For Villanova seniors, loss won't be their lasting legacy

NCAA Villanova Wisconsin Basketball
Villanova guard Jalen Brunson (1), guard Donte DiVincenzo (10) and forward Kris Jenkins (2) leave the court after their loss to Wisconsin in a second-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 18, 2017, in Buffalo, N.Y.

BUFFALO - For most classes, losing three times in four years as either a one or two seed in the second round of the NCAA tournament would leave far too much scar tissue.

For the Villanova seniors, it wasn't supposed to end this way. Just like it wasn't supposed to end the way it did in 2014 and again in 2015. Now you can add Wisconsin to Connecticut and North Carolina State. But for these Wildcats, the early exits won't be their lasting legacy. Not even close.

That's because last March they helped take us on the ride of a generation. It's the ultimate trump card. And while the pain is considerable in this not-so-shining moment - since they wanted this journey and their careers to continue as long as possible - it shouldn't ruin their reunions. If it even comes up.

"It's obviously tough to swallow," said national player of the year candidate Josh Hart, who had 19 points but five turnovers, including the decisive one in the closing seconds, in the 65-62 loss to the Badgers at KeyBank Center. "Nothing really shocks me in the NCAA tournament. It's March Madness for a reason . . .

"We're competitors. We want to win every game. But we have bonds that will never be broken. And we've had the best four years we could ever dream of. The program's in a great place. That's something we're more proud of than the victories or anything like that."

This team lost one fewer game than last year's champions. The seniors were part of a program-record 129 wins. They won four Big East regular-season titles and two conference tournaments. And, of course, they cut down the nets 11 months ago in Houston, which is forever.

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"I'm proud that this team got to this point," said coach Jay Wright, who played the season without two starters, one injured and the other not eligible for reasons that hardly matter anymore. "This is crushing. You have to deal with it. There's nothing to feel good about. But I think this is going to [go down as] the greatest class in Villanova history, I really do.

"Because of how they performed on the court. But they're also beloved on campus. They're great representatives of our university. They're humble guys. That's just as important to us . . . Thank God I had them for four years.

"It's hard to think about all that right now. I'd be lying if I said I had great visions of the last four years as I'm standing here. I know I will. Now I just feel for them. It's part of life. They'll be successful men after basketball. But this isn't fun."

Center Darryl Reynolds was so emotional he could barely speak. Still, his words were strong.

"I'll remember the relationships," he said, through moist eyes. "We never talked about the numbers. That wasn't the focus. The last four years wasn't all us. We can't take full responsibility. We were part of some great teams. We had great leaders who showed us how to do it. That's what it's about.

"And then it was our turn to give back."

Sophomore Jalen Brunson, already one of the country's top point guards, will likely be returning to a team that should be very good again.

"They're like my big brothers," he said of the seniors. "I love them. And it has nothing to do with what they do on the court. They've taught me so much. I could care less about the loss. We were always together. I'm going to miss them."

Added Kris Jenkins, whose three-pointer to beat North Carolina in the finals will be replayed for as long as they're holding this tournament: "It's always tough to walk off the court after a loss. Right now, it sucks. But we know that we have each other for life."

Just like they'll always have Houston.