NEW YORK - On this Big East tournament semifinal night for Villanova, the three-pointers that fell so easily against Marquette were finding the rim and not the bottom of the net. The rebounds proved to be elusive against a tough Providence front line.
But somehow, some way, the fourth-ranked Wildcats found a way to win. Ryan Arcidiacono provided the margin, sinking two free throws with 3.1 seconds remaining Friday to give the top-seeded Cats a school-record 31st victory of the season, 63-61, over the Friars at Madison Square Garden.
Villanova, which picked up its 14th straight victory and strengthened its bid for an NCAA No. 1 seed, advanced to the Big East championship game Saturday night for the first time since 1997. The Wildcats will face off against Xavier, which defeated Georgetown, 65-63.
The Wildcats (31-2) struggled against the fourth-seeded Friars (22-11), who are certain of going to the NCAAs. After tying a program record Thursday night with 17 three-point baskets, they sank only seven against the Friars. Providence held a 42-30 rebounding advantage and a 19-6 edge in second-chance points.
"A couple of our guys were just not in sync," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "I don't know why. Darrun Hilliard fouls out, and then other guys step up.
"We kept our composure and found a way to pull it out. That's what it takes. You've got to have guts. You've got to have a great resiliency to keep going. So I like this team."
Leading 61-56 on Hilliard's jumper with 1 minute, 8 seconds to play, the Wildcats watched Providence score the next five points. Kris Dunn scored the tying bucket with 12.4 seconds to play after Ben Bentil knocked the ball away from Josh Hart on an inbounds pass.
So after leading by as many as 13 in the second half, and staying in front for 37½ minutes, and hearing the crowd roar either in approval or despair, the Wildcats now really had to keep their composure. After a timeout, the ball went into the hands of Arcidiacono, who along with Dunn was named Big East co-player of the year.
Arcidiacono cut to the right, went around a screen from Daniel Ochefu, took the ball to the basket, and referee Brian O'Connell blew his whistle. The portion of the crowd rooting for the underdogs booed the call after seeing a replay on the arena screen, but Arcidiacono still went to the line.
"It doesn't come down to one play," Providence coach Ed Cooley said. "At the end of the day, we have the best officials in the country. It was a 50-50 call. It can go either way. It just didn't go our way tonight."
Arcidiacono sank both free throws. With no timeouts left, the Friars inbounded to LaDontae Henton, whose shot from just inside the midcourt line banged off the backboard no good.
"If everyone stayed out with the shooters, then I take it to the rim, and if not I was trying to hit a shooter," Arcidiacono said. "I went with what I read on the play, got a good screen from Daniel, and then I got fouled.
"I'm just pretty confident in situations like that. I know I can make a shot or whatever it is. In the last couple of minutes I feel comfortable because we practice those situations every day in practice."
For the second straight game, Hart led the Wildcats in scoring, this time with 18 points. Ochefu added 15 points and 13 rebounds, and Hilliard contributed 12 before fouling out with 57.6 seconds to play.
Dunn led Providence with 22 points, seven rebounds, and nine assists. Henton, the Big East's leading scorer with a 20.1-point average, was limited to nine on 2-for-9 shooting.