PITTSBURGH – Mikal Bridges reached the Villanova locker room on Saturday feeling rather poorly about the way he played – 0-for-5 shooting, one point – in the first half of the NCAA East Region second-round game against Alabama.
Once he entered the room, however, his teammates were there to rally him and keep him positive.
“They were just staying on me, ‘Attitude, just go out there, we know what we have to do,’ ” Bridges said after the game. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have played how I played.”
The way he played, for the opening 5 minutes, 31 seconds of the second half, was as remarkable as any Villanova player had shown all season. He scored 19 of his team’s first 21 points to enable the top-seeded Wildcats to break open a close game and cruise to an 81-58 victory over the Crimson Tide at PPG Paints Arena.
Villanova (32-4) reached the Sweet 16 for only the second time in its eight NCAA appearances since 2009, advancing to a matchup in the regional semifinals Friday night in Boston. The Cats will play the winner of Sunday night’s game in San Diego between No. 5 West Virginia and No. 13 Marshall.
Entering Saturday, the 6-foot-7 Bridges, a certain lottery pick in the NBA’s June draft, averaged 21.7 points in his last 10 game while shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor. He looked out of sorts in the first 20 minutes against Alabama, throwing up an air ball with his first three-point shot, having a layup blocked, and missing a rather easy layup.
His fortunes changed dramatically in the second half. Leading, 32-27, thanks in large part to 18 first-half points from Donte DiVincenzo, the Wildcats had the first possession and set up Bridges for a basket in the lane. On the second possession, he was fouled on a shot from deep and hit all three free throws.
After Phil Booth scored on a dunk, he lobbed an alley-oop pass that Bridges threw down. Bridges then knocked down four consecutive three-point baskets – one on a fallaway, off-balance shot – to give Villanova a 53-31 lead with 14:29 left. Jalen Brunson’s three-pointer then ended a 24-4 spurt in the opening six minutes.
“Coach was telling me to be aggressive and stay ready, play off your jump shot,” said Bridges, who finished with a game-high 23 points. “My teammates found me open, and I kept shooting.”
Coach Jay Wright saw Bridges’ teammates talking with him when he came into the locker room.
“We just told Mikal, ‘Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about your shots, just do what we do,’ ” Wright said. “Just do the little things, and he did. And, obviously, he got hot. But he was doing a lot of good things defensively at that time.”
The Wildcats battled early foul trouble, with Brunson and Omari Spellman each collecting two fouls and playing just 10 first-half minutes. The team shot 33.3 percent, and 20 of its 27 shots were from three-point range. If not for DiVincenzo, who went 6 of 10 in the half while his teammates were going 3 of 17, they might have been in a major hole.
But the Cats’ defense in the second half led to easier baskets and limited the Crimson Tide (20-16) to just 36 percent shooting. Freshman guard Collin Sexton scored a team-high 17 points but didn’t make an impact.
“In the second half, our defense picked up, got us out in transition,” Wright said. “That kind of opened up the game, got us some open looks. We were much better, obviously, in transition than we were against their half-court defense, which was very good.”
And so was Bridges.
“My teammates and coaches picked me up and kept confidence in myself to go out and just play how I play,” he said. “Just play good, old basketball.”