by Kevin Pulsifer
After Saturday’s loss to Providence, many Villanova basketball fans were afraid of what was to come. With No. 5 Louisville and No. 3 Syracuse on tap in the upcoming week, it appeared as though the Wildcats would fall to 2-5 in the Big East, with essentially no chance at a March Madness berth.
However, one way or another, Jay Wright’s crew continues to surprise the Nova Nation.
Villanova managed to stun Louisville 73-64 on Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center, bringing their conference record to 3-3.
The ’Cats were extremely balanced on offense, with five different players scoring in double digits. Everyone stepped up at one point or another.
Freshman forward Daniel Ochefu threw down a massive dunk in the first half and swatted a Russ Smith jump shot halfway across the court in the second. Down 52-46, sophomore guard Darrun Hilliard completed a 3-point play to start a 16-3 run that put the game away.
With four minutes to go, and the game tied at 53, ’Nova needed a big play to grab momentum and sophomore guard Achraf Yacoubou was there for a 3-pointer from the corner.
A minute later, junior guard James Bell nailed a shot from behind the arc to double the lead to six points. Five different players made a free throw in the final minute as part of an 11-4 run that sealed the deal.
In the first half, the Cardinals found themselves trailing 23-13, thanks to triples by Hilliard, Bell, freshman guard Ryan Arcidiacono and junior guard Tony Chennault.
The top-five team would not surrender, though, using a 12-0 run to take the lead in a matter of minutes. Villanova led 30-28 at the half, and the game was clearly still up for grabs.
It was a back-and-forth affair for the early part of the second half, until Louisville went on a 14-3 run capped by three jumpers by Gorgui Dieng to stretch the Cardinal lead to 48-42. Slowly but surely, Villanova began to chip away at the lead.
Arcidiacono paced the Wildcats with 15 points, three assists and five rebounds. Redshirt sophomore forward JayVaughn Pinkston had a strong effort off the bench, contributing 11 points and six boards. Eight different players were on the court for at least 16 minutes.
’Nova showed improvement in many areas, most importantly shooting from long range. They have consistently been hovering in the low 30s percentage-wise, while the dominant Wildcat teams from the 2000s were always more consistent.
Tuesday night, they were 7-15 (47 percent) from three, a higher percentage than they were from within the arc.
For Louisville, sophomore guard Wayne Blackshear led the charge with 17 points, shooting 5-8 from the 3-point line. Senior guard Peyton Siva posted a double-double with 15 points and 13 assists. Siva and fellow guard Russ Smith were the only two Cardinals to record an assist in the game. In comparison, seven different Wildcats had an assist.
For a bit, however, it felt like the same old Villanova basketball team. The ’Cats turned the ball over 19 times, which is actually above their season average. The Cardinals’ full-court press occasionally resulted in Arcidiacono showing his true freshman colors. There were a few instances where he tried to force a lob pass over a leaping Louisville defender, and it often went the other way for points.
Louisville stole the ball more, had more assists, outrebounded Villanova on the offensive glass and even made more field goals. The key difference was in free throws.
Villanova entered Tuesday’s game second in the nation in getting to the foul line. Up until the four-minute mark, they had taken just 12 free throw attempts to Louisville’s 22. ’Nova got to the stripe an astounding 17 times in the final minutes as part of the second half comeback.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals struggled shooting free throws all night long. They finished 12-24 from the line, and in a four minute span they missed seven out of eight. If they had made five or six of those, they might have a lead with a minute remaining.
Ranked teams survive in the NCAA by finishing games, and not giving a desperate team a chance to come back. Louisville left the door open, and the Wildcats seized the opportunity immediately.
Oddly enough, it had been two years to the day since Villanova’s last win against a ranked opponent. That came in the Carrier Dome against Syracuse, an 83-72 win.
That win is considered by some to be the high water mark for Villanova basketball in the last few years.
Since then, the Wildcats have not won a NCAA tournament game and are 29-36 overall. Perhaps it’s time to start trending upwards again.
Villanova will play host to Syracuse on Saturday morning at 11 a.m. at the Wells Fargo Center, where just four days earlier the Nova Nation stormed the court in triumph.
The two teams were evenly matched the first time out, an eventual 72-61 Syracuse win. Both teams have beaten Louisville in the past week, so it should be a very entertaining game.