NEW YORK – Jay Wright may be the best dressed coach in college basketball, but that doesn’t mean his team doesn’t like to get its hands dirty.
Philly tough, you might call it.
In a knock-down, drag-out final game in the Big East tournament, No. 2 Villanova outlasted Providence 76-66 in overtime to capture its second-straight conference championship.
“What a tough team man,” Wright said. “Either team could have obviously won that overtime game. [It was] Just a really gutty performance. I’m proud of our leadership.”
Led by the duo of Jalen Brunson (31 Points) and Mikal Bridges (25 Points) the Wildcats were able to weather every blow the Friars threw, improving to a perfect 15-0 mark when holding their opponents under 70 points.
Despite playing 40-plus minutes, Bridges and Brunson, the pair of junior leaders, combined to score or assist on 14 of Villanova’s 16 points in the extra period.
“Villanova is a great team,” Providence head coach Ed Cooley said. “Brunson, Bridges, they are two high, high-level players. They more than carrier their team today and made some tough, tough shots.”
After blowing out Marquette and Butler the previous two nights at Madison Square Garden with lights-out shooting and masterful offense, Villanova (30-4) was forced to dig deep and muster up the kind of defensive performance that would make any coach proud.
“You don’t see that as much in college basketball,” Wright said. “Just the crazy plays. Just guys battling, great athletes. Coaches that know each other really well. It was old-school Big East and — old-school Big East in 2018.”
The Wildcats looked to set the tone early, opting to press Providence (21-13) in the first half, perhaps in an attempt to overwhelm the Friars, who had played in back-to-back overtime thrillers, both mentally and physically.
For a while, that strategy worked, as Villanova jumped out to an early double-digit lead and forced 8 first-half turnovers, but Providence wouldn’t simply lie down. Led by New York City native Alpha Diallo (22 Points), the Friars would mount two separate runs in the first half to pull even with the Wildcats.
The Wildcats stormed out of the locker room, going on a 9-0 run to start the second half, eventually taking a 45-33 lead before the feisty Friars once again roared back. Led by Kyron Cartwright, Providence went on an 11-0 run to take a 52-51 lead with 7:49 to play.
“You don’t want [the game] to go that way when you start,” Wright said of the back-and-forth struggle. “You hope when you get a little lead, you want to create separation. But when it’s over, you just know how much this does for your team’s mental toughness.”
It’s hard to focus on toughness for a team that features a starting lineup with four upperclassmen, two Big East tournament titles and an NCAA championship, but this instant-classic against Providence is something that Wright views as a positive.
“If you get into tough games in the tournament, you know you’ve been through that recently,” Wright said. “It is good for us, you’re very comfortable in that situation.”
The win all-but confirms that Villanova will be a No. 1 seed when the NCAA tournament bracket is revealed on Sunday night. It will be the second consecutive year the Wildcats enter the big dance as a No. 1 seed.
That’ll be where Villanova’s toughness will be tested more than ever, once again coming in with a target on its back. Luckily, the Wildcats’ leader is as stone cold tough as they come.
“[Brunson] is the most mature person in the program, including me,” Wright admitted. “[Xavier head coach] Chris Mack had the greatest line. He said ‘if you pull down the skin on [Jalen’s] face, there would be wires behind it.’ He’s on another level.”
That place, that level of toughness is where Wright wants all of his players, including Bridges, who is likely to be an NBA lottery pick this June.
Before each game, Brunson and Bridges practically shoulder tackle one another, something they just “made up,” and then during pre-game introductions, the 6-foot-7 swingman gets mobbed running through the tunnel of his teammates.
“Coach actually had to tell me when I go through that, when I get hit around, don’t smile,” Bridges joked. “I had to kind of change that throughout the season.”
For one night though, Wright can allow Bridges – and the rest of his Wildcats teammates – to stop being Philly tough and be Philly proud.