BOSTON – When Villanova beat West Virginia in the NCAA tournament round of 16 on Friday night, advancing to Sunday’s game with Texas Tech for a trip to San Antonio, four of the five Wildcats starters scored in double figures, accounting for 75 of their 90 points.
This is a story about the other starter, the guy who might have actually won the game.
“We have so many guys who can shoot the ball,” guard Phil Booth said Saturday. “Me going 1 for 6 is no big deal. Look how many guys had big nights.”
Big in the box score is one thing. Big on the court is another. Coach Jay Wright handed Booth two of the hardest jobs against West Virginia and didn’t worry all that much about either.
“He started out guarding [WVU star guard Jevon] Carter and did a great job,” Wright said. “He inbounded the ball every possession against their press, which is an incredible challenge against West Virginia. It’s very difficult decision-making.”
Booth added six defensive rebounds to go along with working against Carter, who shot just 5 for 16 from the field, and delivering the ball safely inbounds against pressure that defines West Virginia’s defense.
“It looks like nobody’s open. We practiced all week with six defenders against five to simulate the length and athleticism they have,” Booth said. “We had to get used to nobody being open. You have to trust your teammates to come back and meet the ball. You have a clock in the back of your head, and I got to four a few times.”
He never got to five, though, and neither did the official. The Wildcats did commit 16 turnovers in the game, above their average, but the Mountaineers never took them out of their game.
“Phil’s got great experience and makes good decisions. We love him for that,” Jalen Brunson said. “We don’t worry about whether he’s scoring or not. Nothing matters except playing for each other.”
For a stretch of seven games from late January to mid-February while Booth was out with a broken bone in his left hand, the Wildcats had to play without the junior. In some ways, that was beneficial, Wright thought, because he was forced to give more playing time and experience to bench players, but there was no replacing Booth.
“If you’re lucky, you have a guy like this on your team that everybody respects as a player, but they really love him off the court. He’s just one of those guys that is always about the team,” Wright said. “So, it was a big loss for us in the locker room, on the court, in practice.”
Booth’s path has always been interesting, but never direct. He was Big Five rookie of the year as a freshman following the 2014-15 season, then really blossomed as a sophomore — a season that was capped by 20 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the field in the national championship win over North Carolina.
Three games into his junior season, he was sidelined by left-knee inflammation, and he eventually red-shirted the remainder of last season. This season, he resumed his role as a starter and became a double-digit scorer for the first time, although, as he suggested, he had plenty of company on the leading offensive team in the nation.
“It doesn’t matter as long as you take the right shots,” Booth said. “I don’t care if some people think I might be overlooked on this team. We have so many great players, anyone can go for 25 any night. You just try to take pride in making sure everyone is connected as a unit and try to be a vocal leader on the court.”
The challenge continues Sunday, with a berth in the Final Four on the line against Texas Tech. It is another team that, like West Virginia, brings physicality that must be answered. Booth will be given the dirtiest jobs, because he can be counted on to answer, and if the shots fall, that’s a bonus.
“He just lives for us,” Wright said. “He does get overlooked, you know. I mean, the guy scored 20 in a national championship game, and it doesn’t bother him if he has a 1 for 6 night, as long as he gets six rebounds and we win. It’s a rare breed in sports these days, and we’re lucky to have him.”
Luck is always part of the equation, and that’s the case for Villanova, just as there is more to the box score than the numbers everyone looks at first.