The phrase, “You never know what’s going to happen in college basketball on any given night” may sound like a cliché, but it certainly applies if you follow Villanova.
Last week on its home court at the Pavilion, the Wildcats played even with Pittsburgh for much of the game before the Panthers crushed them with a 15-0 run in the final five minutes. Three days later at Providence, the Wildcats played decently but fouled too much, turned the ball over too much and wound up losing a winnable game.
So taking those two games into account, one went into Tuesday night feeling Villanova didn’t have a chance against Louisville. The fifth-ranked Cardinals, a legitimate Final Four contender, own a pressing defense that suffocates a team that is skittish in handling the basketball, and possess one of the best backcourt tandems in the nation.
But when the buzzer sounded, and some in the crowd of 11,887 stormed the court at the Wells Fargo Center, the scoreboard read, “Villanova 73, Louisville 64.”
The Wildcats committed 19 turnovers but shot almost 46 percent from the field and 48 percent from three-point territory. They forced 17 turnovers and the Cardinals helped greatly by making only half of their 24 free throws, including a 7-for-18 second half.
While Louisville guard Peyton Siva had 15 points and 13 assists in the loss, backcourt mate Russ Smith, the conference's third-leading scorer, shot just 2 of 13 and scored eight points.
The interesting thing about the game was, the Wildcats came up with a signature win on the anniversary of two other great victories. It was their first win over a top-five team since defeating No. 3 Syracuse on Jan. 22, 2011. It was the first time an unranked ‘Nova team beat a top-five team since an upset over No. 2 Kansas on Jan. 22, 2005.
So where does Tuesday night’s win rank?
“When you’re the coach, you always look at how it affects your team when you rank wins,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “When we beat Kansas here when they were No. 2, that was so big for our team. It was a breakthrough win. There were other big wins but for that team, that was big.
“I think this one was big for this group of guys. I’m getting older and I’ve been in a lot of these. But it’s big for them. It’s their first one. So it’s really important for them and it makes me enjoy it a lot more.”
The win also gave the Wildcats (12-7, 3-3 Big East) some much-needed confidence and momentum going into Saturday’s brunch rematch (11 a.m.) against No. 3 Syracuse at the Wells Fargo Center. The Orange defeated ‘Nova, 72-61, on Jan. 12 at the Carrier Dome.
“The guys understand how to find the game,” Wright said, “how to play the final possessions defensively, how to get loose balls, how to get rebounds, and also how to attack pressure … not play to try to be perfect, play to be aggressive and confident.”
Nova notes. When the Wildcats finished the first half with a 30-28 lead, it marked the sixth time in their six Big East games that they’ve been ahead at the break. In their three straight losses prior to Tuesday night, they had been outscored in the second half by a total of 126-87. … Villanova improved to 9-0 this season when it knocks down at least six three-point baskets. It was 7-of-16 against Louisville. … The win broke a four-game losing streak at the Wells Fargo Center. The Wildcats are 34-32 overall in South Philadelphia and 22-28 in the Big East. … The stretch of games against Louisville and Syracuse marks the first time ‘Nova has had back-to-back regular-season games against top-five teams since Feb. 10 and 13, 1988 when they lost to top-ranked Temple at McGonigle Hall and to No. 5 Pitt at the Pavilion.