BOSTON - You could tell by the looks on the faces of the Duke players in the first half that the ferocity Villanova was displaying on defense was not something they expected or experienced. The Wildcats, at times, seemed to have seven players on the court.
They were anywhere and everywhere, running the shooters off their shots and recovering to help in the lane when the ball actually got in there. A team simply can't play defense any better, especially when you consider how offensively efficient Duke usually is.
Duke, a team that loves to play fast and space the court, had to go slower and got little or no space at TD Banknorth Garden. It only took a few trips up and down the court to realize that the speed edge Villanova appeared to have on paper was even more pronounced on the court.
It was like that early, in the middle, and at the end. Villanova won as convincingly as you can win a game at this stage of the NCAA Tournament, holding Duke to just 16-for-60 shooting (26.7 percent) and winning 77-54. The last time a Duke team lost like this in the NCAA, it was that infamous 1990 championship game when UNLV beat them by 30.
If you just watched the game without a scoreboard, you would have thought the 'Cats had a double-digit lead. But they could not shake Duke, which was getting to the foul line just enough to stay within hailing distance. Villanova was getting almost all its points on drives and post-ups, outscoring the Blue Devils, 18-6, in the lane and getting 11 second-chance points over the first 20 minutes.
You could have predicted a lot about this game, but few would have predicted the halftime leader would have less than 30 points. This really looked like a game in which it would take 80 to win.
Gerald Henderson, who got just about every Villanova defender at one time or another, also got two early fouls. But Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, perhaps sensing the game could get away from his team, rolled the dice late in the first half and put "G" back into the game. His two free throws with 70 seconds left were his only points of the half. He missed all five of his shots from the field. In fact, Duke's three top scorers, Henderson, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler, shot a combined 3-for-20. Yet, the Blue Devils trailed just 26-23 at the break.
"We knew that they always come out aggressive, and we had to come out even more aggressive than they did," guard Corey Stokes said.
Villanova was getting a much better class of shots, but the 'Cats made almost nothing outside the lane and squandered several chances to run its lead to double digits. They gave Duke life.
The Blue Devils scored the first basket of the second half and, before you could even think of how the lead really should have been much more, the 'Cats scored six straight and Coach K, again sensing trouble, called timeout just 126 seconds after play resumed.
It only got worse. Villanova was driving the ball, pounding it into the low post or both. Nine of the 'Cats first 10 second-half baskets were layups, dunks or follow shots. That two-point lead became 16 in barely 7 minutes.
"Attack, attack, don't settle for jump shots," 'Nova coach Jay Wright told his team during one timeout. "Drive it, drive it, drive it."
Said forward Dante Cunningham: "When he sees something, we keep doing it."
Added Stokes: "Coach said forget the plays and just drive it."
Coming out of the huddles, Villanova players, as they have done all season, chanted "Attitude."
They had plenty of that from beginning to end.
With Henderson on the bench with four fouls and unable to make a shot when he was on it (he was 0-for-11 until he finally knocked in a three), Coach K tried every combination of players he could think of. He called timeouts much quicker than he wanted.
"That's the best defense I've seen this year, and it was every time," Henderson said. "We didn't panic, but at the same time, your season is on the line . . . We had a really good season. It's tough to lose anytime, but it's really tough to lose the way we did."
Coach K was pressing with a team ill-equipped to press. Each team was in the bonus with 13 minutes left which offered some hope for Duke. But the Blue Devils were even leaving some freebies short, the sign of a very tired team that had been worn out by the pressure. Nothing the Hall of Fame coach tried was working.
Talking about the defense, guard Corey Fisher said: "Early in the season, all of us didn't really buy into it. But it keeps getting better with each game."
If one play summed up the night for Duke, it was when Scheyer got his shot blocked by one 'Nova player and another Wildcat threw the ball off Singler out of bounds. That went down right before the final media timeout.
With Villanova's dominating win, the Big East has three teams in the Final Eight, with two more playing tonight.