BOSTON – For the first 30 minutes on Friday night the game played out as one would expect, a fistfight between Villanova’s Jay Wright and West Virginia’s Bob Huggins. Villanova looked overmatched physically, rattled mentally and outmanned. As Wright said at half, it was “complete chaos.”
Trailing and flailing for most of the opening nine minutes of the second half, Villanova changed the course of its game, the season and potentially the Final Four in a dramatic flourish. Trailing by five points, Villanova strung together an authoritative 11-0 that changed the course of the game and allowed it to eventually sail to a 90-78 victory.
The Wildcats will play the winner of No. 2 Purdue and No. 3 Texas Tech on Sunday at TD Garden, and the mettle they showed in this victory reaffirms their status as the hands-down favorite to win the NCAA tournament.
“That was the most physically demanding and mentally demanding 40 minutes we’ve played in a long time,” Wright said after the game. “… In this tournament to be down six against a team like that in the second half and battle back. You know in the next game it’s going to happen. That’s what a final-[eight] game is going to be like. I think that’s a really valuable game for us.”
After getting out-hustled, out-dunked and out-swaggered for nearly 30 minutes against the fifth-seeded Mountaineers, No. 1 Villanova surged back to the lead in one spectacular flurry. With game tied, 60-60, Villanova star junior Mikal Bridges swished a 3-pointer from the deep left corner. His teammate, redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman, inhaled a shot from reserve West Virginia guard James Bolden – calling it merely a block doesn’t do it justice – before sprinting the length of the floor and hammering home a missed shot with a vicious dunk.
With 8:59 remaining, the pro-Villanova crowd rocking the Garden and West Virginia’s grip on the game gone in an instant, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins gently touched his fingers to his palm to call a timeout. A six-point lead had morphed into a five-point deficit, and Huggins had lost grip on the game. It was clear that Villanova had overcome foul trouble, a touch of intimidation and some nerves to find itself.
Point guard Jalen Brunson led the Wildcats with 27 points, but it was Spellman who authored the biggest plays. He finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and an unquantifiable amount of pluck that the Wildcats desperately needed. West Virginia stared down Villanova, and Spellman didn’t blink.
This game was a classic clash of styles – Wright’s Armani smooth against Huggins’ frumpy quarter-zip that looks like he bought it at Big Lots. Villanova is a graceful team that came in with the country’s top offense, while West Virginia entered the game ranked No. 2 in turnovers forced. The Wildcats have smooth and lithe players like Brunson and the long-limbed Bridges, while West Virginia countered with the stocky Jevon Carter and bicep-flexing Sagaba Konate.
No play summed up the tenor of the first 30 minutes more than Konate, a muscular 6-foot-8 center, blocking Bridges at the rim early in the second half. The play looked more like a volleyball block than a basketball one, as Konate rose over the rim with two hands and emasculated Bridges’ attempt at the rim.
“Konate is one of the best rim protectors I’ve seen in college basketball in a long time,” Wright said after the game. “The kid is impressive.”
West Virginia led by six points nearly nine minutes into the second half, and it appeared that Huggins, in his third Sweet 16 in four years, might be penning another improbable run with an underwhelming yet intimidating team. Carter issued the game’s first hand-check a few seconds in when he hit Brunson’s hip, Miles spent the first half wagging his tongue in celebration of long jumpers and Konate slapped his biceps in celebration of his dunks. Huggins had his ideal team, more blue collar than blue chip and cut straight form his image.
“I told my athletic director that, really, he had two choices, either fire me for recruiting the guys I recruit or give me a raise for being able to win with them,” he’d joked on Thursday.
No one was laughing at them for a while on Friday night; Carter, Miles and Konate all finished in double digits and had Villanova visibly rattled.
But the Wildcats kept their composure when the game could have slipped away midway through the second half. They eventually matched and exceeded West Virginia’s intensity and physicality, pulling ahead by double digits late in the second half and pulling away to a comfortable win.
Villanova gathered itself and left the game unwrinkled, unbowed and still the prohibitive favorite to win the NCAA tournament.
“That’s the toughest game we ever played in, man,” Wright said. “That was the ultimate survive and advance.”
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