Ford: Seniors lead Villanova to the one that got away last time

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Villanova’s Darryl Reynolds, center, kisses the trophy as Kris Jenkins, left, and Josh Hart, right, gather around while head coach Jay Wright is interviewed. Villanova won 74-60 over Creighton in the Big East Championship game at Madison Square Garden in NYC on March 11, 2017.

NEW YORK - In college basketball, the senior classes roll past quickly, with one season's heroes quickly becoming next season's alumni. It lasts only a moment, and the classes are remembered most for what the team accomplished with them as the senior figureheads at the front of the line.

It will be hard for any Villanova class to match the walk-off line delivered by last year's class that included Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu - with the possible exception of the 1985 class of Ed Pinckney, Dwayne McClain and Gary McLain - but the current group of seniors seems intent on joining the conversation.

Led by Josh Hart on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, this season's team finished off a mission that even eluded the Wildcats a year ago. Villanova easily handled Creighton, 74-60, to win the Big East Conference championship tournament for a third time in program history.

Up next is the long run of the NCAA tournament, although there are no guarantees how long the Wildcats will be running along with it. If the predictions are correct, Villanova will open play as the No. 1 seed in the East with a first weekend set of games in Buffalo, followed, if they advance, by the regional tournament back in New York City at the Garden.

That is even better a situation than the Wildcats had a year ago after they lost the Big East final to Seton Hall and had to settle for a No. 2 seed and no shot at playing the regional round in Philadelphia. New York isn't home, but Villanova has won big games in Madison Square Garden, including three this past week. It's pretty close to home.

Can Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Darryl Reynolds lead the team on another memorable ride, even one that approaches the one shepherded by Arcidiacono and Ochefu? Maybe, but the degree of difficulty is increased because they don't have a deep and experienced junior class behind them like the other guys did. Instead, the senior Wildcats are backed up by sophomores with a couple of freshmen sprinkled in.

Still, this group is going to be remembered fondly, no matter what happens. Coach Jay Wright wasn't sure the three players - the quiet Reynolds and the slightly goofy duo of Jenkins and Hart - would mature into the role of leaders, but that has never been a problem. They put on the shoes and wore them.

"Probably the greatest accomplishment of the three seniors is to be as young as they are and handle the notoriety and the success [of last year] and still be normal senior students," Wright said. "It's pretty amazing, but that's what those three have done best this season is be normal seniors."

Saturday night after the championship hats and shirts were handed out, after the trophy had been passed around among them in the center of the floor, Wright took the microphone and called his senior class "the three greatest seniors in college basketball." On this night, he had a pretty good point, the way things turned out.

As they did the night before against Seton Hall in the semifinal round, the Wildcats started slowly on the offensive end against Creighton in the final, and the game was still tied, 11-11, almost midway through the opening period.

Working against 7-foot center Justin Patton, Villanova didn't get many offensive rebounds and had to live with the shot selection choices they made. Early on, that didn't work very well and the Wildcats made just 4 of their first 11 shots from the floor and threw in four turnovers as well.

That's about when Hart began to assert himself. He scored his first basket of the game on a three-pointer to break that tie and would have 15 points by halftime. It took him 14 shots to get those 15 points, but he was the one who jump-started the energy at the offensive end.

At the other end, Creighton got skittish and committed eight turnovers in the final eight minutes of the half, including a stretch of five turnovers in six possessions when the Wildcats were able to fashion a 14-2 run to end the half.

Up by 14 at the break, Villanova just had to prevent Creighton from getting hot the way it had the previous night against Xavier. In that game, the Bluejays came back to win with an 18-for-25 second half from the field. Against Villanova's defense, Creighton didn't find the same room to operate and was never able to get into a smooth rhythm.

Hart kept up the pressure in the second half and he would finish with 29 points and the most valuable player award for the tournament. His point total tied Villanova's Big East record set in 1995 by Kerry Kittles. Jenkins scored 14 points. Reynolds had a quiet night offensively, but kept the defense solid inside while the Bluejays struggled to shoot from the perimeter.

"They are so accomplished and have done so much in their four years, but you wouldn't know it, the way they carry themselves," said sophomore Jalen Brunson, who finished with 17 points. "They're so humble and great seniors and great captains and we really look up to them."

Those are much the same words said a year ago about Arcidiacono and Ochefu. Whatever else the current seniors achieve or fail to achieve, they have earned the right to hear the words about themselves now. It's not everything - last year's seniors got to experience everything - but it's not nothing, either.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports