It’s safe to say at this point that Villanova has finally locked up an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. Heading into Madison Square Garden for their first game of the Big East Tournament on Wednesday night against St. John’s, the Wildcats were still not a definitive tournament team, despite their three wins over top-5 opponents. At the conclusion of their 66-53 victory over the Red Storm, however, any doubt regarding their status as a March Madness participant was put to rest. Villanova improved their overall record to 20-12, while St. John’s fell to 16-15 and hoping for a bid from the NIT.
Following a three-point basket by the Wildcats’ All-Conference Rookie Team honoree Ryan Arcidiacono, Red Storm Freshman Chris Obekpa threw down a thunderous dunk at the 15:25 mark of the first half and Villanova held a 9-6 lead. St. John’s then went over six minutes without a field goal, allowing the ‘Cats to build their lead to twelve at 18-6.
Following a timeout called by St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin with 9:37 to play in the opening period, the Red Storm went on an 18-6 run to close out the half and tie the game at 24 as both teams headed to their locker rooms for intermission.
Villanova Senior Mouphtaou Yarou single-handedly kept the Wildcats in the game in the first half by connecting on all six of his attempts from the floor, finishing with 12 points and 4 rebounds. Ryan Arcidiacono struggled in the face of St. John’s’ full-court pressure, turning the ball over 5 times in the opening 20 minutes and finishing with just 3 points. As a team, the ‘Cats had 10 giveaways in the first half, a problem that has plagued them all season, and one they will have to correct quickly if they hope to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
“We were too tentative with our pressure in the first half,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “It was like we were creating offense for them.”
For the Red Storm, Sophomore guard Phil Greene led the way with 7 points at intermission, with Big East Rookie of the Year Jakarr Sampson adding 5 points and 3 rebounds. The nation’s leading shot-blocker, Chris Obekpa, chipped in with 4 points and 4 blocks for St. John’s.
Three and a half minutes into the second half, St. John’s took a 31-28 lead after a jumper from Sophomore forward Sir’Dominic Pointer. The Wildcats responded with a 10-2 run, with Arcidiacono scoring the final 5 points with a three-pointer and a fade-away, 18-foot jumper at the top of the key on the following possession.
“I thought I had to score more for our team,” Arcidiacono said. “I felt like I had to make a play. I hit a three and that pull-up jumper, and I felt good after that. In the second half, I was like, all right, I’m not going to let us lose.”
Villanova later established some breathing room with another 10-2 run that gave them a 50-40 lead with 8:08 remaining. The spurt included two free throws from Darrun Hilliard after a technical foul was called against St. John’s’ JaKarr Sampson for hanging on the rim during a battle under the basket.
The Red Storm, who were playing without their leading scorer, D’Angelo Harrison, as a result of a team-imposed suspension, kept hanging around and got ‘Nova’s lead down to five points after a layup by Phil Greene, but the Wildcats made 12 of their last 14 foul shots, including 7 of them from Arcidiacono, to seal the victory.
Yarou made an incredible 9 of 10 shots from the floor in one of his best games of the year, finishing with 18 points and 7 rebounds. Ryan Arcidiacono, despite his 8 turnovers and 3 of 11 shooting performance, played a huge part in the ‘Cats taking control of the game in the second half, displaying strong leadership and making huge baskets. He finished with 15 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. JayVaughn Pinkston added 12 points and a team-high 9 rebounds, while Tony Chennault chipped in with 8 points and 2 assists off the bench.
Villanova now gets another chance against Louisville, who has gone 10-2 since losing to the Wildcats, 73-64, on January 22nd at the Wells Fargo Center, in a victory that gave the ‘Cats a huge win for their NCAA Tournament resume. The Cardinals were ranked 5th in the country at the time and finished the season ranked 4th, and will certainly have revenge on their minds when the two teams meet on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. For now, however, Villanova has gotten the win they needed to lock up a bid for the Big Dance, and can rest easy when Selection Sunday rolls around.
“I knew there was a chance we could lose this one and then have a long week at home waiting,” Wright said. “Right now I don’t have to think about it. I can think about us playing Lousiville.”
The question remains whether or not the Wildcats can play consistently well enough to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Their season has consisted of improbable wins as well as mind-numbing losses. Jay Wright would agree that there is a question whether his team, a mixture of talented youth and workmanlike veterans, can manage an extended stretch of good basketball.
“They think they can beat anybody, but playing at that level every night has not been a strength,” Wright said this week. “Do we have the consistency? We’ll see, and that’s what a tournament comes down to. You have to play well every night.”
Villanova is a team that has been doubted all year long, and has responded by winning big game after big game. If they’re able to string together a few more of those big games once the NCAA Tournament begins, there won’t be anything left to doubt.Tags: Big East, Big East Tournament, College Basketball, Jay Wright, Louisville, March Madness, Mouphtaou Yarou, NCAA, NCAA Tournament, Ryan Arcidiacono, St. John's, Villanova, win