark Villanova to its second national title in three years. The redshirt sophomore connected on five of his seven attempts from beyond the arc and also tallied three assists and two blocks—a stat line that earned him Most Outstanding Player honors at the Final Four.
DiVincenzo’s 31 points were the most ever by a non-starter in a national championship game, and they were the most by any player since 1989.
“It’s surreal,” DiVincenzo’s mother, Kathie, said from her first-row seat. Her voice cracked as she wiped away tears. “I’m just so proud of him. I can’t wait to hug him.”
Kathie waved to her son as he stood with his teammates on a makeshift awards stage at center court. Already sporting a championship T-shirt and hat, Donte fought back tears, too, as he reflected silently on the journey that led him to this moment.
Two years earlier, DiVincenzo’s inaugural season at Villanova had been cut short after just eight games because of a broken bone in his foot. Even though he was granted a medical redshirt, the situation was maddening for DiVincenzo, who wore a suit and watched from Villanova’s bench as Kris Jenkins’ swished three-pointer at the buzzer beat North Carolina in the 2016 NCAA title game.
Amid the on-court celebration that night in Houston, Wildcats guard Jalen Brunson—then only a freshman—wrapped his arm around his best friend and roommate.
“We need to get back,” Brunson told DiVincenzo. “We need to get back and share (a moment like) this together.”
Two years later, that explains why Brunson, the Associated Press National Player of the Year, was bawling when he embraced DiVincenzo after Monday’s win.
“He’s just so special,” Brunson said. “He works his butt off and deserves all of this. In practice, he just goes at everybody. He just has this mindset that he’s a killer.”
DiVincenzo’s swagger was one of the main things that caught the attention of Wildcats coach Jay Wright during the recruiting process four years ago. A Delaware native, DiVincenzo wasn’t even a Top 100 prospect when he committed to Villanova over Syracuse as a high school junior in January of 2014. Still, Wright was confident he’d found a sleeper with tremendous upside.
Brunson, who’d yet to commit, said he almost stopped considering Villanova once he knew DiVincenzo was going there. Brunson had played against DiVincenzo on the AAU circuit.
“The first time I met him was at an airport,” Brunson said. “He was like, ‘Yo, yo, yo … come to Villanova.’ I was like, ‘Hell no.’ I knew he was a great player, there was no reason for me to go there.”
But Brunson indeed ended up in a Wildcats uniform.
And multiple times during the last three seasons, the future NBA first-round pick and the rest of the Wildcats have drawn inspiration from DiVincenzo. That includes DiVincenzo’s redshirt year in 2015-16. Once his foot had healed, DiVincenzo was able to practice with the Wildcats. During some workouts he was so hot that Wright nicknamed him “The Michael Jordan of Delaware.”
In the practices leading up to the 2016 Final Four game against Oklahoma, DiVincenzo played the role of trigger-happy Sooners star Buddy Hield. Villanova limited Hield and ended up winning that game by 44 points before defeating UNC two nights later.
Last season, as a redshirt freshman, DiVincenzo averaged 8.8 points off the bench and served an even bigger role by setting a tone of intensity in practice.
“We got into it a lot,” said former Wildcats forward Josh Hart, who is now a rookie with the Los Angeles Lakers. “There were definitely some physical altercations. We threw some blows. That’s that competitive nature, that drive to get each other better.
“We’ve proven it’s not about one-and-dones. It’s about high character guys who are talented and want to buy into something bigger than themselves. (DiVincenzo) is someone who came in, wasn’t highly ranked in ESPN’s BS rankings, but came in and worked and got better and developed and became a national champion.”
As startling as DiVincenzo’s stat line in Monday’s title game may have been to some, the Wildcats were hardly surprised. DiVincenzo averaged 13 points on the season and scored 20 or more points five times. That includes a 30-point game against Butler in which he played all 40 minutes in place of injured starter Phil Booth.
At 6’5″ and 205 pounds, DiVincenzo’s size, shooting ability and explosiveness would make him a shoo-in to start on almost any team in America. Instead, he accepted and embraced his role off the bench at Villanova, where he was named Big East Sixth Man of the Year this season.
“Donte competed for a starting position,” Wright said. “He worked really hard and wanted to start, and he was initially a little upset because he wasn’t starting. A little. Not bad, because he’s just a great kid.
“We want our players to have a clear mind. We want them to be able to go out there and not worry about whether they’re coming off the bench or whether they’re getting enough shots or whether the NBA guys are watching them. We feel like, to be a good player, you’ve got to have a free mind.”