LOUISVILLE, Ky. – By late Saturday night, the beauty of offense had gone out of style in the South Regional. Time for some Villanova basketball.
Never mind the recent Wildcats shooting percentage that could boil an egg. "We knew that was going to come to an end," Ryan Arcidiacono was saying.Never mind Kansas’ gaudy numbers in a 17-game winning streak, or how these two teams had combined to put up 174 points a night in the tournament, rolling to this intersection, where one road led to the Final Four, and the other home. This game, the two teams would struggle to score 123.
This was 40 3-pointers taken, and only 10 made. This was Kansas All-American Perry Ellis with but one field goal and five shots in 34 minutes. This was will and tenacity, and making just enough plays – and maybe being helped by a call or two.
And in the end, this was Villanova, a March underachiever no more, with a 64-59 victory whose game film will never be used for an offensive clinic, but still sends the Wildcats to Houston.
It was all so . . . Villanovian.
"Defending and rebounding," Kris Jenkins said. "They’re the core of this program."
Or put another way . . .
"We’re not just an offensive team. We can grind games out," Arcidiacono said.
Or another way . . .
"Making the game ugly and a street fight was to our advantage," Daniel Ochefu said. "Because that’s what we preach every day in practice."
Or another way . . .
"That’s what this team is built on, attitude," Josh Hart said. "We say it all the time. We have wristbands that say it. Attitude. No matter what position you’re in, you’re going to be OK."
"It was ugly, but it was beautiful to us."
Ah yes, Villanova basketball. More grit than flash.
That’s marching to the Final Four shooting 40.4 percent.
But it’s also having the calm to hit 18 of 19 free throws against Miami Thursday, and then doing it again against Kansas. "At the end of the game situation, we all want the ball for free throws," Arcidiacono said.
That’s making it a nightmare for Ellis, who saw Wildcats everywhere he turned. "It was everybody loading to him," Ochefu said, "everybody making plays on him, being aware of where he was."
That’s not blinking, when it might have been easy to.
"We always practice the most difficult situation," Arcidiacono said. "Anytime we turn the ball over, the other team gets five points, we’re used to coming back and battling and making it ugly. It’s just a mentality on this team."And lastly, that is kicking some postseason ghosts to the curb.
Take Arcidiacono, from a Villanova family, sitting in his locker afterward Saturday, holding the South Regional trophy with both hands.
"It’s a surreal feeling, especially growing up watching Villanova. I never thought I’d be a part of it," said the senior, who has been here through the past three years of maddening NCAA Tournament first week malfunctions.
"I think for us to go through the struggles and early exits really helped us persevere in this tournament. I’ll lose in the first round my first three years to get to the Final Four. It’s our last go-around, we went through the struggles. We lost to Columbia our freshman year by 20 at home. We know what the lows of the low are."
So what happened?
"You’ve just got to trust the process, and trust the coaches and trust Villanova basketball, and that’s what we did."
All this Saturday, on his 22nd birthday.
"Probably the best birthday of my life."
Or Ochefu, another senior who has seen the dark days in March and now the bright ones.
"Dreams are coming true right here."
Or Jenkins, named the most outstanding player of the regional. Surely, after hearing national snickers about their March record, it must be nice to have the last laugh?
"We’re not done yet so we haven’t had the last laugh. But this moment feels great because I know how hard we’ve worked and how much we’ve sacrificed."
Or Jay Wright, the coach who led Villanova to the 2009 Final Four, but has worked so long through so many frustrations to get back.
"It’s the greatest feeling in the world to see these guys get to that point where everyone else sees that they’re as good as we see they can be."
Or Val Ackerman, commissioner of a Big East that by most measurements has had three good years in its new creation, but labored with the perception of March flameouts, especially Villanova’s. Someone had to break through.
"This team means so much to the Big East," she said, watching the Wildcats cut down the nets. "It’s like the heart and soul of the conference is in Villanova, Pennsylvania.
"This is the beauty of this tournament, you’re one and done. Everything has to go right. The margin of error as you go further along gets smaller and smaller, and Villanova’s been on a great roll. That shows poise, experience, focus. Yeah for the conference, it’s validation."
So the perception of her conference changed on one night?
"I think so. And I’m very happy about it."
Maybe it was fitting that Villanova be the trail blazer, and doing it the Villanova way. It left the Wildcats cavorting on the KFC Yum! Center floor in their lower-seeded blue uniforms, partying like it was 1985.
Well, not quite like 1985. They won the national championship then. Remember the immortality gained over Georgetown? That, too, came in the state of Kentucky, down the road at Lexington. Villanova had not been back to an NCAA Tournament since in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and look what happened on the return. This state seems to agree with the Wildcats in the spring. Something always good is happening.
But next week they’ll be in Texas, facing an Oklahoma that blitzed them 78-55 on Pearl Harbor Day in Hawaii, hitting 14 3-pointers. "That game," Ochefu said, "was not ugly at all.’’
They’ll try to work on that this week.