by Nick Fattori
The men’s basketball team embarked last Thursday on what could be a make-or-break point only a few weeks into the season. They traveled down to the Bahamas and participated in Battle 4 Atlantis, which is one of the premiere preseason tournaments every year.
The Wildcats opened up play on Thanksgiving Day and thrashed USC by a score of 94-79. That win earned them a semifinal date with the No. 2 ranked Kansas Jayhawks, and like the two team’s last regular season meeting in 2005 the ’Cats stunned the Jayhawks 63-59. That put ’Nova in the championship game against another ranked team, the No. 23 Iowa Hawkeyes. It was a back-and-forth battle, but the ’Cats scratched and clawed their way to a 88-83 win in OT.
The three wins in three days propelled their record to a perfect 7-0 and has already landed ’Nova two marquee wins less than a month into the season.
In the first game of the tournament, they opened up against Andy Enfield’s USC Trojans. Enfield, in his first season at USC, is famously known for being the head coach of Florida Gulf Coast University—otherwise known as Dunk City—for their improbable 2013 Sweet 16 run. It was the ’Cats, though, on this day who looked more like the highflying and athletic of the two teams.
’Nova started quick and within two minutes of game time was up 6-0 following threes from junior and sophomore guards Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidiacono.
Then, the crowd was brought to its feet when Arcidiacono found senior guard James Bell streaking up the baseline for thunderous alley-oop.
Bell followed this with the ’Cats’ third 3-pointer of the game, which forced USC to take a timeout down 11-2, less than four minutes into the game.
After the timeout the Nova Nation was finally treated to what they have heard and talked about for over a year as redshirt sophomore Dylan Ennis stepped onto the court.
Ennis was hailed an athletic juggernaut and is thought to be a staple in the Villanova backcourt for the next three seasons since his transfer from Rice following the 2012 season.
But due to a broken hand he missed the first four games of the season.
Yet Ennis quickly made up for lost time and hit two long threes within two minutes of entering the game from the bench.
He extended the lead to nine as ’Nova tried to run away with the game early.
USC senior guard Pe’Shon Howard had other ideas though.
He kept the Trojans close for most of the half with his long distance shooting and on the night had a game-high four 3-pointers.
“[Ennis has] an intangible that is really valuable,” Head Coach Jay Wright said. “As a student, teammate and person Dylan’s got great energy.”
“I was more concerned that he would be so [excited] to be playing. I thought he really did a great job, especially in the second half. He made some great passes and some good defensive plays.”
USC struggled to answer baskets by the ’Cats and ’Nova took a 48-37 lead into the half.
Howard continued to score to start the second half, but ’Nova’s assault seemed to be too much for the Trojans.
Junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston and sophomore center Daniel Ochefu also contributed to the offensive attack, making ’Nova’s offensive arsenal consummate on the day.
“I thought our depth was a factor tonight,” Wright said. “I liked that.”
The icing on the cake was a Bell three which expanded the Wildcats lead to 77-56—a game high—with about seven minutes remaining.
The Trojans had a late flurry of baskets, but in the end it was too little too late and the Wildcats knocked off the upstart USC team by a final score of 94-79.
The ’Cats placed five scorers in double figures on the day, including a team-high 17 points for Bell.
Arcidiacono added 14 and six assists and Ennis finished his debut with 14 points on four for five shooting, including 3-4 from beyond the arc.
Shooting from the outside had been a problem coming into the game for Villanova, but on this day they finally found their long distance groove.
They had averaged about 25 percent from deep coming into the game, but on the day made 11 attempts and shot nearly 40 percent.
Howard led all scorers in the game with 23 and junior star guard Byron Wesley put up a solid stat line of 15 points and 10 boards.
Seven-foot-two-inch senior center Omar Oraby was held in check most of the game and only managed to score five points and grab just four rebounds.
Much of this was due in part to the solid defensive effort from Ochefu. He battled all game long and was a huge reason ’Nova had a slight 44-41 advantage in total rebounds.
“Villanova played an excellent basketball game,” USC Head Coach Andy Enfield said. “Give them a lot of credit. I’ve been following Jay Wright for the last 12 years. Just an excellent basketball team and they played at a high level today, especially in the first half.”
The ’Cats did not have much turnaround time as they played the No. 2 ranked Kansas Jayhawks and their star freshman guard Andrew Wiggins in the semifinals.
After dominating USC in all facets of the game you would not have believed the way the Wildcats played the next day. ’Nova would have been hard-pressed to beat an average team on this night, let alone one of the top teams in the country.
They shot less than 35 percent for the game, missed 11 foul shots and committed 16 turnovers.
However, the Wildcats played a style of basketball which one would be hard pressed to find in a team playing the likes of Kansas.
The ’Cats played smash-mouth defense on the interior and were not intimidated by the bigger Jayhawks.
They also challenged the JayHawks to hit long shots, which they struggled to do, and the ’Cats outrebounded Kansas 43-34, even while playing with an undersized roster.
’Nova started the game the complete opposite of its prior game and started ice-cold from the field.
They missed their first seven attempts from the field and did not make their first shot until Hilliard hit a three with 13:13 left in the half.
This shot did spark a run which would catapult the Wildcats out to a lead.
Over the next ten minutes the ’Cats scored 27 of 35 points and held a comfortable 29-19 lead late in the half.
Kansas dug deep in the final two minutes and was able to close the gap to 29-22 going into the locker room.
Things looked like they may take a turn for the worst when Ochefu picked up two very quick fouls, putting him at four with 19 minutes still remaining.
The Wildcats were now left without a dominating inside presence against the potent frontcourt of Kansas.
It was quite a different situation for Kansas. After dealing with foul trouble for most of the first half the Jayhawks were able to get all their starters back on the floor.
Because of this they were able to flex their muscles and narrowed the gap to just two within four minutes.
’Nova fought back and refused to let Kansas run away with the game without a fight.
Ennis hit two threes during a 12-2 spurt to push the lead to a game high 12 points.
They also found an answer on the defensive with freshman forward Kris Jenkins.
He outhustled and outworked the bigger and more skilled Jayhawk big men and did a valiant effort shutting down Wiggins and Ellis.
The ’Cats were able to hold a safe and comfortable lead from the 15 minute mark all the way down to five; but, Kansas was slowly but surely whittling away at it and finally got it down to a three point game, 57-54, with just four minutes left.
The two teams traded scores and then freshman guard converted on one to give the Jayhawks their first lead since the five minute mark of the first half, 59-58 with only 30 seconds left.
’Nova needed a big shot, but Arcidiacono, the big-time shot maker could not seem to do much right on the offensive side of the ball. But, when the game was on the line, Coach Wright still had faith is his go-to guy.
Arcidiacono took an inbound pass and buried a contested three—his only made shot of the game—over future lottery pick Perry Ellis with 10.1 seconds remaining to put the ’Cats back up. A lead they would not relinquish. There were shades of Arch’s shot against Syracuse in this dagger.
“As soon as I let it go, it felt good,” Arcidiacono said. “That was the first one all night that felt good. As soon as I made it, I was converting to get back because we were up two and there was time left.”
The Wildcats held strong and came up with one final defensive stop and after making two foul shots held on to win 63-59 and shock the pro-Jayhawk crowd of Atlantis.
“We had a choice who we were going to run that for,” Wright said. “And we picked Ryan. I don’t think there’s a guy on our team who would doubt that…Everybody just knows he lives for that. When we practice end of the game situations in practice, he always makes the shot.”
Arcidiacono only finished with four points, but none bigger than his final three.
Ennis, again, starred and equaled his total from the previous day of 14 points and added four boards and two assists.
Pinkston chipped in with 13 and seven boards, but will be remembered on the night for his shutdown defense. He constantly denied Kansas big men the ball down low in the post.
On the other side Wiggins was completely shut down. He struggled to get his game going and did not know how to handle the Wildcat defenders, who would not back down from him.
He was held to three of eight shooting for only 10 points and committed a game high four turnovers.
“That was certainly a lot of fun,” Wright said. “That was a great environment. We have a lot of respect for Kansas. I am happy to have played them in November, I will say that.”
Like the Americans after their win against the Soviets in 1980, ’Nova still had to win one more game to earn the title.
That obstacle was the No. 23 ranked Iowa Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes made it to the title game after a double OT thriller against fellow Big East foe Xavier and a blowout win over UTEP.
One night after starting very poorly against Kansas, ’Nova turned the tables on Iowa. Pinkston raced out to a quick five points and they jumped out to a 10-4 by the first TV timeout.
Then, frustration and turnovers plagued the Wildcats. Over the next eight-plus minutes, Ennis committed a flagrant foul, Ochefu was assessed a technical and the team turned the ball over seven times.
All of this caused the Hawkeyes to go on a major run and hold a 33-18 lead with seven minutes left in the half.
’Nova fought back strong and showed signs of life before the end of the half and was able to cut the lead down to 42-33.
They were outshooting and outrebounding Iowa at halftime, but the stat which killed them was their 12 first half turnovers which the Hawkeyes converted into 16 points.
The start of the second half didn’t go much better for Villanova. Iowa scored eight of the first 10 points coming out of the break and once again led by 15, 50-35.
Then James Bell decided to take over the game.
With the ’Cats down 12, Bell went on a 9-0 run in just over a minute and hit three very deep threes to get them right back into the game with 10 minutes left.
Iowa did not know how to respond to the reignited Villanova offense.
The ’Cats kept attacking and by the time there was only about four minutes left, they had built a 64-57 lead. But in a game of runs it was the Hawkeyes turn. They scored 11 of the next 13 and had a 68-66 lead with just over a minute left.
But for the second straight night, Arcidiacono decided to go off. His two long threes were able to push the ’Nova lead back up to 72-71.
Iowa’s star senior guard Roy Devyn Marble was only able to hit one of two foul shots, which gave the Wildcats the final shot and a chance to win at the buzzer. But the Hawkeye pressure forced Arcidiacono to pass and freshman guard Josh Hart missed a three at the buzzer.
The championship game was headed to overtime.
Each team was answering the other’s shots repeatedly to start overtime and with just over a minute left the ’Cats held the slim lead of 84-81.
With under a minute to play, Iowa gave the ball to Marble to make a play, but he turned it over.
Bell calmly knocked down two free throws each to put the game out of reach and when the final horn sounded it was 88-83 ’Nova.
“We’ve got to give them credit,” Marble said. “They came out in the second half, made the adjustments and made the winning plays.”
For the second time in the tournament, the Wildcats placed five scorers in double figures, a sign of a truly balanced team.
They were led on the night though by Bell’s near double-double of 20 and nine.
For his play he was also named MVP of the tournament after averaging over 16 points and five rebounds a game.
The play of Hart and Jenkins also needs to be commended.
Both came off the bench to play almost the entirety all of crunch time and scored 14 and 12 points respectively.
Marble paced the Hawkeyes with 24 points and five rebounds.
Their killer was ultimately the 48-36 loss in rebounding, which gave Villanova many more opportunities to not only get back into the game when they were down, but hold on late with the lead.
“We just have great chemistry,” Arcidiacono said. “No one’s in it for themselves, or anything like that. We’re all in it for the team, we all love each other and we all battle for each other.”
After the tremendous run of capturing the Battle 4 Atlantis the ’Cats will continue their remarkable run against St. Joe’s in the Holy War.
The game is set for 6 p.m. Saturday night at Hawk Hill.For a preview of the game, see page 22.