Bulls’ Pinckney led Villanova to one of sport’s greatest upsets

When Villanova met Georgetown for the 1985 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship, no one gave Ed Pinckney and the Wildcats a chance.

The outlook was so ominous for eighth-seeded Villanova that even Pinckney’s own parents were convinced his team would come up short. And who could blame them?

Villanova was a 9.5 point underdog and the newspaper headlines told of certain doomsday. USA Today’s front page proclaimed, “Villanova vs. a ‘god’”, while the New York Post shouted, “It’s David vs. Goliath”.

Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas were dominant, and as defending champions, they were determined to win another title.

“From a national point of view, we lost already,” recalls Pinckney, currently in his fifth season as an assistant coach for the Bulls. “Everyone said the game was over. Let’s crown these guys because they won last year. My parents were like, ‘Look, this was a great run. We’re proud of you. Nice job. You got this far, but we’ll be waiting for you when you get your butts kicked.’”

Pinckney and his teammates, however, felt otherwise. Having played Georgetown and the likes of St. John’s before, they believed those teams could be beaten. They also knew it would take an extraordinary effort.

As another chapter of March Madness is currently being written, Pinckney took a trip down memory lane to relive the 30th anniversary of one of sport’s greatest upsets.

When the 1984-85 regular season concluded, Villanova didn’t exactly resemble a national championship contender. The Wildcats finished the regular season at 18-9, including 9-7 in the Big East.

Following a 23-point thumping at the hands of Pittsburgh, Villanova was unranked. It was a group that entered its conference tournament understanding that a tournament bid was by no means a sure thing.

“We had a lot of losses, but four of them were to the no. 1 or no. 2 ranked teams in the country in Georgetown and St. John’s,” explained Pinckney, a 6-10, 205-pound senior center. “We knew as players that we were in a very difficult conference. Our record wasn’t particularly good but it was because we were constantly up against some of the best teams in the country. After the loss to Pitt, we were just hoping that we would be in the tournament. The benchmark was around 20 wins and we were just under that. We didn’t know if we’d be in or not.”

At the 1985 Big East tournament, played at Madison Square Garden, Villanova as the fourth-seed enjoyed a little payback against fifth-seeded Pittsburgh when they recorded a 69-61 quarterfinals victory.

Up next, however, was the conference’s top-seeded St. John’s Redmen, a team loaded with future NBA players in Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson and Bill Wennington. The Wildcats came up short, falling 89-74, and the waiting game ensued. Meanwhile, Georgetown won its second straight conference title.

“We felt good and we hoped we would get into the tournament,” says Pinckney. “We knew we could play good basketball. We had five seniors who had been through a number of tough games. We believed that if we could get in, we could play well.”

Pinckney notes that after the loss to Pitt in the regular season finale, the team discussed a scenario in which the team did not make it into the tournament. It was decided that the coaching staff would not accept an NIT bid if that had happened.

“As seniors, that could have been our last basketball game,” says Pinckney.

Obviously, it was not. The Wildcats were awarded the eighth seed in the southeast regional and a first round matchup with Dayton.

Pinckney remembers the words conveyed to the players by Villanova coach Rollie Massimino, who hosted team dinners at his home throughout the season and promoted a family environment that relied on his Italian heritage.

“His message to us was, ‘Look, we’re in now. Let’s just have a lot of fun. It’s been an up and down season for us. You guys who are now seniors, try to represent your families and yourself in the best way we know how.’ That was it. He wanted us to relax and have fun,” says Pinckney.

A hard-fought 51-49 win over ninth-seeded Dayton on their home floor followed. Villanova upset the region’s top seed in Michigan next, 59-55. Another improbable victory over second-seeded North Carolina, 56-44, punched their ticket to the Final Four.

“As the games were going on, we were looking at the pairings,” recalls Pinckney. “We knew Michigan was not St. John’s. Michigan was not Georgetown. There was no one like Chris Mullin or Patrick Ewing, so let’s just go in there, have fun and see what happens.

“There was a looseness the entire team played with because we had gone to the Elite Eight twice before,” adds Pinckney. “There was no tension going into the games because we had been in that position before. We’d go into the games thinking, ‘Alright, they’re going to get our best. And if they don’t bring their best, we’re probably going to come out on top because again, our benchmark, our measuring stick, was those other two teams and they were the best in the country.”

When Pinckney and his teammates arrived at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky for the Final Four, it was almost like they never left Madison Square Garden. Aside from Memphis State, three Big East schools remained, with Georgetown and St. John’s on the other side of the bracket.

Though the Wildcats had come up short against those teams in five cumulative meetings that season, the familiarity was there and that added to their confidence.

“There wasn’t any apprehension at all,” says Pinckney. “I think a lot of times in the tournament when you’re facing different styles of play, if you’ve never seen that style of play before, you can get caught by surprise. But when it came to facing Georgetown or St. John’s, there weren’t any surprises at all. We knew what was coming at us and we knew it was tough.”

In the national semifinals, Villanova got past Memphis State, 52-45, while Georgetown dominated St. John’s in the second half of a 77-59 victory, setting the stage for the championship game. It was Georgetown’s third straight Final Four.

“They had all the experience,” notes Pinckney. “They looked at us and saw we had 10 losses. So this team can’t possibly beat that team, right? There’s no way. But if you did your research, our previous two games against Georgetown were really close. One, in fact, was an overtime game. It didn’t bother us. We had no pressure on us. Georgetown, in fact, had more pressure on them because they were trying to create history and win back-to-back titles.”

As Pinckney looks back on that night, whether it was the pregame locker room or during the title game itself, there isn’t a particular moment that comes to mind. Rather, it was more a feeling.

“That was the one time as a player I really felt in sync with my teammates,” says Pinckney. “There were a lot of instances during the course of the game and at halftime where we weren’t even saying anything to each other. But we knew exactly what we were thinking. That happened so many times in the previous games leading up to that one.

“When you’re a team that is playing on that level, you just know that you have a really good chance of winning,” Pinckney continues. “That’s how we all felt. If we could sustain any long periods of mishaps – again, playing against them was very difficult because they were a pressure team and in Ewing they had one of the great all-time defenders in college basketball history – if we got through all of that, which we were able to do, we knew we’d have a chance. In previous games against them, it was one or two instances where we weren’t able to get over the top. In that particular game, we did.”

Villanova led by a point, 29-28, at halftime. As the underdogs continued to hang around, the support from the crowd only grew, as did the Wildcats’ confidence.

“We were saying to ourselves that we really had a chance,” remembers Pinckney. “Being one of the top scorers on the team, along with guys like Gary McLain, Dwayne McClain, Harold Jensen and Mark Plansky, we got on a roll. Everyone was chipping in and playing well. Each segment of the game started to go in our favor. We were getting calls and it all unfolded at the same time.”

A quick glance at the game’s box score shows a 66-64 final. Look closer and you’ll see that Villanova shot an astounding 78.6 percent from the field.

When asked if the Wildcats played about as flawless of a game as you can play, Pinckney is quick to respond.

“Against them? Not even close. Yes, not even close,” Pinckney states. “Both Gary McLain and Dwayne McClain, Gary in particular, did a great job of handling the pressure and not turning the ball over. I get kidded all the time. One of our teammates charted the game and he said I had the most misses on our team. I said, ‘I had to take the most shots, what do you expect?’ You realize how close we really were to playing the perfect game. You’ve got to remember, it was only a two-point game. It took that kind of effort in order to get a victory against that team. It says a lot about how good they were.”

As for the moment of the final buzzer, it’s one Pinckney and his teammates will never forget.

“Not until the very end when Dwayne McClain fell on the ball and was screaming at the top of his lungs did we feel a comfort level,” says Pinckney. “Georgetown could always take off in an instant and the game would be over.

“I was looking for my parents right away,” he continues. “I just wanted to give them a hug. Your head is on a swivel because you’re running all around just searching for people to hug.

“Everyone who supported the team throughout the year was in our locker room,” Pinckney recalls. “It was pandemonium. We finally did it and we were celebrating with our teammates. We couldn’t wait to get back out on the floor to cut the nets down. It was one of the all-time great feelings.”

It only got better for Pinckney, who after recording 16 points, six rebounds and five assists was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.

“It’s one of the all-time accomplishments for me,” acknowledges Pinckney. “You want to be remembered in a great way as a senior. Whenever you’re victorious in your last game, that’s always a good thing.”

In a tournament for which the phrase March Madness has become synonymous, Villanova remains the lowest-seeded team to win it all. Others have come close. A year after falling to Duke as a fifth seed, Butler lost to UConn in the 2011 final as an eight seed. In 2006, 11-seeded George Mason advanced to the Final Four before coming up short against eventual champion Florida.

Somewhat surprisingly, Pinckney was cheering them on along the way.

“I was rooting for both those teams,” admits Pinckney. “I think eventually there will be a team that comes along and does it, because you get a bunch of seniors together who are all like-minded and anything is possible.”

Until they do, Villanova’s upset over Georgetown will be recognized as one of the biggest upsets on the biggest stages.

“It’s compared to all kinds of different things, like the Miracle on Ice,” says Pinckney. “We’re compared with a lot of those great stories. But for my teammates and the coaching staff, it was an unbelievable accomplishment. And every year, around this time, we get to revel in it. It’s a lot of fun.”

Pinckney’s role in the championship earned him a retired jersey that hangs in Villanova’s Pavilion rafters. And while Pinckney would go on to spend 12 seasons in the NBA, it’s the 1985 NCAA championship which ranks high on the list for him, both personally and professionally.

“It’s right there at the top,” smiles Pinckney, who spent four seasons as an assistant coach at Villanova after his playing days. “It’s what I’m most remembered for and I had twelve other guys to celebrate it with.”

All photos courtesy of Chuck Everson