By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
NC State 71, Villanova 68 – Box Score
The dream is dead. In their round of 32 contest against NC State, nearly everything that could go wrong for the Wildcats basically did, as the Wolfpack pulled off the upset to bust both brackets and the hearts of Nova Nation.
Despite playing one of their worst games of the season, Villanova still had a chance to win the game in the closing moments. Thanks to a late 11-5 run entirely on the backs of their two seniors, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston, the Wildcats found themselves down just 2 and had a wide (and I mean wide) open look from Dylan Ennis at the top of the key for a go-ahead three. Unfortunately, Ennis’ shot was off the mark, a troubling theme which was why the Wildcats were scrambling to comeback in the first place.
Villanova shot just 19-61 (31%) from the field on the game, as Dylan Ennis, Ryan Arcidiacono, Kris Jenkins, and Josh Hart combined to shoot 0-14 from three. In particular, Ennis had a brutal game, shooting 2-12 and 0-6 from three, so it was only fitting it was his shot that came up short for the Wildcats in the end.
With so many players struggling, the vaunted balance that had propelled Villanova to a #1 seed in the first place completely evaporated. Instead, they hung around thanks to the work of Darrun Hilliard, who had a game-high 27 points behind a 6-10 night from three. Hilliard hit 3 of those triples in the final 90 seconds to actually give the Wildcats a glimmer of hope. The senior certainly did everything he could to extend his collegiate career. JayVaughn Pinkston was the only other Wildcat in double figures, battling down low to draw contact and go 9-10 from the foul line for his 13 points.
On the defensive end, Villanova had trouble preventing penetration from NC State’s dynamic guard pairing of Trevor Lacey and Cat Barber (commentator Steve Smith must have said that’s why they call him Cat, because he’s quick, about 20 times). However, the real problem for the Main Line cats was the Wolfpack’s frontline, as NC State held a 34-14 points in the paint and 45-32 advantage on the glass. Abdul-Malik Abu was particularly a menace on the boards with 6 offensive rebounds (12 total).
Jay Wright opted to go small a little more than usual, very rarely having both Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu in the game at the same time, and even having a lineup with Kris Jenkins as the only forward at one point. Not to Monday morning quarterback the loss, but I wonder if he would opt for a different strategy if given the chance to run it back.
Thus, the winningest season in Villanova program history comes to an end. Unfortunately, the NCAA tournament serves as the ultimate barometer in the minds of many fans and critics, so everything the Cats accomplished may be overshadowed in the wake of this disappointing early exit. Nevertheless, to assume based on one off night that there was some inherent flaw in the Villanova system that denies them success once tournament time rolls around, that would be true March madness.