PITTSBURGH – It looked like a race to see which gas tank would empty first. Two exhausted rosters staggering toward some undefined finish line, their worn-down Villanova and Ohio State fan bases following along for seven empty possessions, PPG Paints Arena scoreboards stubbornly clinging to Villanova up by 5 points.

The front rim had become a favored shooting destination – then along came something entirely different, Villanova big man Eric Dixon, open outside, not hesitating on his second three-point try of the day, second make. Biggest shot of his life, Villanova up five, 92 seconds left. Dixon made it look as easy as a day in some park back home in Abington, securing the Sweet 16 bid, Villanova by 71-61.

“He’s got guts, man,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said of Dixon after the game, noting that if Collin Gillespie gave Dixon the ball at such a crucial time, it meant Gillespie had confidence in Dixon, which meant they all did. “Players just have that and if you’re a player you’ve got to have guts, and he’s got it.”

Finally allowed a breath, Villanova finished things off, moving back to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the last six NCAA Tournaments. Villanova will show up in San Antonio as one of the hotter teams left, facing Michigan.

“Obviously a painful loss,” said Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann. “I hate it for our players, but let’s give Villanova credit, particularly how they started both halves, I thought those were critical stretches for us. Give them credit.”

Back to San Antonio where Villanova won the 2018 NCAA title … over Michigan. Villanova opens as a 5-point favorite, so oddsmakers view that matchup pretty similar to this one.

Just before the end, Ohio State, feeling all kinds of jolts of adrenaline from a comeback from a 15-point deficit, had drawn within 60-58 with 5 minutes, 30 seconds left. The Buckeyes kept hitting the offensive boards, and getting otherworldly play from freshman Malaki Branham, with plenty of other contributors.

But for those last 5 1/2 minutes, Ohio State got one field goal and one free throw.

There were some huge tide-stemming shots by Villanova vets. Justin Moore hit a three up top after Ohio State had gotten within 57-53 (and scoring on the next two possessions, still coming.) A Samuels drive with 4 1/2 minutes left was big after OSU got within Two. Gillespie called for the ball and worked a height advantage in his favor for a pull-up jumper.

Early minutes count

There were some early oohs and aahs inside the place, as Gillespie took everyone on a full tour of his basketball abilities.

A steal after jumping into a passing lane, taken the other way for a layup. A three-pointer off an outside screen. Another smooth three up top off the dribble. A couple of free throws. Right there, Gillespie scored 10 straight ‘Nova points, 10 points of separation that loomed important deep into the second half.

Getting a lead is so important in these NCAA first-round matchups, when the rim starts getting smaller, especially if you’re a No. 2 seed and the success of your March will be judged on these 40 minutes.

Dixon huge

Big second-half contributions from Dixon just after halftime pushed Villanova’s lead to 46-31 in the first three minutes of the second half. He began with a baby hook on Villanova’s first possession. Dixon’s three-point shooting has to be on the scouting report. This season, he’s made 48.3%. But if you guard him for a half and he doesn’t consider taking one, maybe you get a little lax. That happened after a pass from Gillespie.

At the other end, Branham drove and Moore, not wanting to pick up a third foul right away, gave a little room. Except Dixon came over to knock the shot out of bounds. Next defensive stand, Dixon went low to rip at the ball outside, then dove after it, completing the steal.

Ohio State wasn’t going away. Branham hit a couple of smooth pull-up shots. When Kyle Young drove and scored, the Buckeyes got within 48-39 with 13:36 left.

Battle inside and out

Villanova did not depend on its three-point shooting to carry the day. In the first half, ‘Nova had 16 points in the paint to eight for Ohio State, making 9-of-15 two-point shots while the Buckeyes made just 5 of 13. You saw Jermaine Samuels working for a couple of his hoops in especially tight quarters.

Villanova’s defense was active early, getting into passing lanes. Ohio State knew it needed another scoring option after E.J. Liddell and Branham, didn’t find any, nobody else having have more than three points in the half, or hitting double figures for the game.

Villanova ended up with five double-figure scorers, led by 20 from Gillespie and 17 from Samuels.

“What a tough, intelligent team they are,” Wright said of Ohio State, which finished 20-12. “We take pride in this victory because we watch a lot of film on them and they’re really good and tough in how they defended us.”