There were a few moments during Villanova’s win over Providence on Wednesday night at Finneran Pavilion when the outcome was more than a little bit in doubt. Certainly more doubt than an 85-67 final score would indicate.
'Nova built and then suddenly lost an eight-point lead midway through the second half, and it was the kind of skid that can see the wheels come off for a team that isn’t mentally tough. The Wildcats, however, are tough, and they have something else that can’t be measured just by the box score: Seniors.
College basketball is increasingly an underclassman’s game, but Villanova has been able to swim against that tide, and there are a couple of large recent additions to the trophy case to show for it. Against Providence, the Wildcats don’t win without Eric Paschall going off for 20 points in a hot-shooting second half. That was obvious. Less obvious in some ways was the play of Phil Booth at the time his team needed him most.
It wasn’t the best game of his season, or his career. Booth had five turnovers and made just four of nine shots at the foul line, but he willed himself to 22 points and dragged Villanova along with him every step of the way. He took the game to Providence, drew 10 fouls all by himself, including one that fouled out David Duke with just more than five minutes to play and the Wildcats leading by only six points.
“I just tried to stay aggressive the whole game,” Booth said. “There were definitely things I could have done better, but I want to be aggressive and do everything I can to help win that game.”
One of his biggest plays got him an assist that was as big as any basket. He fought out of a double-team to find Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree for a dunk to put Villanova back ahead to stay at 59-57. He quickly followed up by muscling to the rim, getting fouled on the way, changing hands on the ball in midair and making a layup to extend the lead with a three-point play.
“There were times when he got out on transition, and you could see him explosively and physically take it to the hoop,” coach Jay Wright said. “He got that and-one when we were really struggling. It was one of those times as a coach where you want him to pull it out, but he knew, ‘This is my team. I’ve got to make a play here.’ And after he does, you say to yourself, ‘Thank God he’s on our side.’ He recognizes those times, and all the great players we’ve had here have done that.”
Booth and the Wildcats were coming off a disappointing loss over the weekend to Marquette that ended a 10-game Big East winning streak and was their first conference loss of the season. The one-point loss was a great game and came down to a last Villanova possession. Booth took the ball strong inside as the final seconds ticked down, but he could find neither a shot nor a better option, and the Wildcats never got a good look at a final try.
“I watched that play over and over about 30 times. There were a lot of things we could have done better in that game, but that play was a tough one to let go,” Booth said. “They did a good job rotating on defense, and the weak-side guy messed me up. I thought I had an extra pass, and the next thing you know I’m stuck under the hoop, and the game is over. You just try to learn.”
If Booth is still learning, imagine how much the younger Wildcats need to absorb before the tournament season begins.
“We’re far from a finished product," Wright said. "We’re just getting better game-by-game in small increments.
"We got great leadership from the two seniors tonight. They’ve been carrying us a lot. Eric and Phil keep everybody together.”
This is Booth’s fifth year at Villanova. He was granted a redshirt season in what would have been his junior year, when he suffered knee issues and played just three games. Booth has always been steady. Now, with so many teammates moved on, he has to be the steadiest of all.
“It’s more responsibility, but I’d rather have it that way,” Booth said. “I want it on my shoulders and want to take on new challenges.”
Well, he’s got it. The challenge of staying on top, or near the top, this season is one of the biggest Villanova has faced in years. But the Wildcats are tough, and they have a couple of great seniors.
As February drifts towards March, that can be a handy combination.