Hart puts his soul into Villanova's win over Marquette

NEW YORK - Barely 6 minutes into its quarterfinal game of the Big East Tournament yesterday, Villanova had built a double-digit lead over upset-minded Marquette. This was precisely the formula Jay Wright had preached to his top-seeded team beforehand, the easiest way to cut the legs from under a tired, upset-oriented team before adrenaline could do its magic.

Defend the arc, where Marquette had lived the night before against Seton Hall. Rebound, make threes in transition. Gas them.

Except that, suddenly, the formula wasn't working. A couple of turnovers, a couple of threes, a couple of stomps (and maybe a couple of naughty words) by the Wildcats coach, and quickly it was an 18-16 game, and the Golden Eagles looked anything but tired.

"I was worried," Wright said about the change of fortune. "We had a bad mixture out there on the court for what they were doing."

So Wright called a timeout and pulled out the old 3-in-One Oil. Back into the game went the appropriately named Josh Hart, the Big East's Sixth Man of the Year, a player Wright said "brings so much to us."

Hart rebounded a miss, got the ball back, drained a three. The 'Cats pressured Marquette into a turnover, and Hart pumped in another three. A missed jumper, a run-out, and there was Hart on the other end for a layup. His tight man-to-man on Marquette spark plug Matt Carlino led to another miss and another run-out. And another Hart trey.

The score was 29-16 before Marquette knew what hit it, and before Wright could operate like a maestro tuned only to the sound he hears and not one particular instrument.

Eleven straight points, at least on this team, gets you a seat on the bench.

"Is that what he had?" Wright said afterward when asked why.

And then, with a grin:

"He gets tired sometimes."

He doesn't, really, or at least not that you can tell. When Villanova finished dismantling the rebuilding Eagles, 84-49 - tag-teaming them with their depth the way those old WWE bad guys used to do it - Hart had played as many or more minutes than four of the five starters, filling up the score sheet until it looked like a pile of lottery tickets. Twenty points, five of seven threes. Three rebounds, three assists, a block, a couple of steals; three turnovers, too.

"Josh learned how to play hard before he knew he was good," his father, Moses Hart, told the Washington Post a few years ago. "Playing hard is the only thing he knows and now he has a confidence to go with it."

There's a great backstory about that confidence that goes like this: A native of Silver Spring, Md., Hart was barely 6 feet and largely overlooked by the name-brand schools of his area - DeMatha, Gonzaga, Montrose Christian. When, as a sophomore, he finally transferred out of public school and into Sidwell Friends - the school President Obama's daughters attend - it was because they were interested in upgrading their basketball program more than he was interested in upgrading his academic program.

Despite starring on the court in his first year there, Hart was, in his words, "kicked out" because of poor grades and a perceived apathy toward the school and the rules of the institution. He was all set to transfer into basketball-crazy Montrose Christian, and might have, too, if not for a contingent of students and parents who petitioned for one last chance, and one parent in particular who voluntarily tutored him for hours that summer.

None of them mentioned or cared about basketball or whether he played. They just liked him.

"I was actually just thinking about that yesterday," Hart said after the game. "Thinking about that whole journey. Thinking about the people who were around me . . . Because it wasn't just basketball. It was off the court. It really humbled me. Showed me just how much I have to improve. Not just on the basketball court, but as a man in real life.

"It built me into the man I think I am now."

That man, if any college sophomore can be called that, already has developed a reputation for making big plays in big moments in games, of jolting his team at critical junctures with his energetic play and of accepting his role as first man off the bench as a badge of honor, not a blemish.

And of playing the moment, of living in the present. Hart's game wasn't perfect yesterday. There were those three turnovers; he heard it from Wright when he failed to secure a rebound. But one of those turnovers didn't cost the 'Cats a thing, because Hart hustled back immediately and stole the ball back.

"I wasn't really worried about the turnover. It happens. It's basketball," Hart said. "But how are you going to respond after you turn the ball over? After you make that mistake? I think that's something the coaches emphasize, too. Something the whole team is good at. Forget about what just happened and go on to the next play. Play for your teammates."

Villanova tied a Big East Tournament record yesterday with 17 threes. The Wildcats also finished with 22 assists. Five players had at least nine points, eight had at least 18 minutes of playing time. It was a celebration of team basketball, start to finish, and it was, as is so usual, triggered by the kid who acknowledges playing every play, "with a chip on my shoulder."

"So, he's the perfect sixth man," Wright said.

"Except that he probably won't be a sixth man next year."

 


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