Man down: Villanova’s Justin Moore copes with missing the Final Four

(Photo by Shawn Krest / North State Journal)

NEW ORLEANS — Two hours before the 2022 Final Four tipped off, Villanova’s Justin Moore was already dressed for the game.

The junior, who was the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer this season, wore a brand new white Nike basketball shoe on his left foot. The right was bare, except for several layers of gauze bandage wrapped around it and presumably running up his leg.

It’s every college player’s dream to lead his team to the Final Four, and Moore came within 36.6 seconds of making it a reality. With just over half a minute left in Sunday’s 50-44 win over Houston to earn a spot in the sport’s final weekend, Moore was dribbling out the clock. He made a move toward the basket, planted his left foot and his right leg didn’t respond. He fell awkwardly to his side as his team’s medical staff rushed to him.

“I thought the ref had tripped me up,” he said. “That’s what it felt like.”

There was no ref, or anyone else, behind him, and that was bad news indeed for Moore and Villanova.

“That right there shows you,” he said. “That’s usually what they say it feels like — like somebody kicked you in the back of the leg.”

The “it” in question was a torn Achilles tendon. An MRI would confirm the diagnosis the next day, but it was fairly clear from the moment it happened.

“The recovery process is usually around six to nine months, they say, before you can come back and play. Maybe longer,” he said. “After two weeks I get this unwrapped and get a split.”

Then he can start walking. It’ll be about three months before he can try to jog.

(Photo by Shawn Krest / North State Journal)

College sports are a tough business, and injuries are always a part of it. Coaches and players refer to the “next man up” mentality. When someone gets hurt, it’s a chance for someone else to shine. But while people focus on the next man up, it’s easy to forget about the last man who got left behind.

Moore won’t be playing in the Final Four — not this year. And the start of next season is far from assured. He didn’t travel to New Orleans with the team. He missed media day on Friday and flew down Saturday morning with coach Jay Wright’s children.

All of it gone in the amount of time a fourth-grader can hold his breath — just a little longer than a shot-clock violation.

“It was pretty nerve-wracking,” he said. “We’re winning the game. You’re playing great basketball as a team. We’re going into the Final Four. I had no idea this was going to happen.

“People saw me crying and stuff like that,” he said. “It was all about emotions going through at the moment.”

Some of the top players in the NBA felt for Moore. He got a FaceTime call from Kevin Durant, who saw his Achilles pop in the 2019 NBA Finals.

“I wasn’t expecting it,” he said. “I was in the hospital, still a little bit on the medicine. That snapped me out of it quick.”

He also heard from Draymond Green and San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich.

When the final 36.6 seconds ticked off the clock, Moore’s Villanova teammates didn’t jump around the court in celebration as most teams do when they earn their spot in championship weekend. Instead, they rushed to the side of their fallen teammate to celebrate with him.

“It was great for me personally,” he said. “I needed people by my side. I was feeling hurt and down at the moment. Hearing those encouraging words, about how they loved me and cared for me and had my back, it really helped.”

Now his teammates are moving on without him, at least on the court.

“I’ll be on the bench for the game,” he said. “I won’t be able to get up and be in the huddle, but I’ll be out there during warmups.”

And, unlike when he’s suited up for his team, nerves will be a factor.

“When I’m playing, I don’t get nervous. I’m confident,” he said. “It’s kind of awkward. I’m nervous now that I’m not playing. I know our guys are ready, but being on the sideline not able to contribute makes me a little bit nervous.”

As his teammates were stretching and dressing for the game in the locker room across the hall, and murmuring from rapidly filling Kansas and Villanova student sections in the seating bowl were audible, Moore placed his injured leg on a scooter and wheeled himself down the concourse, hopping in step with his good leg.

“I thought the referee tripped me up,” he repeated, as if trying to speak it into existence.

(Photo by Shawn Krest / North State Journal)