NCAA title game top scorer Booth returns healthy for Nova
By DAN GELSTON
VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) Phil Booth can live with hitting only Villanova's second-biggest buzzer beater in a national championship game.
Let's throw it back to April 2016 in Houston.
"Five seconds to go in the half. Booth. He has time. Looks up, puts it up. And got it!" TBS announcer Jim Nantz said.
"Big time dagger. Booth!" analyst Bill Raftery said.
Just like that, Booth's jumper at the horn cut North Carolina's lead to 5 at halftime.
Nantz and Raftery are about as good as it gets in the broadcast booth, but let one of the stars of the game call this one.
"That was more of a scramble around. Clock went down. Josh (Hart) made a great block and I was just trying to find a spot. I was seeing guys coming down the court trying to catch guys in transition," Booth said as he watched a highlight reel on YouTube . "I saw the clock running, so I had to make a play; either pass or shoot it, so I found a spot at the foul line."
Kris Jenkins won the NCAA title with a 3 at the buzzer and stuffed trophy cases at Villanova's state-of-the art complex.
But ask your friends at a local Nova hangout such as Kelly's Taproom who was the leading scorer in that game, and you might win a round stumping them on Booth. Booth, now a 6-foot-3, 190-pound junior guard, averaged only 7 points that season and was scoreless in 12 minutes against Kansas in the regional final. Against the Tar Heels, Booth scored a career-high 20 on 6 of 7 shooting (two 3s) and 6 of 6 free throws.
"I didn't really know or pay attention to how many points I had until I got to my phone and saw all the texts," he said. "I had no idea. I just knew we won the game."
Booth also knew he couldn't play much more on a painful left knee that even ached in warmups against the Tar Heels. Booth has no idea how the knee was injured; he just knows it wasn't the result of a direct hit and it started early in his sophomore year. He had surgery to repair a meniscus tear about a month after the national championship game and came back ready to help the Wildcats try and defend the title.
Booth felt an unrelated "flare up" on his left kneecap early last season and his year was cut to only three games. Booth against underwent surgery at the end of the season.
He missed Villanova repeat as Big East champions and was a helpless spectator when its season ended with a loss to Wisconsin in just the second game of the NCAA Tournament.
Booth is the only player wearing a suit, his hat backward and a T-shirt draped over his shoulder, in a Big East tournament championship photo that hangs in the hall of the basketball complex.
He's a future pro if healthy, and considered the risk had he pushed through the pain last season. Booth did practice at the end of the season before he was shut down near the NCAA Tournament.
"It was all about the long-term thing. It could come back. It could not," he said. "I decided to do the thing that was best for long-term playing."
Booth, whose father, Phil Booth Sr., is a Philadelphia native who starred at Northeast High School and Coppin State University, and Jalen Brunson are the only returning players who started last season's opener. Jenkins, Hart (a Lakers first-round draft pick) and Darryl Reynolds all left as part of the winningest senior class (129-17; 63-9 Big East) in program history. Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman and Jermaine Samuels, widely considered one of the top high school recruits in the nation, kept the Wildcats as Big East favorites and a preseason national championship contender.
Booth has finished his rehab but coach Jay Wright eased him back into workouts at the start of the semester. One day on, one day off. Wright, starting his 17th season at Villanova, said Booth will hit full speed with no restrictions next week.
"I'm as positive as I could possibly be right now," Wright said. "He's unique because I think he approached this with a long-term (view) to his career and his life."
Booth insisted his knees are fine and he's ready to help Villanova think long-term - all the way to the first weekend of April. His last basket against North Carolina put the Wildcats up 69-64 and had analyst Grant Hill raving: "How many times have we seen guys off the bench step in the finals and play big?!"
And that was on one bum knee.
With two good ones, Booth just may shine again in a title game.
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Updated September 14, 2017