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Mike Lopresti | | February 15, 2015

Lopresti: Villanova senior leads Cats to big conference road win

  Darrun Hilliard finished with 31 points, making eight 3-pointers including the game winner.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Before Villanova’s Darrun Hilliard tell us about his 31 points and game-winning dagger at Butler Saturday night, or what his duties are as senior leader of the baddest team in the Big East, or addresses the really big issue concerning the Wildcats, there’s one nagging question.

How is it he writes with his right hand, throws a football with his right hand, but guns down Butler with his left hand?

"That’s my dad," he said. "He had me do everything with my right hand. I’m kind of ambidextrous."

But why, then, weren't those eight 3-pointers Saturday night launched from his right hand?

"Not too good with it. Maybe layups and stuff."


Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Box Score | Recap
Now that we’ve cleared that up, back to his career game, and his team.

Yes, Villanova is the class of the Big East, but we pretty much knew that already. Note the 23-2 record. Note Saturday night’s 68-65 victory, when the Wildcats went before a full and aroused house at Butler -- No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the league -- and turned out the lights with Hilliard’s 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds left. Note the two-game lead in the conference and the anchor dropped in the top 10.

But what we’ll need to find out one day is how far any of that can take the Wildcats in March. Eventually, the past will be a natural issue for this team. Has to be, after lugging a 28-4 record and No. 2 seed into the 2014 NCAA tournament last spring, and not making it out of the first weekend -- even if the loss came against a Connecticut team on its national championship run. Has to be, with the Wildcats 2-4 in the tournament since their 2009 Final Four.

"We’ve still got a bunch of games left," Hilliard said. "But it’s in the back of our minds a little bit."

The coach understands how this all works.

"I want them to live in the present. I want them to live one day at a time," Jay Wright said. "That’s definitely out there. It’s all around them. Everybody at Villanova, everybody in Philadelphia -- if they don’t get to at least the Sweet 16, it’s going to a failure. I never want them to think that way. I realize we’re going to have to deal with that. I don’t want them to deal with that."

There is still a fine regular season to finish, and savor along the way. Saturday, for instance. Kudos all around for that one.

To Butler, for packing the place with a fervor on such an august occasion – No. 6 Villanova was the highest ranking visitor to Hinkle Fieldhouse in 34 years.

To the Big East, for its top two teams putting on such a game. Together they shot 57 percent the second half, and had only 17 turnovers all game.

Most especially to Hilliard, as a fresh example of how there are few things in college basketball more dangerous than a motivated senior.

  Hilliard was 9 of 16 from the field.
Let’s review his crunch time, as the game teetered.

Hit three free throws at 1:24. Double dribbled at 28 seconds, trying to make something happen against Butler’s defense. Buried the three-pointer to settle the night, after Ryan Arcidiacono -- the Villanova guard who was 0-for-6 with no points -- drove to divert the attentive Butler defense, then shoveled to Hilliard, who was somehow more alone than a scarecrow in an Indiana cornfield.

"We practice that every day," Hilliard said later. "Not the double dribble."

Villanova usually prefers its offense to have a balanced diet. The top six scoring averages go from 9.0 to 14.1. But Wright also is renowned for putting his team’s fate in the hands of his seniors, and if it was going to take the Hilliard Show at Butler, so be it.

"I trust him," Wright said. "We talk about his mental toughness. He turns the ball over with the game on the line, they tie the game, and then he goes back and hits the shot. That’s the beauty of him. That’s a senior; not afraid to make the play that loses the game, not afraid to take the shot to win the game."

Hilliard took a moment to ponder his Villanova road, which began with him averaging 4.8 points a game as a freshman. But Saturday was his 101st start, not to mention one of his best. "When I came to college, I was just a kid trying to find his way, just trying to find my niche in this program," he said. "It takes those three years to fully understand what seniors are about in this program."

With the express ramp off to the NBA, there are fewer stories like this in college basketball. Not enough time for a slow, steady bloom. "It’s my favorite thing to do. It’s every coach’s favorite thing to do," Wright said. "Just to watch a guy develop."

In Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston, Wright has his senior leaders. He has a team that knows how to share and defend. There is still a league to secure, but the calendar clicks on. March is coming.

"I thought they did a great job last year. They ran into the national champions in the second round. That’s all it is to me," Wright said. "But you’re not judged that way, and I respect that. But I want them to understand that it’s more than that. I don’t want them to have that pressure on them."

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