In the closest finale in years, Nicole beat your boy Paul on Big Brother 18 on the final vote, and she's just as surprised as you are by her narrow victory.

"Paul came out guns blazing with his speech. I was like, 'Crap!' I didn't have much prepared," Nicole tells TVGuide.com. "I am surprised it came down to the last vote. It was very cool how it was back-and-forth and I definitely didn't think it was going to be my name on the last key."

The Season 16 alum, who became the first woman to beat a man in the final two, gained the votes of Corey (duh), Natalie, Paulie, Zakiyah and Da'Vonne, whose key was the last to be revealed, while Paul had the support of James, Victor (duh), Michelle and Bridgette. Nicole is still not sure what pushed her over the edge for the win, especially being a vet.

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"That's what I'm curious about," she says. "It was very difficult coming back. People might think it's an advantage, but people knew my game. I had a target on my back right away. I had to go through a lot of obstacles, but I don't really know. I think people just appreciated that I was very strategic and didn't play emotionally at all maybe. I have no idea."

The $500,000 appeared to be Paul's to lose after he stormed through the final week, winning the last four comps in which he was eligible to play and delivering one helluva convincing speech about his bonafides. "I'm a little surprised it came down to that [one vote]," he says. "I was very confident. I thought I would win. I won throughout the entire end and I strategically played in the beginning of the game. I don't know what's better than being an underdog, being someone who's probably going to be evicted the first two weeks to winning his way to the top. I think there was a little bit of a bitter jury, but it's fine. There's nothing I could've done."

Or was there? He has the choice of who to take to the final two and, after making deals with both of them, took Nicole over James, whose floater status would've practically guaranteed Paul the win.

"I thought that I would win either way, but I don't know now if I would've won next to him either," Paul says. "But I don't regret anything I did. I would do it all again and even more crazy. For once in my life, I am not pissed! I am happy. I came out of this game with the same personality. I'm honestly feeling great. Based on all the interviews [I've done], people expect me to be more sad. Did you not hear me all season? It's a game. I had a good time. I talked a lot of sh--. I had fun. I stayed true to myself. This is who I am and if I wasn't meant to win this game as who I am, then I am not going to change myself to win it. I'll take 50 grand and my pride and walk out the door."

Before you give Paul grief for not taking James to the final two, know this: Nicole says she wouldn't have taken James either. "I would've taken Paul. One hour before the show, I had a heart-to-heart with Paul and I said, 'My heart wants to take you. My head wants to take James. Convince me to take you.' He convinced me to take him. And I think that's why I was so chill in the last comp because I just said, 'Whatever happens is meant to happen,'" she says. "The fact that I didn't have Corey in the house this week, I cried in that DR a ton because I kept saying, 'I want to take Paul.' And today I decided to take Paul and if I lost to Paul, I was going to be so content because I thought he played a great game and he deserved to at least sit in the final two."

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So what does the rest of the cast and Julie Chen think about the tight finish and Paul's half-a-million choice (mistake?)? See what they say below.

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Julie Chen:
I am not surprised it was so close because when I was doing my calculations with every calculation of who made it to the final two, when I had it as Nicole versus Paul, the only sure thing I knew was that Victor was going to vote for Paul and Corey was voting for Nicole. Honestly, coming into the live show tonight, I thought Paul was going to win no matter who he was against, but after I heard how they answered those questions from the jury — that stuff really counts at the end. If you have the power to persuade — and Paul knows how to talk — his answers were not great and he didn't show any remorse for Natalie's questions. You gotta apologize.

If he wanted to win, he should've taken James. James was probably more well liked, but at the end of the day, I think this jury was ready to put their hurt feelings and egos at the door and vote for the person who earned it. Even James voted for Paul after Paul evicted him.

James: I voted for Paul because he didn't know anything about the game when he came on. He didn't know what a Veto was, what a Coup d'etat was, what a Pandora's Box was. He was just new, fresh of the gate. He was volume button was broken at 10. I was like, "That guy is going to be voted out Week 1." And the fact that he survived the block six times, no one tried to take a stab at him, and any time I tried to take him out, no one wanted to. He made it all the way to final two, so I gotta give the kid props. Nicole was a vet. She knew what she was doing. I felt like he definitely deserved to beat her and I thought he was going to take it.

I don't know what would've happened if he took me. If I had won [the final HOH], I would've taken Nicole. She's a vet. This might be our last time on Big Brother and Paul might have another shot. You never know. Expect the unexpected. Nicole never really went against me in the show.

Corey: I could not be happier for my girl Nicole. I knew it was going to be close. I had a gut feeling she would pull it out. She deserves it. If Paul wanted to win, he should've taken James. I absolutely believe so. I'm not sure what he was thinking, but he still won second place, 50 grand.

Victor: Once I heard that he took Nicole, I was like, "Ugh, this is gonna be tough." My boy made a bad move! I don't know what he was thinking! I really don't. That's not to throw shade on Nicole because she's a great competitor, but he had the choice at the end of who to pick. If he had picked James, he probably would've been a shoo-in. Nicole — he threw the dice on that. I think he failed as soon as he went on that stage. He should've taken James.

We talked about that before I was leaving. I told him I would take James and he told me straight-up he would take Nicole, just because he thought the jury might be bitter towards Nicole because she was the last girl and the majority of the jury was girls. But props to Nicole. She did the strategy thing and she won comps along the way, but I would've loved to have seen my boy Paul win.

Natalie: I couldn't believe how close it was. I really honestly wanted a girl to win this season. I respected Nicole's game. She covered up her mistake throughout and made it pretty seamlessly under the radar. She never hit the block until last week. Paul was a great game player. He just made a lot of messes, he had a big mouth and he hit the block a lot of times, so I voted for Nicole.

In my final week, I went up to [Paul] and I told him he and Victor had my final if they made it to final two - obviously not over James - and he made fun of me for it and he went behind my back and didn't believe it and just really pooped on me. When I heard he was pooping on me, I decided he lost my final two vote. Sorry, Paul, it was your own mouth that got you this vote. If he wanted to win, honestly, he might've had a better chance against James for sure. He definitely made a mistake taking Nicole. At the end of the day, Nicole won and I'm happy for her. And a girl beat a guy. Girl power! Finally!

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Michelle: I knew it was going to be close. It was 50-50. It all depended on Day, I knew that. I do think Paul played a better game, but at the end of the day, she won. It is what it is. She got five votes and Paul only got four. I think Paulie that was on the fence, but he was more friends with Nicole and so was Zakiyah. Paul could've easily taken James. He would've swept it. James played a great game, but I know we all feel Paul played a better game. He was crying and I kind of wanted to shed a few tears for him too.

Paulie: I am shocked. This was probably one of the hardest final twos. Both of them played the game amazingly. It was tough. For me, I was sitting there weighing both of them and I realized Nicole made it through all these competitive dudes who were just crushing the game. She did it. I think they both nailed it and it could've went either way. Paul, 100 percent, he should've taken James. You always got to take the floater. I'm reliving moments of BB16 — Cody had the opportunity.

Bridgette: I wasn't quite sure which way the votes would fall. I didn't even know who I was [going to be] voting for until I was up on the stage and I decided. I had no idea. If James had been there, then I knew for sure I was going to pick the other person, to be honest, just because I think both Paul's and Nicole's gameplay were so impressive. It would've been best for either of them to take James. I think that was really silly. It was sort of an honor thing. He said it — taking whoever was the most honest — but I honestly think he would've won had he not taken Nicole.

Zakiyah: I'm happy Nicole got it. I was always going to vote for Nicole. That was a given. She seemed to be loyal to me — I don't know how it's going to be after the show. She's my girl. It was a done deal. She was getting my vote regardless. I'm not surprised he took James. I think he thought his boys were going to have him. He was wrong. I still love Paul. My girl won! I'm so proud.

Da'Vonne: America, don't hate me! I didn't think it was going to come down to me. I thought Julie was going to pull [my key] first. I love Paul with all of my heart, but it's not a popularity contest. He played a great game, but you've got to give credit where credit is due. I chose her because I liked Nicole's gameplay from the inside — I don't know what she was doing on the outside. In her season, she got burned and she came in here with the mindset of "I'm not going to get burned again." She was a different person. She came to win. I was so pissed he didn't take James. I guess he thought the people in the jury house would hate her so much that they wouldn't vote for her.

Frank: I was actually more surprised by the way Paulie voted for Nicole and James voted for Paul. I expected the votes to go the other way and Nicole still would've won, but it's always exciting to see a close vote, a photo finish, as they say. Paul absolutely should've taken James. That was a mistake for sure. From what I've heard, he was trying to do the right thing. It doesn't really make sense to me. Unless it's somebody you're in a close alliance with and that's your ride-or-die — they weren't that close, so I'm not sure why he made that decision.

Tiffany: Between those two, I thought it would be a toss-up for sure. I would've voted for Nicole. Both of them played very different games and Paul played a very aggressive game. He was constantly fighting for his life, but in my opinion, if you have to be constantly fighting for your life, you're not doing something correct. Nicole was more passive, but at the same time, she was aggressive when she needed to be. If he had taken James, he would've won. I don't know what he was thinking. Maybe he was thinking that a girl had never beaten a guy or that the jury doesn't like Nicole. I don't think he's seen all the seasons.

Bronte: I wanted to see a girl win, but at the same time, Paul was an underdog the entire season. Somebody who actually supported Jozea actually getting to the finale is shocking. I do think it's time a girl won over a guy. I think Paul would've hands-down won against James and I think if he really wanted to win, he would've taken James. I think he felt in his gut maybe Nicole deserved it, but that's not Big Brother. He should've James, but I think he struggled with giving James $50,000. He'd rather have lost to Nicole. I honestly thought Paul would win over anyone.

Glenn: I'm surprised at who Paul picked and I'm surprised at who won. It's almost like a Cody situation. Cody shouldn't have taken Derrick because he would've won hands-down. Same thing. I have no clue why he took Nicole. I can't wait to see him, take a shot and slap him in the head and say, "What the hell are you doing?" James played a horrible game this season so it would've been an easy one. From what I did see, I was like, "Why wouldn't you take him?" I would've voted for Paul. That's my boy. I'm really shocked.

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