Hilliard absorbs Villanova's crushing defeat with class
PITTSBURGH The scene in the losing locker room after an NCAA tournament game is always the same, and this is how it was Saturday night in the Consol Energy Center: Each player on the Villanova roster, seated and slumped, each one's face blank, each one's body folded into a wooden cubicle as if they were all dolls stuffed and stacked on a child's closet shelf.
PITTSBURGH - The scene in the losing locker room after an NCAA tournament game is always the same, and this is how it was Saturday night in the Consol Energy Center: Each player on the Villanova roster, seated and slumped, each one's face blank, each one's body folded into a wooden cubicle as if they were all dolls stuffed and stacked on a child's closet shelf.
The silence in the room is always the most cutting thing, because for some of these kids - and they are still kids, despite the pomp and the attention and the billions of dollars made on their backs - college basketball is over for them. It was the best time of their lives, and they won't have it anymore.
Darrun Hilliard was one of those two kids in that locker room Saturday night, one of Villanova's two seniors. He had been the Wildcats' best player on a bad night for their program, a 71-68 loss to North Carolina State in the tournament's round of 32. Villanova was the top seed in the East Regional - N.C. State was eighth - and for the third time in six years and for the second straight year, the Wildcats had been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed and had failed to advance to the tournament's second weekend. This was indeed a failure, coach Jay Wright said after Saturday's game, and he and his players had to own it. He used that phrase over and over again. Own it.
Hilliard was trying to own it. He had been 'Nova's best player Saturday, scoring a game-high 27 points, hitting one deep three-pointer after another down the stretch just to keep the Wildcats close, just to give them a chance on a night they were too aggressive and too wired and challenged by a quick, athletic team in a way they probably hadn't been during their Big East schedule.
Hilliard had met some of those challenges Saturday, more than most of his teammates had, but not all of them. He had committed a game-changing foul late in the first half, bumping the Wolfpack's Caleb Martin on a three-pointer - a four-point play that turned a three-point Villanova lead into a one-point deficit and swung everything toward N.C. State. He had taken a desperate three-pointer with 10 seconds left in the game and the Wildcats down four when Wright had made it clear he wanted Hilliard to take a two-point shot, to try to get it to a one-possession game. His night had been much like Villanova's season - so many good things, the 33 victories, the Big East regular-season and tournament championships, so many of them hollow now - and he tried to put on a good face.
"It happens, man. It happens," he said. "I was just grateful to be here. To have my mom and family up here and see a new city, to experience this is something much more than not getting to the next round. Where I come from, there's a lot of the same things going on."
He grew up in Bethlehem, the gritty steel city in the Lehigh Valley, the same hometown of Eagles legend Chuck Bednarik, who had died at 89 early Saturday morning. Hilliard would go back there for a while, he said, maybe go to McDonald's to get a cheeseburger, like any other kid would do, anything to get away from basketball, anything to remind him of what he got to experience in college.
He'd had a terrific career, scoring 1,511 points, helping regenerate the program after an awful 13-19 season when he was a freshman in 2011-12, becoming the most enjoyable Villanova player to watch for the way he glided around the court, for that fluid lefthanded shooting stroke. Sometimes, you see these kids in these moments, and they're devastated, and it's obvious. Hilliard did not speak as if he were.
"I'm burning up inside," he said. "I'm pretty good at hiding things. I'm pretty good at putting a smile on for you guys."
At the game's final buzzer, when the dream - the expectation, really - that the Wildcats would reach the Final Four was officially gone, Hilliard had been the one player waving to his teammates to fall into the handshake line, to congratulate the N.C. State players and coaches with class.
"Higher purpose, man," he said. "You've got those younger guys to worry about. You can sulk and cry all you want. Everybody's going to understand that, but I was trying to look out for the younger guys, the guys who were showing emotions. I'm just trying to be that person to pick them up because I was in their shoes once before."
He was still sitting in that wooden locker, still so composed about it all, but he was right: He was good at hiding things. As Hilliard had come off the court after the handshake line, Wright said later, he had tears flooding his face as he walked to the locker room, and he broke down again there as Wright spoke to the team. And when he sat on a dais for a postgame news conference, he stared into the distance, at nothing, never looking at the person who had asked him a question, just trying to hold it together.
Yes, there will be more questions and criticisms of Wright and this Villanova team, of another season that ended too soon. They will come in e-mails from alumni and fans and rants from talk-radio callers - "I need [Chip Kelly] to make a move this week," Wright said - and the Wildcats will have to own every one. So will Darrun Hilliard, when it's time. He'll first remind himself how good his best days at Villanova were. He'll go back to Bethlehem. A lot of the same things go on there. Here, too, as it turned out.