BOSTON – After struggling with West Virginia’s press in the first half of the NCAA East Region semifinal Friday night, Villanova saw its opponent’s defense rise to another level early in the second half and threaten to end its tournament run.
But the Wildcats responded by matching the intensity of the Mountaineers on defense and under the boards while their offense found its groove. The combination led to a 19-4 run over a 4 ½-minute stretch that helped propel the top seed to a 90-78 victory at TD Garden.
Villanova (33-4) will play Sunday against the winner of Friday night’s second semifinal game between No. 2 seed Purdue and No. 3 Texas Tech for the right to go to the Final Four for the second time in three years.
Redshirt freshman Omari Spellman was the catalyst of the Wildcats’ surge, which began after the fifth-seed Mountaineers (26-11) took their largest lead at 60-54 with 11 minutes, 8 seconds remaining. He blocked two shots on defense, including his rejection of a Jevon Carter layup that started a fast break, which ended with Spellman’s dunk follow of a miss by Phil Booth.
“I just saw (Carter) put his head down and I just saw the opportunity for the block,” said Spellman, who had 18 points, eight rebounds, three blocked shots and knocked down a team-high four three-pointers.
“I came over and got the rebound and tried to outlet it. I saw Phil going to the hoop and I was just thinking to myself, ‘If he misses this, I’ve got to get it.’ So it just happened to come off the right way and I just tried to finish it.”
Jalen Brunson scored 16 of his game-high 27 points in the first half and Villanova held a 44-42 lead despite nine turnovers, mostly against the press. The Cats made just two of their first 11 shots in the second half and when Carter’s layup ended an 8-2 run and gave WVU its six-point lead, things looked grim.
“We weren’t doing a great job with the press but we were making some shots,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “In the second half, I think we got used to the physicality, we got used to the aggressiveness, and we were executing better. You just can’t simulate (the press). You’ve got to just get in the game and feel it.
“But I thought we were more aggressive in the second half. We got to the foul line. We missed shots but we got to the foul line and I thought that was important for us early in the second half.”
The Wildcats pretty much stopped missing shots later in the half, making 10 of their last 14 attempts, including 5-of-6 from three. Their defense wasn’t bad either, as the Mountaineers were 3-of-17 from the floor over a span of nearly 10 minutes.
Spellman’s dunk follow ended an 11-0 run that gave the Cats a 65-60 lead with 9:03 to play, and three-point baskets by Donte DiVincenzo, Spellman and Brunson boosted the margin to 10.
For Brunson, his duel against Carter, his former AAU teammate in suburban Chicago, was unique. Carter, who had 12 points and eight assists, made him work for many of his points.
“There’s no extra incentive when I’m playing someone I’ve known growing up,” Brunson said. “If I need to be motivated by that, I’m doing myself an injustice. I’ve got to play every game like it’s my last. I love to play against old friends. I love great challenges. But it was Villanova versus West Virginia.”
The 6-foot-9, 245-pound Spellman had his own duel going with 6-8, 260-pound Sagaba Konate, who had 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. At one point, officials called a double foul after the two players jawed at each other, but they shook hands after the game ended.
“It was just two guys competing; that’s all it was,” Spellman said. “He’s a great player. It was definitely a challenge to go up against him”