The past two games, Villanova’s opponents have used corner three-point shots to fire daggers into the hearts of the Wildcats. Coming off an excruciating loss in Newark, New Jersey to the Seton Hall Pirates last Monday, one of the Big East Conference’s worst teams, the Villanova Wildcats traveled to the Peterson Events Center in the Steel City to square off with the 23rd-ranked Pittsburgh Panthers on Sunday. In a game with officiating that resulted in an unheard of 47 personal fouls called on both teams combined, it was the Wildcats’ continued breakdowns on three-point defense that ultimately resulted in the 73-64 overtime loss to the Panthers, their second straight heartbreaking defeat.
It was the last regular season Big East matchup between the two schools, with Pittsburgh (23-7 overall, 11-6 Big East) moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference next year, and Villanova (18-12, 9-8) joining the newly created conference that will retain the Big East name. The two teams met in the Elite Eight in the 2009 NCAA Tournament, with Villanova pulling off the stunning 78-76 upset to earn their first trip to the Final Four since they won their first and only Championship in 1985. In one of the most exciting finishes in the history of the tournament, it was ‘Nova’s Scottie Reynolds draining a floater in the lane as time expired that sealed the victory for the Wildcats. Since then, however, Pittsburgh had beaten Villanova in five straight games, and the Wildcats hadn’t won at Peterson Events Center since 1996.
Pittsburgh came into Sunday’s game as one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, ranking second in Division I in assist-to-turnover ratio. They also rebounded the ball very well, ranking first in the Big East in rebounding margin, however, they did not have their leading rebounder against Villanova, Steven Adams, who sprained his ankle in practice the day before the game.
It took the Wildcats three minutes to score their first basket, as both teams struggled shooting the ball early on. They combined for 5 of 22 from the floor, resulting in an 8-6 ‘Nova lead with 11:40 remaining in the first half. Pittsburgh followed with a 6-0 run to give them a 12-8 lead, however, a three-pointer by Ryan Arcidiacono at the 6:50 mark narrowed the margin to one, 14-13. Villanova went on a 7-0 run ending on another Arcidiacono three with 2:14 left in the opening period, forcing Pitt head coach Jaime Dixon to call timeout as the Wildcats took a 26-20 lead. After a layup by the Panthers’ Tray Woodall and a turnover by ‘Nova’s James Bell, Pitt had a chance to cut the lead to one right before halftime. Woodall drove to the basket to attempt a layup, but JayVaughn Pinkston came flying into the lane to swat the ball into the stands, halting the Pittsburgh run and taking the teams to their respective locker rooms for intermission with Villanova leading 28-25.
Ryan Arcidiacono led the way for the Wildcats at halftime with 13 points, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc, and 4 of 4 from the free-throw line, while Sophomore JayVaughn Pinkston added 7 points, 2 rebounds and 2 blocks. For the Panthers, Tray Woodall led them in scoring at the break with 7 points to go along with 4 assists. 6’9 Junior forward Talib Zanna led all players with 7 rebounds as Pittsburgh held an 18-13 advantage on the boards.
30 seconds into the second half, James Bell nailed a three from the left wing to increase Villanova’s lead to six, 31-25. The Panthers uncharacteristically turned the ball over on their first three possessions after the break, resulting in the Wildcats grabbing their largest lead of the game, 35-26 with 16:45 left. Tony Chennault, who had his best game of the season, led the way for the ‘Cats during the run, driving the lane and dishing to Mouphtaou Yarou for a dunk, and following that up with a layup of his own.
Villanova had a chance to take control of the game at that point, but Pittsburgh fought back, and a three-point play by Freshman James Robinson at the 13:16 mark narrowed the ‘Cats’ advantage to three, 37-34. Durand Johnson drained a three for the Panthers just before the under-12 media timeout, and nailed another a minute later to make it a two-point game, 43-41. Following a missed three-point attempt by Darrun Hilliard, Tray Woodall made a jumper at the other end to tie the game at 43, and Villanova head coach Jay Wright called timeout with 10 minutes left in the game.
Wright drew up a play to give Arcidiacono an open shot from beyond the arc which he made, and then JayVaughn Pinkston stole the ball from Woodall and Arcidiacono nailed another jumper to give Villanova a five point lead, 48-43 with just over 9 minutes to go. Following a Pittsburgh timeout at the 2:28 mark with the Wildcats leading by two, 54-52, Mouphtaou Yarou nailed a huge 18-footer off a dish from Arcidiacono to make it a two-possession game, 56-52.
Following two made free throws by Tray Woodall, JayVaughn Pinkston drew a foul at the other end with 59 seconds left, but made just 1 of 2 from the line to give Pittsburgh a chance to tie the game. Reminiscent of the finish in ‘Nova’s game against Seton Hall, Lamar Patterson found a wide open James Robinson in the corner behind the three-point line, and despite having not made a three in his last 5 games, he nailed it with 34 seconds left to tie the game at 57. The Wildcats held for the last shot, however, Senior Dante Taylor blocked Arcidiacono’s attempt at the game-winner to send the game to overtime.
Despite trailing the entire second half, Pittsburgh dominated the extra session. Talib Zanna scored the first seven points in overtime to give the Panthers a 64-57 lead with just over three minutes left. Ryan Arcidiacono nailed another huge three-pointer with 1:02 remaining to pull Villanova to within two, 66-64, and Jay Wright called timeout. Tray Woodall took the in-bounds pass for Pittsburgh and drove the lane, quite possibly getting away with a travel, before dishing to James Robinson in the corner yet again, who drained a three to give Pitt a five point lead, 69-64, with 32 seconds to go. Ryan Arcidiacono missed a three-point attempt at the other end, and Senior Dante Taylor ended the game with an emphatic dunk for the Panthers, with the final score of 73-64.
Arcidiacono led all scorers with 23 points, including 5 of 8 shooting from beyond the arc, and 4 assists. Senior Mouphtaou Yarou added 14 points on 7 of 9 shooting from the floor, and 8 rebounds, despite fouling out of the game. JayVaughn Pinkston chipped in with 13 points, 5 rebounds and 4 blocks. James Bell struggled in his 33 minutes of action, going just 1 for 7 from the field, all from long range, and finishing with just 3 points. Talib Zanna dominated the boards all game for Pittsburgh, who finished with a 41-28 rebounding advantage over the Wildcats, finishing with 19 rebounds to go along with 14 points. He scored all of his points in the second half and overtime, including 9 in the extra period alone. Freshman James Robinson chipped in with 14 points as well, including two huge three-point baskets, one to tie the game in regulation and the other to help put the game out of reach in overtime. Tray Woodall added 13 points and 11 assists for the Panthers.
After the heartbreaking loss to Seton Hall, Villanova found themselves on shaky ground with regard to the NCAA Tournament heading into Pittsburgh. With only Georgetown remaining on the schedule, currently the 5th-ranked team in the country, the Wildcats let a golden opportunity to add another signature win slip away against the Panthers. It needs to be reiterated, however, that in the preseason, this team was picked to finish 12th in the Big East Conference. With wins over Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette and UConn, Villanova has exceeded all expectations in 2013. Even if they do miss the NCAA Tournament, the confidence and experience the young players have gained from the huge wins and the heartbreaking losses will prove to be invaluable in the years ahead.
The Wildcats return home to the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday, March 6th, to take on National Player of the Year candidate Otto Porter and the 5th-ranked Georgetown Hoyas (23-4 overall, 13-3 Big East) at 7:00 PM on ESPN2. It will be one last chance for this young Wildcats team to take down another giant, just like they have several times before during this remarkable and unexpected season. They’ve proven quite a few people wrong along the way, and I wouldn’t doubt them from doing it again.
Tags: Big East, James Bell, Jay Wright, JayVaughn Pinkston, loss, NCAA, Pittsburgh, referees, Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova