PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Villanova is nothing if not resilient. That is in some ways the story of the season on a macro level, certainly, but on a micro level that has been true as well. When they won a heart-stopping 82-79 double overtime thriller at Providence, they gave a great exhibition of that and why they are a team that can make a run in March.
With this win, Villanova has avoided a losing streak once again. But they have had to show an extra measure of toughness after each loss, because all three wins following a loss involved overtime. While the Wildcats have pulled out a lot of close games and are now 4-0 in overtime, doing so to avoid a losing streak is big, and on Tuesday night they had this toughness in spades.
Tuesday night was far from easy. It was the Wildcats’ third road game in six days, and it was barely 48 hours after they were manhandled in Omaha by Creighton and had to fly across much of the country. It was against a Providence team that needed this game badly and is very good on their home floor. And within the game, there were certainly times when Providence had the Wildcats on the ropes.
What it all tells you is that while this team may not be as talented as some other Villanova teams in recent years, the intangibles are off the charts by comparison.
“Honestly, I’m not great at resiliency,” said head coach Jay Wright. “This stuff eats at me from the past game, but these guys are. Ryan (Arcidiacono), JayVaughn (Pinkston), (James) Bell are leaders, Tony Chennault.”
“We just moved on from it as a team and stuck together,” said Arcidiacono, who not only had the winning three-point play but quietly led the Wildcats with 21 points and six assists. “We weren’t going to let one game define us. We just wanted to respond, and that’s what we did. We responded so many times tonight.”
Villanova fell behind early thanks to poor defense, as Providence got great looks and was on fire en route to a 22-13 lead. Wright burned two timeouts before the second media timeout. Then they responded for the first time, taking the lead late before Providence tied it at the break.
In the second half, the Wildcats were more like themselves. They were turning Providence over and turning that into baskets, and they got plenty of other stops. They had the lead for much of the second half, and still held a five-point lead with 1:08 left. Providence tied it when LaDontae Henton scored his first points of the night on just his third field goal attempt with 20.1 seconds left.
Then Providence took the lead early in overtime. Villanova had to respond again, and this time it was Darrun Hilliard, who had not shot well on the evening, hitting the clutch three-pointer to put them up 72-70 before another extra session was needed. This time, the Wildcats asserted themselves to take the early lead, and then had to get a big basket after Bryce Cotton tied it with 29 seconds left.
Wright said that he hangs on to things like Sunday night’s game in Omaha. He’s hardly alone; pretty much any college coach will tell you they hang on to losses longer than players do, and players hang on to wins longer than coaches do. But this team’s intangibles are why they are 23-3 and ranked in the top ten of the polls, and you can see it up and down the roster. Pinkston has overcome the adversity of sitting out a year due to a school violation of policy to become what Providence head coach Ed Cooley called “the most under-appreciated power forward in the country.” Arcidiacono survived a challenging introduction to college basketball last season and now doesn’t have to do as much for this team, and as a result his numbers are all very improved, including an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than three. Bell has waited his turn over his career to become a star as a senior.
The Wildcats don’t have a player who will be in the conference Player of the Year conversation, and that’s not just because Creighton’s Doug McDermott will run away with that. Bell will probably get first team honors, and Pinkston might make it as well. Wright may get Coach of the Year, and it would be hard to argue that. Most likely, the team’s honors would be spread out. That’s a big reason this team has had the season it has, yet has flown a bit under the radar. They haven’t won so much because of talent as they have for the toughness they have shown all season.
“I just like this team, it’s fun coaching this team,” said Wright. “They’ve got a great attitude out there, they never give in. We get on them about mistakes, but it doesn’t bring them down. They’re unselfish, it’s a fun group to coach.”
Villanova now plays four of their last five regular season games at home. In a sense, it’s their reward for getting through this tough road stretch. While their two losses to Creighton will hurt in terms of getting the top seed in the Big East Tournament, they are in a good position.
Cooley said Villanova could get to Dallas this year. He doesn’t make such pronouncements lightly, and after the Wildcats showed their toughness again in Tuesday night’s thriller, you can understand why.