March Madness Voices: Covering the 2016 National Championship larry flynn and carlos collazo covered the national championship for their student newspapers last season. Read their story below

To honor the excitement and history that is the NCAA tournament, NCAA.com will be publishing first-person accounts from different people who have March Madness experiences to share. These March Madness Voices represent the people behind what makes the NCAA tournament one of the most thrilling sporting events of the year. Check back at NCAA.com to read more stories that will be published throughout March.

Carlos Collazo, a UNC alum, currently works for Baseball America. Larry Flynn is a senior at Villanova. Collazo and Flynn both attended the title game last year reporting for their student newspaper. The ending was memorable to say the least — when Kris Jenkins hit a game-winning 3-pointer to beat North Carolina and win the national championship. Below each shares about their experience covering the game and as students, while also balancing being fans.

Covering North Carolina

Carlos Collazo

It’s always challenging to describe my experience covering the 2016 NCAA National Championship game.

Sitting courtside and watching North Carolina fall to Villanova was simultaneously the best experience of my sports writing career and the most gut-wrenching experience of my time as a student at the University of North Carolina.

To give a little bit of background, I had never been a huge basketball fan before enrolling at UNC during the fall of 2012. I joined UNC’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, with an interest in covering baseball and football — the two sports I was most familiar with and played in high school.

However, as you might expect, the water in the Old Well at Chapel Hill has this not-so-subtle way of convincing you that basketball is the sole meaning of your existence.

Maybe that happens when you watch your first game as a classmate of the players running up and down the court in Carolina Blue, or the first time you feel the agony that comes with a loss to Duke. Or maybe it’s even the first time you go to Late Night With Roy and feel the energy inside the Dean Dome.

Whenever it happened for me, I learned to love UNC basketball — which can be problematic when you wind up covering the team.

I quickly realized how different it is to watch a game as a member of press row — where your job is to find the story of the game and put it into words — than it is to watch a game as a member of the student section — where your job is to scream until you’re physically incapable of doing so.

It was never a challenge for me to take off my “I’m a UNC student, how was that a foul on Isaiah?” hat and put on my “I’m an objective writer, Isaiah, that was terrible defense” hat. I always took my writing seriously, and I wanted to others to take it seriously as well (except in this fun column about Duke).

That’s why watching Kris Jenkins’ game-winning shot from my courtside seat at the NRG Center was much less emotional than all of my friends watching back on Franklin Street.

As the confetti immediately started falling, and the Villanova players began to celebrate, and Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson began to walk off the court, I just sat there and took in the moment.

I — like almost everyone else watching — was shocked Jenkins hit that shot. After Paige hit his iconic, double clutch 3-pointer I — like almost everyone else watching — was convinced this game was going to go into overtime.

It was only 4.7 seconds after all.

The time that I took to sit there and simply take in that Championship-winning moment may have only been a few seconds as well. I hope it wasn’t much more than that. I was there as a writer and I had to figure out how to get everything that happened in that game, into a legible story worthy of the performance.

Oh and I had to worry about that whole deadline thing, too.

Fortunately for me, I was in charge of our side story. For those who don’t speak newspaper, that’s essentially a story relating to the game, but one that takes a separate angle from what our main sports story is about.

This was much easier to plan ahead for, as I knew this angle would focus on Paige and Johnson, who would be playing their final game in North Carolina jerseys, regardless of the outcome.

So earlier in the day, instead of going to Top Golf (I’m a terrible golfer) with a few of my colleagues from The Daily Tar Heel, I sat in our hotel room and looked back at a few of our early-season stories on the team. It brought me back to a pre-season story where both Paige and Johnson reflected on the lack of hardware they’d brought Chapel Hill.

I stumbled upon the following quote from Paige:

“I want it to be remembered as, ‘Man, that 2015-16 team had a great run, and Marcus Paige was leading the way,’” he said. “Not necessarily, ‘Marcus had a great career, and his teams kept coming up short.’”

I knew right then that this was going to be the story, win or lose.

A win vs. Villanova and Paige and the Tar Heels would have accomplished what they set out to do, winning everything during his senior season, after having won nothing the three years prior. The ACC regular season, the ACC tournament and the shining jewel: a sixth North Carolina NCAA Championship.

Lose, and the story would be precisely as Paige put it: A story about a team that came up short.

It was incredibly difficult to write that story, as I had come to know many of the players personally over the course of the season. I had a Journalism class with Marcus Paige. The head manager for the team was one of my close friends.

You walk into the locker room after a loss that big, and you see players broken down and in tears, knowing just how close they were to winning it all. The last thing you want to do is pester them with questions and make them tell you about how much it sucks.

But at the same time, you have to understand you’re writing to tell their story.

And in my case, I was trying to show all of the fans back in Chapel Hill the emotion that comes with the heartbreak. The fans and students were feeling it in their own way, but they also cared about these players, and this team, and they deserved to know the players’ sorrow as well — even if it would be easier to try and ignore everything the next day.

As he so often did, Paige made things easier by offering up the postgame quote that eloquently tied everything together for:

“It’s hard,” Paige said, “because at some point tonight I have to take this jersey off, and I never get to put it back on.”

I often think that applies to all of us. At some point we all had to leave Chapel Hill, knowing that we would never come back as students. For me personally, this was the last story I ever wrote about UNC basketball game, or any other UNC sporting event.

It was hard. I hope I managed to do it justice. It’s certainly a game and a night that I’ll never forget.

Covering Villanova

Larry Flynn

I haven’t rewatched Villanova’s National Championship victory since I saw it in real time, on the evening of April 4, 2016. Sure, GIFs of Kris Jenkins’ buzzer beater pop up everywhere. Yes, I saw the ESPN segment where Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, and Jenkins recreate “the shot.” But these reruns always miss the mark.

There’s something about the feeling of that moment – impossibly perfect – which cannot be duplicated. It was too good to be true; is it crazy to think, if I watch it again, that maybe the stars won’t align again?

The arena is painted by the mosaic of Carolina blue, scattered with Sooner red and Syracuse orange on the opposite side of the court below the jumbotron and the red, white, and blue of the largest American flag I’ve ever seen. I stood next to my father in a sea of navy with my hands folded, looking up at the ceiling and requesting divine intervention. Our hands were numb from high fives, probably hundreds of times over the past 39 minutes and 55.3 seconds. We were just hoping for one more – one more celebratory high-five.

You’ve seen the play. You’ve heard the stories. But neither video nor words can capture the emotion of the gasp I took when the ball rolled off Jenkins’ finger-tips, spiraling toward its destiny.

My father and I stayed at the team hotel in Houston, the Royal Sonesta which looked something like a Caribbean resort. Members of the ’85 Championship team, Villanova superfans, and the team’s families all bundled up under the same roof for several nights, starting on April 1st – my 21st birthday. I had decided not to attend the national title game as a professional media member, since I figured I could write more emotionally-based memoir pieces if I attended as a fan. However, I was there on assignment to write feature stories for Sports Illustrated's Campus Rush and the school's newspaper The Villanovan. And so I wore two caps: rabid fan and probing journalist, looking for moments worth sharing.

When the fire alarm went off at 4 o’clock in the morning at the team hotel, I not only had my first nugget in this epoch but knew it was too good to be true. Was there actually a fire? Is the team okay? Now they’ll be all disrupted and play poorly against Oklahoma tonight, won’t they? Thus are the thoughts of an anxious Villanova fan in the waning hours of the morning.

My fears subsided when the Wildcats steamrolled the Sooners that night, 95-51. But as Villanova ran up the score, I couldn’t help but think of a trio of Oklahoma alumni who my dad and I met in line before the game. In the sweltering Texas heat, these ladies wore sweaters with a “OU” knit on the front. Their sun hats and socks-and-sandals matched their southern accent and gentle disposition. As we discussed Oklahoma in the 60’s and the prospect of Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City that summer, I felt a real kinship with another fanbase united around basketball.

For every fairytale ending, there had to be a nightmare of a weekend. I hoped they’d make it to another Final Four and watch their Sooners cut down the nets. But not this year.

“I don’t care what happens now,” I said to my dad Monday morning (lying, of course). “It’s just amazing we came this far.”

We ate our breakfast burritos in the lobby and talked X’s and O’s of the game. We agreed: this would be a test for freshman Jalen Brunson. Daniel Ochefu couldn’t get into foul trouble early. The Wildcats had to stop Joel Berry on the perimeter.

My dad and I have watched basketball since I was born. We’d watch Michael Jordan in Chicago and he’d bounce me up and down on his knee in silence. Eventually, I grew into my own seat and we adopted several mind-games to play while watching basketball. Our most popular is “the number,” where we both guess a number at which, when either team reaches that number, their lead is safe. Almost always, we pick a different number, to make the game more fun.

For example, when two free throws from Phil Booth put the Wildcats up 67-57 with 5:29 to play, I leaned over to my dad, sitting on my right, and said, “75.” This meant that if the ‘Cats scored more than 75 points, the National Championship would be safely ours.

He nodded, and looked at the scoreboard. “You know what,” he said. “I’ll have to agree.”

So when Marcus Paige double-clutched and buried an impossible three-pointer, my first thought was the same thought after Villanova beat Kansas in the Elite Eight: it’s too good to be true. But I looked up at the scoreboard: 74-74. The “75” prediction was still in play.

Fifteen minutes after the buzzer sounded, the concourse around the seating area was still in a state of pervasive pandemonium. I high fived old friends and new friends – anyone who wore the Villanova navy. Screaming. Hugging. Crying. And then – Ed Pinkney.

I saw the Villanova legend power-walking down the hallway, putting his “V’s” in the air and clapping repeatedly. In this moment, he was no longer the school’s only basketball savior. He was a relic of another “perfect game” where the Wildcats shot 79% from the field to knock off Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas ten years before I was born. Now, Villanova would always have “the shot” as well. Could it be that perfection was not only replicated, but can look different over time?

I wondered who would high five Kris Jenkins in 20 years. As for me, I high fived Ed Pinkney. He’s a strong man; it stung like hell.

In fact, I never did get that one more high-five I was hoping for with the game tied at 74. Instead – Jenkins to Arch, Ochefu sets the pick, Arch crosses halfcourt, flips it to Jenkins, bang! – and then the biggest hug of my life from the man to my right because sometimes life is too good to be true.

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