BOSTON – In an old Big East city, against an old Big East foe, Villanova had to work its way through an old Big East basketball game on Friday night. The stakes were a little higher than usual back in the day, but the intensity hasn’t changed.
This game marked the harshest storm of an unpredictable spring as the Wildcats emerged from their Sweet 16 matchup against West Virginia with a 90-78 win that pushes the Wildcats to the brink of a return to the Final Four.
“That was the ultimate survival game,” coach Jay Wright said.
It was a game that went back and forth for quite a while, with West Virginia appearing to gain some control midway through the second half, but Villanova finally began to hit its outside shots with consistency at the same time West Virginia went cold as mountain stone.
This kind of game is never pretty, but it might be excellent preparation for the Wildcats, who haven’t been taken out of their comfort zone very often recently. Surviving on a night when many things went wrong wasn’t just a confidence boost. It hardened them to the pressures that will continue to mount with each step up the NCAA tournament’s ladder.
“To be down in the second half against a team like that and battle back, you know in the next game that’s going to happen. So you don’t want it to happen for the first time in a final eight game,” Wright said. “The physicality, the toughness of that team, that’s what a final eight game is going to be like. I think that’s a really valuable game for us, really valuable.”
There were a total of 48 fouls committed and 50 free throws attempted in the slugfest. There were nearly zero uncontested shots. The particular advantage that West Virginia seeks each game is to make its opponents go just a little faster than they are comfortable going. The Mountaineers speed the pace with defensive pressure designed to force hurried passes and poor decisions.
“Definitely one of the most physical games all year,” said guard Jalen Brunson, who led all scorers with 27 points. “I give credit to them. They played really hard and they stuck to what they do and really battled until the last second, but thankfully we got the win.”
As far as its defensive pressure went, West Virginia was successful in the first half and not as successful in the second half. Villanova stayed afloat because the Wildcats shot well despite giving the ball away too much before halftime, and took better care of it after the half but struggled to keep shooting well.
Villanova averages just 10.4 turnovers per game but was forced into committing nine in the first half. The Wildcats finished with 16 turnovers for the game, but they were very efficient when they did get into their offense, shooting 50 percent overall from the field and a ridiculous 54.2 percent on three-point attempts.
“We weren’t doing a great job with the press [in the first half], but we were making some shots,” Wright said. “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 that, you know. You got to get in that game and feel it.”
The Wildcats felt it and they had to endure some shaky moments before surviving. West Virginia went out to a 60-54 lead with 11 minutes to play after forcing another turnover and getting a driving layup from leading scorer Jevon Carter. Wright called timeout to slow things down a little.
“I knew there was a lot of time. I knew with them, the way they play, there were going to be a lot of possessions. I thought we were doing some good things, we were just missing shots. It wasn’t that bad,” Wright said. “I just wanted to make sure we kept our confidence and stayed committed to our game plan. I just looked at Jalen, Mikal [Bridges] and Phil [Booth] and I could see in their eyes that we were good. If I looked in their eyes and saw fear or worry, I would have maybe went a little crazy, but I didn’t.”
He was right enough about that. The Wildcats came out and steadied themselves with a couple of trips to the line, then their shots began to fall. Before you knew it, Villanova had gotten hot, West Virginia went cold, and the Wildcats were off on a 19-4 run that essentially sealed the game. It was a big game in the East Regional, so it might as well have been a Big East game.
“The new Big East is a really high-powered offensive league, a lot of three-point shooters. It is different from the old Big East. And college basketball has changed a lot, too. There aren’t a lot of teams that play this way,” Wright said. “We played Tennessee and I thought that was a physical team, but not like this. So when I started watching film, I knew…this was going to be like an old-school, grind-out game.”
We know Villanova can play the new way, and now it’s apparent the Wildcats can play the old way, too. The coach believes they will benefit from the experience. In any case, the old Big East made a comeback on Friday night, and so did Villanova when it really needed one. Both were good to see.