PITTSBURGH - The game Villanova hoped would never arrive - the one in which shots refused to fall and an athletic opponent exposed the Wildcats' vulnerability around the basket - showed up unexpectedly Saturday night.
Things happen just that quickly in the NCAA tournament, and now Villanova is out, having lost, 71-68, to a North Carolina State team so unpredictable it went two months without winning back-to-back games. The Wolfpack were plenty consistent against Villanova, however, but the outcome was built from bricks at the Wildcats' offensive end.
Villanova always needs good play on the perimeter, and the three-point shot is a large part of the offense. But it was two-point shots that undid them this time, including an amazing array of missed layups, dunks, and shots in the basket area.
It always takes time to put a full season into perspective, and there were great moments and great basketball as the Wildcats won the Big East in both the regular season and the postseason tournament. They earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and finished with a record of 33-3, which is the best in school history.
But the season won't be remembered as the best. In fact, the end of this season, which marks the end of the careers of JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard, will be a bitter memory for most Villanova fans.
"I know we have to answer to the fact that we did not get to the second weekend again. We have to own that, but it's not going to define us within our program. It's going to define us outside of our program, and we accept that," coach Jay Wright said. "We're not afraid to fail. We failed here in this NCAA tournament, and we've just got to accept it, and we've got to own it and live with it."
Villanova has been disappointed at this stage of the season since its run to the Final Four in 2009. The Wildcats are 3-5 in NCAA tournament play since then and haven't returned to the Sweet 16. This season, reaching that goal seemed almost certain after Villanova opened with a resounding win over Lafayette and then matched up against N.C. State, which had some good wins this season, but some awful losses as well.
It was a furious rush to the finish of the game as Villanova tried to fashion a comeback from a 12-point deficit early in the second half. With Hilliard hitting on three three-pointers in the final two minutes of the game, the Wildcats got within two points but could never get the one more shot or the one more stop they needed to force overtime or pull out the win.
"Three times, three games this year, we just weren't able to do it," guard Ryan Arcidiacono said. "The other team was better that day. You just have to credit N.C. State for the way they played. But that doesn't define our whole season. Yes, this hurts. It hurts everyone that we're not making the second weekend. But I think we battled down to the very last second. We did what we do."
That part is unquestioned, but there were things they always do that didn't happen in this game. One of those is dominating the guard play at both ends of the floor. It was obvious from the shooting percentages that this wasn't their best night at the offensive end, but they have survived nights like that before. The problem was on defense. Playing way out on the floor to contain N.C. State's prolific three-point shooters, the Villanova guards couldn't stay in front of their men on dribble-drives into the basket area. And once there was penetration, Villanova was either too small, too slow, or too indecisive in dealing with the Wolfpack's inside attack.
"A guard comes at you, [and] it's a quick decision," Wright said. "Do I have to come and help, or do I let them take a shot and stick with my man for a rebound? We had some poor decisions that way, but you've got to give N.C. State credit. They came hard at the rim, and we couldn't get a lineup on the floor that could control their guards. Again, it was the guards, getting beat by their guards."
If that is particularly frustrating or galling for a program that has built its reputation on guard play, it is just one part of the frustration that comes with this season's sudden end. Put it on the list. The box score is a mirror of that frustration. The Wildcats shot 31.1 percent from the field. That wasn't their only failing, but it was enough. It usually is. They shot 31.0 percent against Seton Hall and 34.2 percent against Georgetown in their only other losses this season, and those three games mark their three worst shooting nights of the year.
Two more makes instead of misses, and they escape again. But not this time, and, unfortunately, these times are the ones people remember.
Villanova hasn't made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since its Final Four run in 2009. Here are their last five tournament peformances.
Season Record Seed Exit
'09-10 25-8 2 vs. (10) St. Mary's, 3d round
'10-11 21-12 9 vs. (8) George Mason, 2d round
'12-13 20-14 9 vs. (8) N. Carolina, 2d round
'13-14 29-5 2 vs. (7) Connecticut, 3d round
'14-15 33-3 1 vs. (8) N.C. State, 3d round