A baffling end to Villanova's baffling season
CLEVELAND - One coach, annoyed by his players' failure to follow his instructions, didn't bother calling a play in the final minute.
The other coach called a play in the huddle, and his players ran it with precision.
Guess which coach is advancing in the NCAA tournament?
George Mason's Jim Larranaga noticed his team was ignoring his careful instructions throughout Friday afternoon's game against Villanova. So, with the game on the line, Larranaga decided not to waste his breath.
"I figure if I call a play and they don't run it, I'll be upset," Larranaga said. "I figured I'll leave it in the players' hands."
That's how Luke Hancock came to be charging through the lane toward the basket. He had the ball but not a plan. Villanova's best defensive player, Corey Stokes, did precisely what he'd been coached to do. He forced Hancock to go to his left. Instead, Hancock surprised Stokes, Larranaga, the crowd, and very likely himself. He stepped back and hit a three-point shot that gave the Patriots a 59-57 lead with 21 seconds left.
With nine seconds left, Jay Wright gathered his team around him after Villanova gained possession on a critical held ball as the referees went to the replay monitor. He called a play designed to free Stokes along the left baseline.
"They walked out of that huddle believing we would make that shot to win the game," Wright said. "If you look at this game, we executed everything perfectly."
Mouphtaou Yarou set a screen. Stokes popped out. He caught Corey Fisher's pass, faked a three-point attempt to get the defender to commit, then stepped up to take a jump shot. The ball hit the side of the backboard.
"I had a good look," Stokes said. "I just missed the shot."
"We got a great, great play for Stokes and a shot that he normally knocks down," Fisher said. "And it didn't drop."
Thus ended Villanova's mystifying and disappointing season. The Wildcats were the better team, as they were in several of the five consecutive losses that preceded this one. They had a double-digit lead in the first half. In the final minutes, they simply couldn't make a single one of the five or six plays that would have secured the win.
Wright has been asked a thousand questions about why this team fell apart over the second half of the season. There is something missing, but the coach can't or, more likely, won't say what he thinks it is. It is more important for him to show his younger players that he will have their backs than it is to explain how this senior class lost 11 of its last 16 games.
"Wins and losses-wise, when people question whether we should have been better, I can't argue that," Wright said. "I really can't. . . . In our program, we talk about each class' legacy. This class has been to the Sweet Sixteen, Final Eight and Final Four. But they endured a really tough season that would have crumbled a lot of guys personally."
There was a kind of aura around the Villanova teams that made deep tournament runs over the last few years, a kind of magical quality. Call it chemistry or destiny or whatever, this team simply did not have it. And Wright could not find a way to light that spark, no matter how many buttons he pushed.
"I'm glad I'm not a pro coach, because as a pro coach, I probably would get fired for this season," Wright said.
He might have been kidding. But it's true there isn't the same pressure for a college coach as there would be in the NBA, at least not in Philadelphia. Tennessee's Bruce Pearl may join Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt and some others who ran out of time this season. In this pro-centric city, all but the most rabid fans have some perspective when it comes to the colleges.
That is the upside that offsets the downside of trying to coach 18-, 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds.
"It's just kids," Wright said. "You don't know if the kid - if his girlfriend broke up with him last night. You just don't know. All you can do is just put them in that position and give them confidence. I know they had confidence. I look at how they missed the shots."
Yarou and Antonio Pena missed important free throws in the final minutes. They are perhaps the last two players Wright would want taking those shots.
"Our Final Four year," Wright said, "those things didn't happen. The right guy goes to the foul line."
Larranaga plays a hunch, doesn't call timeout, and his guy hits an improbable three-pointer. Wright, with no timeouts left, gets a break on a held ball, draws up a perfect play, and his guy hits the side of the backboard.
It made no sense, which made this game the perfect way for Villanova's puzzling and infuriating season to end.