Villanova's defense against West Virginia showed up when needed in Sweet 16

West Virginia forward Lamont West loses the basketball against Villanova forward Eric Paschall (left), guard Collin Gillespie and guard Phil Booth (second right) during the first half of Villanova’s win.

BOSTON — Before halftime, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins turned to one of his guys who had just come out of the game, “You’re not man enough to get open.”

Not man enough to play offense, that’s a tough ball game. Villanova must have had a similar halftime talk. No settling for three-pointers. Get to the hoop. Maybe Jay Wright told his guys: You heard the stories about the old Big East? This is it.

Phil Booth, guarding West Virginia star Jevon Carter up top at the TD Garden, kind of shook his head around, stretching his neck, almost like a boxer getting ready to go. The scoreboard said the Mountaineers were up six. The pressure mounting on the top seed of the NCAA East Regional, destined to steepen if Villanova couldn’t make a couple of stops.

They made a couple of stops. That Omari Spellman spike of a shot from a driving West Virginia guard makes the highlight reels, especially if they couple it with the Spellman dunk follow-up of a teammate’s miss at the other end. An 11-0 run put Villanova back in front. They stayed in front and moved into Sunday’s Elite Eight, 90-78.

Picture Villanova winning this game even early in the season. One humble opinion: Probably not.

Villanova played its big guys more than ever, and asked them to do more, and they came through more than ever.

“Their defense is great, but their half-court offense and offensive rebounding is strategic,’’ Jay Wright said after this one, after a 50 percent shooting night wasn’t going to be enough on its own.

This was the third time this season Villanova had given up over 40 points in the first half. The Wildcats have won all three times. This time, West Virginia shot 48.4 percent from the field before intermission, 30.8 percent after.

Jalen Brunson had led Villanova with 27 points, but Spellman held his own stuffing the stat sheet, making 4 of 7 three-pointers, both his free throws, grabbing a team-high 8 rebounds, blocking three shots. It’s worth noting Spellman’s 35 minutes were second highest on his team behind Brunson.

Camera icon Yong Kim
Villanova forward Omari Spellman blocks the basketball on West Virginia guard James Bolden shot attempt during the second-half in the East Regional Semifinal game on Friday, March 23, 2018 at the TD Garden in Boston. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Earlier in the week back on the Main Line, I’d asked Spellman if he was allowing himself to be proud of himself of his defensive progress?

“Yeah, definitely,’’ the redshirt freshman had said after a practice. “For me, it’s amazing to see my progress from where I used to be, to how I really want to impact the game defensively now. It’s fun, man, seeing yourself getting better and knowing that you can do those things and it’s something I want to do to help my team.

What does he know he’s gotten better at?

“Ball-screen coverage, on-ball defense, knowing when to be aggressive in certain areas, when I should be more conservative,’’ Spellman said.

Focus on those three-pointers Spellman also dropped, but his contributions at the other end were at least as crucial. Phil Booth said Spellman has found his voice at the back of the defense. “It’s the loudest voice I hear now, just constantly talking,’’ Booth said of of hearing Spellman call out defenses, letting the guards know where the screens are.

Camera icon Charles Fox
Omari Spellman, right, of Villanova celebrates during a Villanova run during the 1st half of the East Regionals of the NCAA Tournament at TD Garden on March 23, 2018. Sagaba Konate of West Virginia is 2nd from left. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The progression, Booth had said, was normal. A freshman trying to figure things out. It wasn’t so much Spellman was lost. First-year guys are just always painting by numbers. By midseason, Booth said, you could really see Spellman getting it.

“We’re as good as he’s going to be defensively,’’ Booth said. “His progression, how much he has dived into it and committed to it, that was all him mentally, buying into it.”

“It’s just learning,’’ Spellman had said. “Really learning the ins and outs of playing defense at this level.”

This night provided another level. West Virginia wasn’t giving away speed at any position. The kind of game where every punch demanded a counter.

And one thing about this tournament: Ain’t going to be no rematch.