BOSTON – The game wasn’t pretty, but Villanova won it to advance to college basketball’s Final Four, and, despite more than two hours of intense coaching, Jay Wright was still impeccably dressed and perfectly coiffed as he came down the hallway to join his team in the victorious locker room.
“Coach, we waited for you. We want to pray with you,” junior Mikal Bridges said as he met Wright at the door, and the coach could see the players in a circle, arms locked together, waiting for him. What he didn’t see, however, was the water bottles in their hands, caps removed.
“We got him really well,” guard Phil Booth said. “Messing up his hair and his suit is a pretty big deal, but I think he’ll take it this time.”
It’s not often that Wright’s hair is messed up in public, or his suit dripping and wrinkled from a dousing, but it also isn’t often that one of the most prolific offensive teams in the country is nearly shut down and has to win the biggest game of the season with a defense that developed only late in the season.
That’s what happened as Villanova beat Texas Tech, 71-59, on Sunday in the TD Garden to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament’s final weekend for the second time in three years. The Wildcats won the national championship in 2016 and now have the opportunity to win another. For a relatively small private school that competes against the biggest schools in the country, it is quite an accomplishment.
“When you realize you made it through the final eight, and you’re going to go, you just feel so blessed,” Wright said. “You think, ‘Why me?’ You know there are a lot of great teams out there, a lot of great programs. You don’t really try to figure out why. … You just soak it in.”
There were a number of reasons why it didn’t have to happen for Villanova on Sunday. The Wildcats have now played 38 games this season, and the game against Texas Tech marked their lowest shooting percentage in any of them. The Red Raiders actually had more field goals, 20-19, thanks to a concerted effort by Texas Tech to guard the perimeter ferociously and take away Villanova’s three-point shooting weapon. The Wildcats would make just four three-pointers on 24 attempts in the game.
“They forced us to play an ugly game and forced us to win by trying to get to the foul line, and getting [rebounds] on the offensive glass,” Wright said. “They challenged us, and I’m really proud of the way our guys met that challenge. When you’re a good shooting team, your ego can get in the way, and it didn’t get in our way.”
Uncharacteristically, Villanova outrebounded Texas Tech, 51-33, and collected 20 offensive rebounds on their frequent misses. They also got the ball to the basket area, drew fouls and were able to convert 29 of 35 free throws. Their 15-point advantage over Tech at the line accounted for the margin of victory and then some.
At the other end of the floor, Villanova’s defense kept Texas Tech from shooting well – just 33.3 percent for the game – and the Wildcats were able to guard aggressively without sending the Red Raiders to the line too often.
Playing in the high-tempo Big East Conference, Villanova had the highest scoring offense in the nation this season. But Wright and his coaching staff thought that the defense was slipping and knew the team would eventually run into tough, physical opponents that would challenge their offense.
“We were not a good defensive team most of the year. At some point, we said we’ve got to go back to the basics, and these guys really bought in,” Wright said. “We were afraid we might run out of time.”
“Coach really did challenge us to be a better team defensively,” guard Jalen Brunson said. “We had the opportunity to keep getting better every practice, even in late February and March. If we keep winning, we have a chance to keep getting better. That’s what ‘survive and advance’ means to us.”
If they also find a way to survive their next game, there are only a total of two games left for this particular group to keep improving. Those will be played in the Alamodome in San Antonio in front of 70,000 fans, with the national semifinals on Saturday night and the championship on Monday night.
It might be that Villanova will have to win again with defense and rebounding, fooling the experts who always insist the Wildcats rise and fall solely on their outside shooting. If that happens, though, they probably won’t be able to fool the coach again with the water bottle routine. He’s a quick study.
“It’s OK,” Wright said Sunday. “I’m soaked. I’m freezing, but I’m proud of it.”