There’s no “D” in V-i-l-l-a-n-o-v-a.
Except when the Final Four bound Wildcats step on the court. That, more than all those Kris Jenkins and Ryan Aricdiacono 3-pointers swishing through the nets and the knack of Josh Hart and Daniel Ochefu to score in the paint, is the reason Jay Wright’s team is heading towards Houston and a Saturday night date with Buddy Hield and Oklahoma as champion of the South Region.
When the shots finally stopped falling Saturday night in Louisville, following three dazzling performances blowing out North Carolina/Asheville, Iowa and Miami, Villanova’s defense was the difference. The 33-5 Wildcats swarmed top-seeded Kansas from start to finish, shutting down their leading tourney scorer, Perry Ellis while forcing 16 turnovers including a pivotal one in the final eight seconds to preserve a 64-59 victory.
“We knew we weren't shooting the ball well,” said Arcidiacono, who celebrated his 22nd birthday by sharing team scoring honors with Hart and Jenkins with 13 points, draining two clutch one-and-ones in the final 33 seconds, while Jenkins added another, “But the backbone of our program is just defend and rebound and play hard and together.
“I think we did that.”
They call that “Villanova basketball” which may sound trite, except that it seems to work.
“We don't depend on our offense,” said fellow senior Ochefu, who scored 10 and pulled down eight rebounds while clogging the lane defensively. “We like proving we can win off our defense and rebounding.
“Making the game ugly and a street fight was to our advantage because that's what we preach every day in practice.”
After lighting it up at 60 percent clip over those first three games, suddenly the basket seemed to shrink vs. the rugged Jawhawks, who made it a point to keep Jenkins and Arcidiacono from getting comfortable behind the line. Between them they shot just 2-for-10 beyond the arc, while No. 2 seeded Villanova, which had knocked down 33 of 62 treys — 53 percent —prior to this, managed to go just 4-for-18 and only 21-for-52, 40.4 percent overall.
Still they’re moving on, thanks to that stingy defense and deadly accuracy at the line, where ‘Nova went 18-for-19, 95 percent.
“We know we can shoot the free throws really well, and if we got to the foul line it would be to our advantage.” said Arcidiacono, who — with the Wildcats clinging to a 62-59 lead inside 10 seconds knocked the ball loose from Kansas’ Frank Mason, with Mikal Bridges diving to the floor to claim it while calling timeout. Moments later Jalen Brunson sank two more at the line and it was time to cut down the nets.
“Our toughness on the defensive end was the key,” added Arcidiacono, who said he’d never played before on his birthday, Villanova fizzling early in the tournament the last two years, “We didn't let the offense affect our defense.
“We stayed committed and stayed solid as a unit out there. We always want to grind it out and play Villanova basketball for 40 minutes no matter the situation.”
So even after squandering a 32-27 halftime lead to fall behind 45-40 with 10:50 remaining there was no panic. Villanova answered with a 10-0 run, punctuated when Arcidiacono and Hart buried back-to-back 3-pointers They never relinquished it, despite managing just two baskets over the final 7:59.
Ultimately it came down to getting stops on defense and sinking free throws, as Nova forced three turnovers in the last 2:47, then went 8-for-8 at the stripe, when a single miss could’ve given Kansas a shot at the win or at least a chance to send it into overtime.
“We know we're going to let offense take care of itself,” said Hart, a 51 percent shooter for the season who shot an uncharacteristic 6-for-17. “If we buckle down on defense, make it ugly — diving on the floor, taking charges, doing the little things this program is built on — we knew we were going to be in the game..
“It was ugly, but it was beautiful to us.”
That vision of loveliness will remain until they arrive in Houston, driven to erase the memory of 78-55 loss to Oklahoma on Pearl Harbor Day in Hawaii. That’s where the Wildcats’ shot a brutal 4-for-32 from 3-point range while the Sooners went 14-for-26, though they held Hield to only 6-for-17, 4-for-9 on threes. The winner of that one faces whoever survives the ACC mini-tournament in the other half of the bracket for the title a week from tonight.
After all the disappointments in recent years, though, Villanova’s patience and persistence may finally been rewarded.
Because while there may be no ‘D’ in Villanova, destiny is a different story