Just call them giant killers. That’s what Villanova’s men’s basketball team ought to be called after the week they just had. After beating 5th ranked Louisville 73-64 on Tuesday, January 22nd, Villanova (13-7 overall, 4-3 Big East) took down 3rd ranked Syracuse (18-2, 6-1) on Saturday afternoon, 75-71. Ryan Arcidiacono‘s 3-point attempt to tie the game with 25 seconds left in regulation was off the mark. Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams then missed the front end of a 1-and-1, and JayVaughn Pinkston grabbed the rebound. Nova’s James Bell missed a 3 at the other end, but Mouphtaou Yarou grabbed the offensive rebound, and Syracuse questionably decided not to foul, giving him time to kick the ball back out to Arcidiacono on the perimeter. Cold all day and finishing just 3 of 12 from beyond the arc, Arcidiacono came through when it mattered most, draining a leaner from just beyond the 3-point line to force overtime, and sending the Wells Fargo crowd of over 18,000 into a frenzy.
Villanova opened the game on a 10-0 run, and eventually stretched the lead to 25-13. With 8 minutes left in the first half however, Villanova began settling for too many jumpers, unable to penetrate Syracuse’s zone defense, allowing the Orange to go on a 6-0 run. Brandon Triche, who led Syracuse with 23 points, hit their first 3-pointer of the half to slice the lead to 4 with just over two minutes left, and he tipped in a basket at the buzzer to make it a 32-26 game at halftime. Villanova limited Syracuse to just 29 percent shooting over the first 20 minutes, thanks to their ever-improving man-to-man defense. Darrun Hilliard led the way for the Wildcats at halftime with 15 points on 6 of 8 shooting, including three 3-point baskets.
The second half started out poorly for Villanova as the Orange came out firing, outscoring the Wildcats 18-7 in the opening 7:17. The visitors took their first lead of the game on Michael Carter-Williams’ three-pointer with 14:22 to play, 40-39, and soon thereafter went up by five, 44-39, on two free throws by Jerami Grant at the 12:43 mark.
Nova surged back and took a 53-52 lead, but Syracuse scored seven straight points, including a 3-pointer and a runner in the lane by Triche, to take their largest advantage of the game, 59-53 with 4:24 remaining. As has been the case recently since Villanova began their Big East portion of the schedule, just when their opponent has the chance to deliver a knock-out blow, the Wildcats toughen up and don’t allow the game to get away from them. The Orange scored just two points from then on, allowing Villanova to get in a position to tie the game.
In overtime, Carter-Williams’ conventional three-point play put Syracuse on top 64-63 with 3:57 remaining, but James Bell then hit consecutive 3-point baskets on back-to-back possessions to give Nova a 69-65 advantage with 1:53 remaining. Brandon Triche hit three of four free throws to draw the Orange to within one, but James Bell scored again on a beautiful baseline cut off a pass from JayVaughn Pinkston to give the Cats a 71-68 lead with 26.8 seconds to play. Carter-Williams scored the Orange’s last point on a free throw but Pinkston, Darrun Hilliard and Arcidiacono hit free throws allowing Villanova to pull off the upset.
Darrun Hilliard scored a career-high 25 points to go along with 7 rebounds, 6 assists and no turnovers, and Mouphtaou Yarou added 14 points and 16 rebounds. James Bell scored 13 points for the Wildcats.
Villanova might not be ranked in next week’s AP Top 25 poll, but they have certainly worked their way into the NCAA tournament discussion. They became the first unranked team to beat two top-5 teams in the same season, let alone the same week, since Florida State in 2011-12. This is the same team that lost consecutive games to Alabama, Columbia and La Salle in November, so it’s safe to say that they have drastically improved in all facets of the game since that point in the season. Jay Wright has done a masterful job finding specific roles for each player on his roster, and the players have bought in to what they’ve been asked to do, as evidenced by JayVaughn Pinkston, the team’s leading scorer, coming off the bench. Earlier in the year, the Wildcats would take leads into halftime only to end up losing by double-digits. That is not the case anymore however, as the transition from a soft team to a tough-as-nails-team that these players have made has been remarkable.
It certainly doesn’t get any easier for the Wildcats as they travel to South Bend, Indiana on Wednesday night, January 30th, to take on the 24th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. After the week Villanova just experienced however, sending the team’s confidence to atmospheric heights, they feel as though they can beat anybody in the country, and rightfully so. In that case, Notre Dame certainly doesn’t look quite as daunting as they might have in November.Tags: James Bell, Jay Wright, JayVaughn Pinkston, Mouphtaou Yarou, Villanova, win