NEW YORK - He sat on the bench wearing a dazed look, a big white patch covering the right side of his face. From across the way, it was hard to tell whether Mouphtaou Yarou was feeling the effects of his violent first-half crash to the floor under his own basket, or whether what he was watching in his void left him so dumbfounded.
Again and again in the second half, South Florida oozed through Villanova's holy defense, chopping what appeared to be a comfortable 16-point lead down until it had vanished, setting up Anthony Crater's winning, too-easy-to-believe drive around Dominic Cheek with 5.1 seconds left that gave 15th-seeded South Florida a historic, 70-69 victory over the Wildcats.
It was the largest halftime deficit overcome in Big East Tournament history, highlighting how fragile the psyche and mettle of this team has become - despite three senior starters. After blasting out to that first-half lead, 'Nova connected on just four field goals in the second half. Some of it had to do with the loss of Yarou, whom coach Jay Wright suggested afterward may have suffered a concussion in addition to the laceration on his cheek and a tender rib cage.
"That wasn't the kind of game you want to lose Mouph in," said the beleaguered coach. "Still, we had enough people that we should have been able to stop them in the second half."
Stop them? The only pause to the running of the Bulls in the second half came when their hooves slipped on some wet spots on the court. Those two turnovers, coming within the final minutes, should have doomed South Florida. There was also an ugly brick from their leading scorer, Shaun Noriega, mixed in there.
But the 'Cats seemed intent in going paw-to-hoof in that department. Wright seemed to intimate that officiating played into it - "The main reason I can't say," he said in response to his team's point drought. But it's hard to roll with that, given the struggles his team has had over the last month and change.
"The second reason is that we got tentative with a lead," Wright said. "We haven't won a game in so long I think everybody got a little scared, a little short with their shots. We just didn't play with confidence."
Incredible as Crater's winning hoop was, it paled in comparison to his previous basket. Again and again in the second half, a 'Cats offense that finally seemed to find some rhythm in setting a season-high halftime point total looked as disjointed as an AAU team meeting for the first time. After making 20 straight free throws, Villanova missed the front end of consecutive one-and-ones in the final 48 seconds of the game. Maalik Wayns inexplicably overthrew a sideline inbounds pass to Antonio Pena underneath his own basket with 23 seconds left, resulting in an easy layup for Crater.
"We run that play everyday," Wayns said. "I didn't see anyone open. I saw Tony had a point guard on him and I thought I would just throw it in the air and he would out-jump the point guard. I just made a bad pass."
Please tell me that someone on Nova's coaching staff today will explain to Maalik that that pass is never a good idea, and a really awful one with a one-point lead in the final minute of a game.
Unbelievable. Incredible. Awful.
And yeah, dumbfounding.
Truth is, we're recycling words to describe Villanova's second-annual cascade from basketball grace and a single-digit national ranking into what Wright last night described as a sort of NCAA Tournament limbo. Are they a seventh seed? An eighth?
Are they in any danger of not hearing their name called at all on Sunday?
"I would say after this," Wright said, "there's a little concern."
Yeah, but not too much. There's your silver lining. Officially, Villanova's losing streak is now at five. The last time they beat a tournament-bound team was against West Virginia more than a month ago. But their body of work still commands at least one more performance 8 or 9 days from now, probably against a team not from this haunted- house conference of theirs.
That means more rest than most teams, more practices to work on things, more time to figure out how to put Humpty together again.
More time for Mouph to clear his head.
"That's going to have to be our advantage," Wright said. "To rest up, and get everybody healthy. I still think for our group it would have been nice to get a few wins, make ourselves feel better. But we're going to have to settle for that."
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