PITTSBURGH - Villanova center Daniel Ochefu was just playing, not really aware of the numbers on the scoreboard.
"Their coach called a timeout," Ochefu said, and so he looked up at the board Thursday at the Consol Energy Center, kind of focused in, and was surprised to see Villanova up by "26 or 28," the senior said. "A nice little run."
Villanova takes off on those nice ones so often they almost seem scheduled. It wasn't just Lafayette that fell victim in its NCAA East Regional mismatch. These are 'Nova staples. Could be 22-3, like they did against VCU, a team more accustomed to putting up those runs. Sometimes the bursts propel Villanova back into things. A 22-5 spree was necessary in an overtime win over Syracuse.
That's what good teams do, of course. This just may be the most identifiable symbol of what makes Villanova a top seed. In Villanova's first dozen games, it had at least one run each game. (Our definition of a run: The other team can't score more than five points during it, and 'Nova has to score at least 10 more than the opposition - and garbage time doesn't count.)
"As we watch them, they have some spurts here and there that are pretty impressive," said North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried. "We've got to make sure we try not to let that happen."
"Yesterday's game was kind of like, where did it go?" said guard Darrun Hilliard. "You looked at the scoreboard, it's one thing, you look at it another moment, it's another thing. It just happens. No discredit to those teams, but, I mean, it just happens for us."
Villanova's bench guys said they can't necessarily predict when a burst is about to start, but they sure recognize it when one starts.
"Everybody gets very focused," said junior walk-on Patrick Farrell.
Asked what coaches can do to try to slow things down other than call timeouts, Gottfried said, "Well, sometimes it's hard. Sometimes you need more than one timeout. You need a couple, two or three times, if they're really on a run and you've got to slow them down. You try to break their rhythm. It may be one guy that's on fire, and you may make some adjustments and change personnel or change the defensive assignment or switch your defenses if a team really gets in a groove."
Villanova's secret, of course, is that it's rarely one guy. Look at that VCU run in Brooklyn in November. 'Nova was down four less than two minutes after the break. Just 4 minutes, 5 seconds later, 'Nova was up 15 after the 22-3 run.
The spree was like a blueprint for the way they hope to do it. A three-pointer by Ryan Arcidiacono, assist to Kris Jenkins. Three-pointer Jenkins, assist to Arcidiacono. Three-pointer Phil Booth, assist to Josh Hart. Three-pointer Jenkins, assist to Booth. Each of the shooters also had an assist. And all involved come off Villanova's bench except for Arcidiacono.
Plenty of 'Nova's spree points come out of half-court sets, not just from forcing turnovers and scoring on fastbreaks. So the runs really represent peak efficiency. It may start with taking a charge as much as getting a steal.
"Whenever I see our defense is on par, I think we can burst on a run at any time," Booth said. "It's getting contested shots - of course, steals would be a great one, too. But just getting rebounds, whenever I feel like we're doing that consecutively, I feel like we can pull off a good run."
The 'Nova guys have a mantra that the score at halftime is 0-0, no relaxing. Typical stuff, but it is striking how many of the runs come directly after the halftime break. Yes, they make adjustments, at both ends of the court.
Their depth also wears opponents down. Not depth of numbers. More like teams get tired of how hard they need to concentrate. Note that Villanova is sixth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Another walk-on, Kevin Rafferty, a Malvern Prep graduate, isn't sure it's entirely coincidental that so many after-half runs occur after the teams switch sides at the half, with Villanova playing offense right in front of its coach.
"He can kind of orchestrate a little better, our offensive sets," Rafferty said. "I think we get more open looks. I think when we're able to kind of slow down our offense and run our sets well, we kind of have very real structure. Guys are cutting harder, cutting faster, the shots are going down."
He isn't trying to overplay the theory. There are plenty of first-half runs, too. "I don't know if it plays into it too much," Rafferty said. But it makes sense to throw in the mix.
Whatever the reasons add up to, one bottom line, for these Wildcats, their defining minutes aren't necessarily the ones at the end.