The shots that had fallen all year suddenly stopped falling. The defensive intensity, which had been their trademark, simply was missing. The bravado of a team that had won 16 straight, racking up a school record 33 wins — most ever by any team Philadelphia — and most of them convincingly, was nowhere to be seen.
Whether it was the added pressure of being a No. 1 seed, the fact they’d rarely been tested by a superbly skilled opponent or perhaps that they weren’t really as good as everyone — including Barack Obama — thought they were, no longer matters. What seemed headed towards Villanova’s best season ever — that memorable 1985 National Championship year included — is over.
For the fifth time since Jay Wright got them to the Final Four in 2009 the Sweet Sixteen will go on without them. For the second straight year with a chance to advance to the Eastern Regionals, the Wildcats shot mostly blanks, hitting just 31.1 percent and going only 9-for-28 from 3-point range in a stunning 71-68 loss to North Carolina State Saturday in Pittsburgh. That could bode well for Wolfpack fans, since last year Connecticut became the fifth team since 2005 to win it all after knocking off the Wildcats in the Tournament, 77-65, when ‘Nova shot just 35.3 percent.
But it won’t console graduating seniors Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston and the rest, who know the reason they’re not heading to Syracuse it because they failed to deliver. Anyone who’s watched them this season could plainly see this wasn’t the same team which dominated the Big East, then buried overmatched Lafayette 93-52 Thursday.
Villanova will again have to spend the off-season wondering why getting to the Sweet 16 has been such a bitter experience.
"I know we have to answer to the fact that we did not get to the second weekend again," said Wright, who’ll get everyone back next year except Pinkston and Hilliard, with super subs Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, along with freshman taking on added roles. "We have to own that. But it's not going to define us within our program. It's going to define us outside of our program and we accept that. But we're not afraid to fail. We failed here in this NCAA tournament. And we just got to accept it and live with it. But it won't define us."
As for putting everything in perspective, while outsiders may consider it disappointing by the way it ended so abruptly, once the pain goes away the players will appreciate all they accomplished.
"We got the most wins in Big East history," said Pinkston, who scored 13, but had a tough night banging with N.C. State’s bigs, particularly freshman Malik Abu. "We won the Big East title, our first in 20 years. So it was a great year. But right now it’s a failure."
Harsh, but that’s coming from a senior who’s played his last game. Others are more realistic.
"We judge ourselves on Villanova basketball," Ryan Arcidiacono said."I think we did that throughout the whole year. Three times, three games this year, we just weren't able to do it. The other team was better that day. We've won back-to-back Big East championships and the Big East tournament championship for the first time in 20 years. So yes, this hurts. It hurts everyone that we're not making it to the next weekend. But I think we battled down to the very last second. We did what we do."
Only not well enough for a rare change, which will haunt them all spring and summer. While March Madness goes on without them, their focus has already shifted.
For Villanova November can’t get here soon enough.