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Role Players: Who will be this year’s Harold Jensen?

In college basketball’s greatest upset, Villanova’s sixth-man shined

30 years ago, a group of David’s faced off against Goliath in Lexington, Kentucky’s Rupp Arena for the 1985 NCAA basketball championship.

The eighth-seeded Villanova Wildcats stood face-to-face with the top-seeded Georgetown Hoyas and their seven-foot giant, senior Patrick Ewing. In Biblical times, the odds were not in David’s favor. On the night of April 1, 1985, they were not any better for Villanova.

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The Wildcats had already lost twice to Georgetown in Big East play (only by a combined total of nine points) but “Hoya Paranoia” had reached a fever pitch as Coach John Thompson’s defending national champions entered the title tilt on a blistering 16 game win streak.

It appeared the biggest opponent between Georgetown, and keeping its seat upon college basketball’s throne, would be themselves, certainly not Coach Rollie Massimino’s overmatched Wildcats.

That evening each Villanova player brought their sling and plenty of smooth stones, but, as in the original David and Goliath story, an unlikely hero emerged.

As David came “off the bench” to spark the Israelites, Harold Jensen did the same for the Wildcats.

Throughout the season, the sophomore was Villanova’s “sixth man” providing solid and consistent play. Jensen also averaged four points per game and shot at a 40 percent clip.  As The Toledo Blade described, he turned into the Wildcats’ “one-man bench in the tournament.”

During the final portion of the regular season, and into the Big East Tournament, Jensen struggled. That changed in the first round of the NCAA tournament. He hit a game winning layup against Dayton that fueled the Wildcats unlikely run to hardwood glory.

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Jensen went 0 for 6 in second and third round wins against Michigan and Maryland, the first and fifth seeds in the Southeast Regional. Facing second seeded North Carolina for a trip to the Final Four, Jensen was 5 for 7 in Villanova’s 56-44 come-from-behind victory.

Facing Memphis, and consensus All-American center Keith Lee, Jensen was hot once more connecting on 3-of-6 shots to defeat the heavily favored Tigers, 52-45.

But, he saved his best for last.

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In front of 23,124 fans, the Trumbull, Connecticut native (#32 pictured above) played 34 of 40 minutes in the title game. Jensen’s defense was impactful; his shooting performance was legendary.

As a team, Villanova shot nearly perfect from the field (22 of 28). Jensen was perfect (starting point guard Gary McClain was also 3-for-3). Following his first made basket, CBS broadcaster Brent Musberger was a soothsayer commenting, “He’s a key man for ‘Nova tonight.”

Who knew?

Jensen connected on all five perimeter shots and was 4-of-5 from the free throw line for a total of 14 points, 10 above his season average.

He was Villanova’s “key” figure in the second half scoring 10 of his 14 points including an 18-footer with 2:35 left that gave the Wildcats a 55-54 lead, one they would never relinquish.

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With “ice water in his veins”, as CBS color commentator Billy Packer said, Jensen sank four free throws in the final 1:24 to punctuate his remarkable performance.

“That season, that tournament was a turning point in my life beyond the sport,” Jensen said years later. “It taught me to believe in myself, and I’ve taken that through my whole life.”

Role players. They can make a huge difference. Three decades later, who will be the 2016 version of Harold Jensen?

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