NEW YORK - Villanova's road to the final game of the Big East tournament took a detour through the woods Friday night in Madison Square Garden against Providence, but it was only a detour and not a stop sign.
One night after an opener against Marquette that couldn't have gone much better, the Wildcats suffered through a game in which their three-point shooting was muffled by Providence. They needed a pair of free throws with 3.1 seconds remaining that followed a coin flip of a foul call on a Ryan Arcidiacono drive to the basket. Those foul shots were the only difference in a 63-61 win that put Villanova into the tournament championship game for the first time since 1997.
"You'd rather not have one like this, but after you do, you're glad you had one," coach Jay Wright said. "It's good to have been through it and you have to find a way to win on those nights."
Villanova beat Providence twice during the regular season and didn't have this kind of trouble with the Friars in either game. But as invincible as the Wildcats can seem at times, they are vulnerable to a team that forces them to put the ball on the floor and score from the inside.
Providence played a zone defense, which is usually an invitation to set up for the outside shot, but the Friars played it way out on the floor. That left the middle open, but Providence coach Ed Cooley obviously felt that was less dangerous than letting the Wildcats spot up and shoot them out of the gym.
Somewhere down the road in the NCAA tournament, an opposing coach is going to watch the replay of this game and make the same decision. Wright and the Wildcats need to find a better alternative than the slightly scattered approach they took against Providence.
"They made us do things we don't normally do," Wright said. "They lifted all four guys above the foul line, which is really unusual. And they said, 'Go ahead, put it into Daniel Ochefu or put someone in the middle of the lane.' "
So, they did, and that worked for a while, too. The Wildcats built a 13-point lead early in the second half, but couldn't sustain the momentum. After five possessions that produced a turnover, four misses and zero offensive rebounds, the Friars were back within three points and it became a race to the finish.
"Our guts and a couple of big plays at the finish. That was the difference," Wright said.
The big plays come and go, but it takes an experienced team to have the guts not to worry about losing. With the exception of Phil Booth, all of Villanova's players took part in last year's opening-game dismissal by Seton Hall. They've been through two straight seasons of being the team to beat in the Big East.
"These guys have been in a lot of big games, having been at the top of the league all year. Everywhere we went on the road, it was the biggest game. It's a sellout, everybody's out to get us, and they've been through all that," Wright said. "And they failed last year. I heard Ryan Arch say, 'Hey, we already came up here and lost in the first round, and everybody hated us. We already did that. We're not afraid of that. We lived through it.' So the fact they've been through all of this together is a great characteristic they have going into every game."
There will be other nights when the shots don't fall, or the opponents don't give up good looks, and Villanova probably isn't going to survive all of those. It survived this one, however, and maybe that makes it easier next time.
With the game tied at 61-61 against Providence and one possession left, Villanova went to the huddle without the lead for the first time since the opening minutes of the game.
"We looked at each other and said, 'Attitude,' and we moved on to the next play," guard Josh Hart said. "We focused on the next play. We focused on the last 12.9 seconds and luckily it worked out for us."
That's exactly how it worked out, because Arcidiacono drove baseline to the basket, initiated the contact with Ben Bentil of the Friars, was bumped back, but not overtly and missed on a floating layup attempt. The whistle blew and that's the way it went down.
"It was a 50-50 call and it didn't go our way today," Cooley said diplomatically.
What he also didn't say was that it takes a solid team playing together to force that situation. The Wildcats are solid and they play together. They didn't play particularly well on Friday night, but they found their way out of the woods. That's what matters on this road.