By Dan Gelston
AP Sports Writer
VILLANOVA, Pa. — Once Villanova’s band stopped playing its fight song, Jay Wright took over as pep rally conductor.
“Just for the hell of it, let’s do it,” he exhorted to nearly 2,000 fans.
“When I say, Nova, you say, ‘Nation!”
“Nation!” they screamed back at the head coach.
The Wildcats gave their fans plenty of reason to go wild through March Madness — and more fun is ahead.
The national champions were welcomed back Tuesday at the airport with a police escort that swept rush hour cars off the interstate and dispatched them to Villanova’s football stadium for a rally.
This was just a celebratory appetizer.
There’s a bigger bash ahead.
Villanova will get a championship parade Friday.
The parade in Philadelphia will cover five blocks of Market Street and end outside City Hall, skipping the city’s traditional athletic celebration route down Broad Street. The Phillies were the last major championship team to have a parade, in 2008.
Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer in the final second gave Villanova its second national title, following the stunner over Georgetown in 1985.
“I watched it quite a few times and every time it’s just like, wow, I can’t believe I was that open,” Jenkins said of his shot at the rally. “Then I can’t believe I made the shot. It’s crazy.”
Villanova had lost three times in the first weekend as a No. 1 or 2 seed since a Final Four run in 2009. Even the die-hards had little faith that the Big East champions could pull off a run all the way to the first weekend in April.
ESPN said Villanova was picked to win it all in only 2.56 percent of its NCAA brackets and that more users selected No. 16 Hampton to advance out of the first round than selected Villanova to win it all.
Now, this surprise champion has infused a dose of joy into the city sports scene.
A city yearning for a title from its disappointing big-bankroll pro teams — Eagles, Phillies, 76ers, Flyers — will fete a bunch of amateurs who don’t even play within city limits.
The 76ers’ last title, in 1983, ended a golden age in Philly sports during which the city teams won six championships in 23 years — the Eagles in 1960, the Sixers in 1967 and ‘83, the Flyers in 1974 and ‘75 and the Phillies in 1980.
Since ‘83, only the Phillies in ‘08 broke through and raised a championship banner.
Consider the bleakness in Philly, the Wildcats won six games over the tournament; the 76ers had only nine wins all season through Monday.
Philly fans can rejoice that Jenkins, Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson all accomplished what Donovan McNabb, Allen Iverson and Eric Lindros never could — bring home a championship.
Jenkins, Arch and the rest of the Wildcats had strands of net tied to their caps as they greeted fans. With three TV helicopters hovering overhead, Ochefu hoisted the trophy. Wright organized a championship photo on the stage with hundreds fans as the backdrop. He tweeted the photo with the caption, “NOVA NATION YOU ARE THE BEST!” He’s scheduled to take a congratulatory phone call from President Barack Obama on Wednesday.
The football scoreboard said it all: Villanova 77, Visitor 74.
Wright could have a future as a carnival barker if wants to retire from coaching.
“We’ve got a lot of heart! Josh Hart!” he said, introducing Hart to the crowd.
“Has everybody caught on to the nickname Big Smooth? We like that nickname? I love saying, Big Smoooooth,” Wright said.
Big Smooth is, of course, Jenkins who hit the Big Shot in the championship game.
Jenkins’ winner came on a play Villanova works on every day in practice: Jenkins inbounds to Arcidiacono, who works the ball up court. Ochefu sets a pick near halfcourt to clutter things up. Then Arcidiacono creates.
This time, the senior point guard made an underhanded flip to Jenkins, who spotted up a pace or two behind the arc and swished it with Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks running at him. Or, as Jenkins put it: “One, two step, shoot ‘em up, sleep in the streets.”
That was all it took.
Students rushed Monday night from Villanova’s arena, The Pavilion, onto a nearby commercial strip where pubs and restaurants festooned with balloons and banners were packed with revelers, ready to step things up.
“We love you!” Wright told the crowd. “You guys are the 2016 national champions!”