NEW YORK – If the value of experience in the college postseason was ever in doubt – and, actually, it never is – Villanova proved the point again on Friday night with an overtime Big East semifinal win over Xavier that it earned more than deserved.
The Wildcats will play for the conference championship on Saturday night, and the chance to become the first school to win three consecutive Big East titles, only because they kept going against Xavier when many teams would have called it a night.
It’s likely the Villanova players knew that winning was a long shot when they trailed by seven with 3 minutes, 35 seconds left in regulation, or by four with under a minute to go. But they never let up, led by seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, and Xavier finally came apart in the final possessions of the night.
“This was a fun game to be a part of, but it’s a lot more fun when you win,” coach Jay Wright said. “The atmosphere in the Garden on Friday night in the semifinals … there’s nothing like it in college basketball. The place was rocking.”
The sellout crowd saw a great game, even if it wasn’t the most artistic, particularly from Villanova’s standpoint.
The Wildcats struggled with their shooting, and had real difficulty contending with Xavier’s frontcourt game. They trailed by as many as 10 points late in the first half, scrapped back into the game early in the second half, and then drifted again before revving up in the final minutes of regulation and the overtime.
Booth was remarkable in sparking the comeback. He and Paschall scored 10 of the team’s 13 points in the overtime, but it was Booth’s work near the end of regulation that made the difference.
“We really couldn’t run any offense because they were just switching everything,” Wright said. “We just put it in Phil’s hands. It’s kind of embarrassing to say as a coach, but we didn’t have any offense left. We just put it in Phil’s hands and told him to make decisions. Drive it if you thought you could get to the rim. If you didn’t, try to find people for threes. When he got hot, it forced them to leave to help, and then he found guys for threes.”
It sounds easy that way, but it was anything but among the long, athletic trees of the Xavier defense.
“Just trying to stay aggressive,” said Booth, who finished with 28 points, one point shy of his career-high. “So I was just trying to make a read on what the defense was giving me.
As good a job of putting a team on one’s shoulders as the coach remembers?
“Right now, it’s the greatest ever. It’s the only one I can remember right now,” Wright said.
The game could also prove to be instructive for the Wildcats as they move forward into the NCAA tournament next week.
In the last meeting between Villanova and Xavier prior to Friday’s, the Wildcats lost, 66-54, on Feb. 24 in a game that represented the absolute low point of the season for them. It was the fewest points scored by Villanova in the Big East this season, and their lowest total since being held to 46 by Michigan in November.
In losing that game to the Musketeers, the Wildcats had dropped four out of five after opening conference play with 10 straight wins.
Villanova shot poorly, but most troubling was the inability to handle Xavier in the basket area on defense. The Wildcats made more three-pointers than the Musketeers but were outscored, 28-14, in the paint. Xavier’s three frontcourt starters – 6-foot-9 Tyreke Jones, 6-7 Naji Marshall, and Zach Hankins – combined to take 23 of their team’s 25 two-point attempts and made an impressive 15 of them.
Friday’s conference semifinal went much the same way in the first half as Xavier built a lead built on another big advantage in the basket area. The Musketeers scored on nine of 10 possessions in one stretch as they went out to as much as a 10-point lead, 33-23.
Wright shuffled his lineup constantly, looking for a defensive combination that could also keep the offense afloat at the other end. Booth led the Wildcats with 13 points in the half, but he didn’t have much help.
Villanova finally did a better job of defending the pick-roll and screen-roll plays that were freeing up the Xavier big men for easy baskets, and the Musketeers eventually settled for more shots from the outside. That’s not Xavier’s strength and it finished with just five three-pointers on 24 attempts.
“That’s been our struggle all year,” Wright said, of defending the paint. “We have lineups that are good defensively and haven’t found a way offensively with that group. And some good offensive lineups, we haven’t found a way defensively. I think we did find some things tonight. I don’t want to share them. We did have the defensive lineup in there offensively, and we did find some good things at the end of this game.”
It’s never too late to learn, not as long as there are still games on the schedule, and we know that Villanova still has at least two more. It’s almost never too late to win, either, and the Wildcats showed that at the end on Friday night, too.