When Villanova defeated Georgetown on April 1, 1985, it was no April Fool’s joke but rather, quite simply, the greatest upset in college basketball history.
Ah the 1980s, quite surely one of the greatest and most memorable decades in Philadelphia sports history.
The Phillies reached two World Series, winning the first in franchise history in 1980, the Flyers participated in the Stanley Cup finals three times, the Eagles went to Super Bowl XV and even the Sixers, for once not the laughing stock of the league, played in three NBA Finals, winning it all in 1983.
But the four pro sports teams weren’t the only ones to enjoy the winning ways of the ’80s as in 1985, almost exactly 31 years ago to the day, the biggest upset in college basketball history happened thanks to Villanova University.
Despite being five-time champions (four times in the regular season, once in the conference championship) in the Big East in just six years of being in the conference, 1985 was actually not the best year for the Wildcats. The team finished just 9-7 in Big East play and was only the fourth best team come time for the postseason.
Villanova entered the NCAA Men’s Division I Championship tournament unranked according to the AP Poll and was very likely a beneficiary of the field expanding from 53 teams to 64. However, as they say when it comes to March Madness, a term only coined the year prior, all you have to do is get in.
The Wildcats came in as an eighth seed after losing in the conference tournament to St. John’s by 15 points and had just 19 wins on the season. Their quest for a title seemed like a work of fiction, an impossible task in year where there was a clear favorite.
But there were still games to be played starting with Dayton, the #9 seed. It was the only non-upset victory of the tournament for the Wildcats as they would go on a shocking run defeating their region’s top seed in Michigan in the second round, 5th seeded Maryland in the Sweet 16 and 2nd seeded North Carolina in the Elite 8.
With these wins, Villanova reached the Final Four for what was just the third time in its then 65 year history. In an almost All-Big East round, with St. John’s and Georgetown making up the other teams, Villanova faced the lone outlier in Memphis State and defeated them by seven points.
This meant that for the third time that season, Villanova would meet their rivals, and defending champions, the Georgetown Hoyas with the national title on the line. Georgetown, which was 2-0 in the previous meetings, was favored by an almost impossibly high 10 points. Not to mention, they were the nation’s best team defensively, holding opponents to just 39 percent from the field. Oh and they were also 35-3 and riding a 17-game winning streak.
Essentially, Villanova would need to be almost perfect in order to win.
Prior to the game, head coach Rollie Massimino offered a simple yet poignant speech to his team:
“One, do not play not to lose. Play to win. Two, you are good enough to win. You can beat anyone in the country. Believe it.”
Led by future NBA talent Ed Pinckney, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player and Philadelphia Big 5 Player of the Year, the Wildcats did just that. In the first half, Villanova shot an impeccable 72 percent, making 13 of 18 field goals and playing some of their best defense of the season.
But the Wildcats still had just a one point lead against John Thompson and Patrick Ewing‘s squad.
Halftime adjustments helped free up Pinckney in the paint which led Villanova to their biggest lead of the game, a 53-48 score with just over six minutes left to play. Georgetown battled back and even regained the lead briefly, but with Pinckney winning the battle of the boards against Ewing and some clutch free throws from Harold Jensen, Villanova held a five point lead with just under a minute and a half to play.
However as Villanova learned in their two point overtime defeat against Georgetown earlier in the year, no lead was safe against the defending national champions.
With just 18 seconds left to play, Georgetown was within two. It was Villanova though that had the final possession. One successful inbound play later and the fairy tale was complete. The 8th seeded Wildcats, who were not even the second best team in their conference, shocked the world and the Hoyas as they emerged victorious, truly becoming March’s first successful Cinderella story and accomplishing a feat that has yet to be matched.
To this day, no team seeded eighth or worse has won the championship and very few have even made it to the title game.
So in a decade where the world was taught to “believe in miracles,” Villanova pulled off quite a spectacular one. The team will live on in Philadelphia sports lore along with the accomplishments of the others that truly turned the City of Brotherly Love into Titletown, if only for a few glorious years.