Donte DiVincenzo's Moxie Goes Down in Villanova, NCAA History: 'He's a Killer'

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagApril 3, 2018

Villanova's Donte DiVincenzo cuts the net as he celebrates after the championship game of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament against Michigan, Monday, April 2, 2018, in San Antonio. Villanova won 79-62. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

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.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press
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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."

DiVincenzo and Brunson embrace after a historic night.
DiVincenzo and Brunson embrace after a historic night.David J. Phillip/Associated Press/Associated Press

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."

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

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."

SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 02: Donte DiVincenzo #10 of the Villanova Wildcats celebrates with teammates as confetti falls after defeating the Michigan Wolverines during the 2018 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game at the Alamodome on April 2, 20
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

DiVincenzo certainly did against Michigan, and the Wildcats benefitted greatly on a night when their other stars didn't look all that crisp early.

Michigan led 21-14 at the 10:59 mark of the first half before DiVincenzo scored 12 points during a 23-7 march that left Villanova up 37-28 at intermission. DiVincenzo had 18 points at the break and 13 more in the second stanza, when Villanova led by as many as 22 points.

If not for a uncontested basket by Michigan with 10 seconds remaining, Villanova's victory margin would've been the biggest in an NCAA title game since UNLV beat Duke 103-73 in 1990.

"Even if we had played our best," Michigan coach John Beilein said, "it would have been very difficult to win that game with what DiVincenzo did. Sometimes those individual performances just beat you, and you just say, 'OK, we played you the best we could, and tonight, you were better than us.'

"It was an incredible performance. When he came off and hit those 3s, we couldn't answer. I wish we would have maybe gone out and doubled him or something. ... But he still made some really long shots that I don't think there's a defense for."

Along with his five three-pointers, DiVincenzo also had a dunk that should make the Final Four highlight reel. So should his vicious, clean block of Charles Matthews' layup attempt.

DiVincenzo was asked in the postgame press conference if he expected this type of performance.

"Honestly, no," he said. "I did not think I was going to have this type of night, because every night I come into a game, I just try to bring energy. And if we get off to a good start, I try to take it to a new level."

After swishing a shot toward the end of the game, DiVincenzo winked at Hart—who was watching from the stands with Jenkins and other former Wildcats—as he ran down the court.

"We got another one," he yelled.

CINCINNATI, OH - FEBRUARY 17: Jalen Brunson #1 and Mikal Bridges #25 of the Villanova Wildcats celebrate in the closing seconds of a game against the Xavier Musketeers at Cintas Center on February 17, 2018 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Villanova won 95-79. (Photo
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The question now is whether DiVincenzo will have an opportunity to add to his trophy case in 2018-19. Brunson and standout guard Mikal Bridges are both expected to leave school a year early for the NBA draft. Forward Omari Spellman might, too.

The buzz after Monday's game was that DiVincenzo's showing at the Final Four—he had 15 points against Kansas two nights earlier—could make him an NBA draft candidate, as well.

"He's definitely going to play in our league," a scout told B/R by phone late Monday night. "He'd probably get drafted in the second round right now. But at the end of the day I think he'd be better off in college for one more year."

If that happens, you can bet DiVincenzo won't be coming off the bench.

DiVincenzo smiled.

"I guess we'll see," he said. "You'll have to talk to Coach about that."

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