Could Villanova make something out of nothing? That was about the only question left Saturday afternoon inside the Wells Fargo Center. Dreadful free-throw shooting and worse three-point shooting. No second-chance buckets. Big guys in foul trouble. Point guard wincing back to the huddle during a timeout.
At the other end, Providence kept finding the rim with their shots and could even throw up the occasional airball and still hold the lead.
Ugly game, coming in for an ugly landing.
“We’re not a pretty team," Providence coach Ed Cooley said after the ugly visitors beat the ugly home team, 58-54. “I don’t coach a pretty team. That’s not our style. We’re gritty. We’re nasty. We’re ugly. We’re not trying to go to the prom and become prom kings. We want to be the ugliest, but we want to be the most successful."
Villanova, arriving with a five-game win streak, was game for winning ugly. The 15,516 in the house probably thought it was happening late. Except never discount that the team that just has to win gets the win. The Friars came in right on the NCAA bubble. A road win at Villanova remains a fine way to show the NCAA tournament selection committee you belong, style points be damned.
Maybe this game didn’t even belong in an arena, probably not even in the renovated digs back on Villanova’s campus. Picture a throwback game inside Jake Nevin Gym. The kind of game Villanova can expect next month in the tournament?
“Yeah, oh yeah," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “What you can expect in the Big East tournament.”
When Wright mentioned his team still had its chances late, he wasn’t looking for silver linings. He pointed to a pass that turned into a backcourt violation, a missed connection inside, game on the line. Freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl made a big three and a bigger putback. Wasn’t enough.
“We had our chances," Wright repeated.
The star of this game was Providence guard Luwane Pipkins, who didn’t buy into the ugly designation, hitting 7-of-13 shots, including half his eight three-pointers, making his free throws, finishing with 27 points.
“We couldn’t guard him," Wright said.
This regular season, Villanova did no better than split against any of the other schools in the top half of the Big East. Splits with Creighton, Marquette and now Providence, hoping for a split with a win Wednesday at Seton Hall.
That suggests the Big East tournament will indeed be a free-for-all. Providence has now beaten every Big East team but Xavier. Asked about Providence now beating five top 25 teams in the last month, Cooley said, “The fact that you can say that tells the power of the Big East. If Providence College has five straight top 25 wins, tells you how good our league is, from top to bottom.”
Cooley talked about the focus his guys have shown trying to right a wrong, referring to early non-conference blahs that seemed to have Providence dead in the water.
Lessons for the home team? Asked how they can put together that complete game, Wright said, “You’re working for that all year. That’s what a real experienced team is good at that. They find ways. A couple of bad possessions in a row, then they find a way to stop the bleeding. That’s part of us being a young team."
Young might not be the right word, Wright suggested, "because everybody’s young. Just inexperienced. We didn’t handle that first half well and then we didn’t handle plays down the stretch well.”
Asked about dealing with the physicality of Providence, Wright said, “It’s just not something we’ve handled well, this group, all year. We’ve tried to get better at it. Sometimes the only way you get better at it is just live through it. Sometimes the way you get better at it, you get in the weight room over the summer, and get a year older.”
Don’t mistake a dose of realism for a white flag.
“I hope that’s not the case," Wright added. “I hope we can mentally get tougher, in terms of our technique, handle that physicality a little bit better.”