“I was actually the last option on that play,” said junior guard James Bell in the postgame press conference.
Bell hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 34 seconds remaining to propel the Villanova basketball team to a 65-61 victory over St. Joseph’s University on Tuesday night.
It was a hard-fought battle between two schools that share nothing but a location near Philadelphia and a mutual hatred for the other.
Aptly nicknamed the “Holy War,” the game proved to be a back-and-forth affair where neither team led by more than six points the entire night.
In fact, there were only two occasions in the second half where a 3-pointer would not have erased the lead.
The Pavilion crowd, which had seemed a little lackluster earlier in the year, was running on all cylinders Tuesday evening.
Perhaps it was the importance of the night’s Big 5 matchup.
From the start of the game, it was evident that home-court advantage might come into play, and the student section managed to turn the tides for the Wildcats.
With 9:56 remaining in the second half, St. Joe’s junior forward Halil Kanacevic made a 3-pointer to give the Hawks a 50-47 lead.
As he ran back on defense, it appeared as though Kanacevic gave the crowd multiple obscene hand gestures, while blatantly screaming expletives in an apparent attempt to show off to the crowd. It was his first and only basket of the night.
The referees talked to him afterward, but did not award Kanacevic with a technical foul. Head coach Jay Wright was T’d up in the first half for arguing fouls, and junior forward C.J. Aiken was given a technical foul soon after Hanacevic’s taunt.
From that point forward, the student section was as loud as ever. The students got riled up at Hanacevic, got more excited when redshirt sophomore forward JayVaughn Pinkston drew an and-one foul to tie the game up at 50 and went positively beserk when redshirt senior forward Maurice Sutton slammed down a dunk just 30 seconds later.
The final minute of play, which took about 15 minutes but felt like an hour, will forever live in the memory of those who attended this game.
Having trailed by five, 61-56, with two minutes remaining, Daniel Ochefu put back an offensive rebound for a layup, closing the gap to 61-60.
Ochefu then fouled Kanacevic with 46 seconds left, and Kanacevic was visibly flustered by the Pavilion’s roars. He warily stepped to the line and proceeded to miss both of his free throws, igniting a fire under an already raucous crowd.
Wright called a timeout and set up a play that resulted in Bell’s go-ahead triple, which was an afterthought at the time.
The clutch make gave ’Nova a 63-61 lead, and St. Joe’s held out for the final shot.
Hawks coach Phil Martelli called timeouts with 26 and 11 seconds left on the game and shot clock, and Wright echoed with his own timeout with 11 seconds to go. The ensuing play caused a loose ball, and Darrun Hilliard pulled a Derek Jeter, diving into the press area in an attempt to save the ball for the Wildcats.
Hilliard bowled over the WXVU announcers and nearly destroyed press row while failing to secure the ball, but it was a valiant effort that got the crowd even more hyped up.
Only three seconds remained, and who was inbounding the ball for St. Joe’s? None other than Hanacevic.
With Sutton guarding the sideline in the far corner, Kanacevic failed to find an open passing lane, panicked and tried to bounce the ball off of Sutton’s leg.
The ball ricocheted off Sutton and hit Kanacevic, causing a turnover which gave Villanova the ability to seal a win by making free throws. Bell was fouled and sank both attempts, sealing the win for Villanova.
Pinkston and Bell finished with 12 points to lead the Wildcats. Nearly every player for the ’Cats contributed in a key way, as Sutton and sophomore guard Achraf Yacoubou tallied nine and seven rebounds respectively.
Yacoubou and fellow sophomore guard Darrun Hilliard finished with nine points, and senior forward Mouphtaou Yarou added six points and six boards.
Villanova committed just 13 turnovers, tied for its lowest total of the year. Better ball-handling, coupled with 13 offensive rebounds, helped to keep the Wildcats in the game until the end. Hopefully this bodes well for the future as the team finishes up its non-conference schedule.
The team plays next at home against Delaware on Sunday at 4 p.m. The Blue Hens are 3-7 and are 1-6 in their last seven games.