BOSTON — Villanova’s margin had hit the precarious stage late when point guard Jalen Brunson, getting back on defense, yelled out the same word … once, twice, three times. Brunson turned around in case big man Omari Spellman, defending behind Brunson, couldn’t hear, yelled it a fourth time.
Simply yelling out the word tough does not make it so. Texas Tech coach Chris Beard saw more than enough Sunday afternoon to locate a defining characteristic of the 2017-18 Final Four-bound Villanova Wildcats.
This coach from the South Plains of Texas, who had apprenticed under Bob Knight for almost a decade, accustomed to the occasional dust storm rolling through Lubbock, looked all at these East Coast boys and declared their identity was … toughness and physicality — “and that proved to be true,’’ Beard added.
The final score was 71-59, but this will go down as the year Villanova won an NCAA Elite Eight game while shooting 33.3 percent, 16.7 percent on three-pointers.
If the Wildcats had offered Texas Tech a little window to see an upset, the reality of it turned out to be so far off in the distance.
“You know, we got some good shots, but they were all contested,’’ Beard said after his own group had matched Villanova with 33.3 percent shooting.
You want a statistic that really mattered? With 15 minutes to go in the game, Villanova had gotten the offensive rebound on 50 percent of their misses.
… Wait, Donte DiVincenzo grabbed another one. Make that 52 percent.
“From our standpoint, on the basketball side of this deal, we really got whipped on the boards,’’ Beard said. “We haven’t gotten out-rebounded like that all year.”
Didn’t matter who was out there for Villanova, either. Omari Spellman picked up his second foul and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree took over inside, grabbing five first-half offensive boards, two more than the entire Texas Tech team. Eric Paschall made some huge plays. The beat went on. At the very end of the first half, Phil Booth was the only Villanova player on the floor who had played in the 2016 national title game.
Beyond shooting numbers, dig into the stat sheet more to confirm how ugly this whole thing was. With 9 minutes left, Texas Tech had made 6 of 20 layups. Villanova was only 4 of 10 at that point on their one-inch shots.
Texas Tech gave up nothing in the toughness category. Star guard Keenan Evans revealed only after this game that he had been playing with a broken big toe for the last six weeks, will now get surgery. Villanova guarded Evans with their tallest outside defenders always on him, offering little shooting room. He might not remember he was his team’s high scorer, since that meant 12 points, on 3-of-14 shooting, 0-for-4 from beyond the arc.
At the other end, Brunson, named outstanding player of this region, was his usual handful, taking defenders down low, hard dribbling while gaining space inch by inch, almost daring another defender to come help out.
“It was like watching Magic Johnson back down,’’ Beard said, adding that Michael Cooper was over there in the corner.
“Really difficult,’’ Beard said. “So our objective there was to take away the three-point shot. … We did pretty good in that regard. But he’s a multi-dimensional player. He can play at the next level for a lot of reasons.”
Sometimes mental toughness can take a different form, even encouragement.
“I specifically remember that I was missing a lot of shots, and my teammates looking me in the eye in the huddle and saying, ‘Jalen, keep shooting the ball,’” Brunson said.
The Red Raiders could do one thing required of any potential ‘Nova-beater — they had the length to defend the three-point line. Was it simplistic to think Villanova provided a pick-your-poison menu at that point, with the commitment to the perimeter D offering lanes to offensive rebounds?
“I just can’t state this enough,’’ Beard said. “You think it’s their three-point shooting, their small ball, their athleticism, but by far, their identity is their toughness.”
Beard brought up the offensive rebounding again — “they out-rebounded us by 20.”
Since he’s noted his own team had actually scored one more shot from the field, Beard mentioned the differential in foul shooting, but didn’t finger the officials, just stayed with the theme.
“I thought they demanded fouls on their end,’’ Beard said.
A classy exit from the coach of a school in its first-ever Elite Eight, dispatched by a program heading to the Final Four for the third time in a decade.
A tough feat to even fathom, from any angle.