Villanova outlasts West Virginia to advance to Elite 8

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Villanova 90, West Virginia 78 – Box Score

Well, they don’t call them Press Virginia for nothing. Up against the tenacious full court pressure of the Mountaineers, Villanova looked to be on the ropes in their Sweet 16 contest in Boston. With fast, athletic defenders swarming around them at all times, the Wildcats often looked frazzled and completed uncomposed on the court.

Villanova entered the game 13th in the nation at just 10.4 turnovers per game, but turned it over 16 times against West Virginia. Donte DiVincenzo melted into a pool of Italian sauce in the heat of coach Bob Huggins’ forge-like pressure, turning it over 6 times. Collin Gillespie was limited to 5 minutes thanks to a textbook deer-in-the-highlights look, coughing it up twice and badly missing a wide-open jumper in the lane before Jay Wright gave him the quick hook.

West Virginia was also the more physical team, out-rebounding Villanova 39-36, including grabbing 16 offensive rebounds. Mikal Bridges had been limited for much of the first half with foul trouble. With 11 minutes left in the game, the Mountaineers held a 6-point advantage and you had to wonder if this is when the Wildcats’ season would end.

But Player of the Year candidate Jalen Brunson wasn’t ready to let this game be his last in a Wildcats uniform. He scored 4 quick points to spark an 11-0 Villanova run that changed the complexion of the game. That surge was finished off by Omari Spellman, who had one of the best two-way sequences in college basketball this season. The redshirt freshman volleyball spiked James Bolden’s shot straight down, collected the loose ball, and then flushed a putback dunk over the back of Logan Routt on the other end.

That play forced a West Virginia timeout, and the Wildcats certainly looked re-energized from there on out. Jay Wright’s club would then put the game away with, what else, three-point shooting. The Wildcats made four threes over a 4-minute stretch to suddenly take a double-digit lead. It was part of an excellent shooting night for the Wildcats, who went 13-24 from behind the arc on the game. Down the stretch, they kept the Mountaineers at arms-length by successfully converting at the foul line, finishing a stellar 23-27 at the charity stripe on the evening.

Through it all, Villanova fans were treated to a nice snapshot of both the present and future of the program. While many of his teammates on the perimeter were falling apart, Jalen Brunson was the reliable, steadying force for the Wildcats. The soon-to-be-pro went off for a game-high 27 points, going 8-15 from the field, 3-6 from three, and 8-9 from the line. More importantly, he turned it over just three times in 37 minutes, often having to take care of breaking the West Virginia press himself because no one else appeared capable. Doing all that while carrying the offensive load was truly a Herculean effort.

Then, there was Spellman, who finished with 18 points, hitting 4 of his 7 three-point attempts, 8 rebounds, 2 steals, and 3 blocks. In a game where West Virginia was just plain bigger than Villanova, Spellman rose to the occasion to provide rim protection and do just enough on the glass to keep the Wildcats competitive in that area. His ability to stretch the floor not only provided much-needed offense, but helped open up the lane for Brunson to go to work. I can’t wait to see the big man with a larger role next season.

But first, there’s at least one more game this season. Villanova will re-take the court Sunday against the victor of Texas Tech and Purdue. Winner heads to the Final Four.

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