Shane Clark had not enjoyed much success since the Big East Conference season began in January, with a combination of fatigue and a loss of confidence cutting into his production and playing time.
But Villanova's junior forward came up last night with one of his best games of the season, certainly his best performance in the Big East. Clark scored 15 points and sparked a second-half spurt that enabled the Wildcats to roll to a 72-59 victory over South Florida at the Pavilion.
The Wildcats (18-11 overall, 8-9 conference) clinched a spot in next week's Big East tournament and remained in a tie with Syracuse for ninth place. They close their season Saturday at Providence and can wind up with a seed ranging from eighth to 11th.
This was a game that Clark, his teammates, and coach Jay Wright were waiting for. Clark, a former Cardinal Dougherty star, was second on the team in scoring with an 11.0-point average through 11 nonconference games but started to struggle in mid-January shortly after the Big East schedule began.
After telling Wright he felt exhausted, Clark was tested to try to determine the cause of his condition, but nothing was found. Going into last night, he was averaging just 2.9 points and 17.6 minutes of playing time in Big East games.
"I've felt better in other [earlier] games, but I feel like I've got more energy again," Clark said.
"I was just trying to be aggressive tonight. I've been out for some games, but I'm trying to be aggressive for this team. I really wanted to come back and do all the dirty work or whatever this team needs. When I had my opportunity tonight, I was aggressive."
Wright said he could hear his players on the Villanova bench saying, "Our guy is back. That's our Shiz."
"That's what they call him," Wright said. "He just looks like he got it back tonight. It was so nice to see. I'm happy for him. He's battled through this whatever-it-is, this energy thing. He eats everything he can. He had the energy tonight. He was great."
Clark sank 7 of 11 shots and also contributed seven rebounds. It was his highest-scoring game since he scored 15 against Columbia on Dec. 22.
Casiem Drummond, a 6-foot-10 center, made a major contribution defensively against South Florida's 6-9 center, Kentrell Gransberry. Drummond had missed the last three games after feeling soreness in his right ankle. (He suffered a stress fracture in that ankle in December.)
Gransberry, one of only two Big East players who average a double-double, was held to a season-low five points in 23 minutes and fouled out with 5 minutes, 43 seconds to play.
"I'm not trying to come in and be a superhero," said Drummond, who had six points and seven rebounds. "I'll play four minutes, 20 minutes, anything for the team."
The Wildcats limited the Bulls (12-18, 3-14) to 20 percent shooting in the first half and took a 35-21 lead at the break, but the visitors, who have been eliminated from the Big East tournament, gave Villanova a run in the second half.
A drive by USF freshman Dominique Jones, who led all scorers with 29 points, reduced the Wildcats' advantage to 44-38 with 11:30 remaining. But Clark's three-point basket and jumper from the elbow sparked a surge that reached 22-5 over a seven-minute stretch.
Antonio Pena scored eight of his 10 points during the spurt and finished up the run that gave the Cats a 66-43 lead with 4:26 to play.
Villanova achieved what it needed to do, defeating a team with a lesser RPI to preserve its slim NCAA chance. The Cats have to do the same thing Saturday night against a Providence team that may be facing elimination from the Big East tournament.
"We talk about the fact that hey, we're at the end of the season and we probably have to win a lot of games," Wright said. "But the only way we're going to do it is win the next one. I think the guys are all aware of the big picture, but we just don't talk about it because it doesn't matter unless you win the next one."