HARTFORD, Conn. – The XL Center scoreboard clock read 57.6 seconds when Phil Booth left the court in a Villanova uniform for the last time and walked into the arms of head coach Jay Wright. Eric Paschall quickly followed his fellow senior and captain, as Wright embraced him, as well.
On a night when Wildcats fans had very little to cheer about Saturday during a humbling 87-61 loss to Purdue that knocked the defending national champions out of the NCAA Tournament, they saved their loudest and longest cheers for the two leaders.
Booth and Paschall are major reasons why Villanova won 26 games and captured its third straight Big East Tournament championship after taking the regular-season title for the fifth time in the last six years. They finished 1-2 in scoring, with Booth averaging 18.6 points and Paschall 16.5, and accounted for nearly 48 percent of the Wildcats’ offense.
But there was much more to their contribution besides statistics. They led their young teammates on and off the court. Wright explained it best following the Wildcats’ 74-72 win over Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament title contest.
“They really have been like coaches this season,” he said. “We can do so much on the court, but they’ve got to take guys in the locker room and teach them how they prepare for practice, how they prepare for games. They’ve got to teach them how to sleep at night, how to eat the right way. They’ve been like big brothers, fathers almost to these guys.
“It’s been frustrating for them. There’s a lot of times in games when these young guys don’t know what they’re doing, and these guys are just trying to cover for everybody. It’s just been an incredible experience of leadership by these two.”
However, the season went just two games longer before Booth and Paschall had to exit. At Saturday night’s postgame news conference, Paschall became emotional, dabbing his eyes with a towel, as he explained what it meant to play the last three seasons for the Wildcats after transferring from Fordham.
“I was just sad to not play in the Villanova jersey anymore,” he said. “I thank Coach Wright for everything he’s done for me. Without him, I wouldn’t be here. I love Villanova. Everything they’ve done for me, every little thing, that’s all the emotions that were happening.”
Outside his locker room about 45 minutes after the game ended, Wright said he felt Paschall’s sadness.
“To see him get emotional there at the press conference, I was getting emotional, too, because they’re like your kids,” he said. “It’s like moving out of the house now. You stay in touch with them. It’s not that hard saying goodbye. It’s just not having them and having them by your side when you compete. That’s hard.”
During five years in the program, Booth starred in the 2016 national championship game as a sophomore, scoring 20 points in the dramatic win over North Carolina. He sat out the following season with a knee injury, but came back strong, helping the Cats to a second title in 2018.
Booth said Saturday night he “couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”
“Going out like that, I wish it could have been better," he said. "But that’s just more credit to the guys I played with. … This team is no different than any other team I played on in the past in terms of committed, wanting to be together, loving one another. This group is special in those terms. It hurts going out like this, but there’s a lot here. I learned a lot from this year.”
Certainly, fans of Booth and Paschall would rather have seen their careers conclude in anything but a 26-point blowout, the worst loss in Villanova’s NCAA Tournament history. But Wright noted his team had been on the other side in Final Four semifinal routs of Oklahoma in 2016 and Kansas a year ago.
“They know and I know that this tournament’s brutal,” he said. “The endings can be tough, they can be final. When we played Oklahoma and Kansas, we said to our guys, ‘Hey, have some compassion for those guys. They had great seasons and this is how it ends.’
“So we always try to think of our opponents and realize that it could be us. And now it happened to us, so you’ve got to deal with it. It’s life, it’s sports, and how you handle it is really what the challenge is, and what kind of person you are.”