There's a simple reason why Jay Wright’s 11-0 Wildcats were able to outlast feisty Syracuse in overtime this past weekend: experience.
For Jim Boeheim’s Orange, who probably deserved a better fate in the 82-77 decision Saturday, it was relatively virgin territory.
This should take nothing from Villanova's 82-77 win at a packed Wells Fargo Center, where at times the Wildcats had to wonder who was the home team with a legion of Syracuse fans carrying on. It was really a game Villanova had no business winning, trailing 41-26 late in the first half and still down 69-64 when Trevor Cooney converted both ends of a one-and-one with 17.2 seconds left in regulation.
But they kept on pushing, convinced something good would happen. It did, as Josh Hart drained a 3-pointer, and Nova’s defense forced a crucial turnover on the inbounds pass, which ultimately led to JayVaughn Pinkston’s tying layup with 4.2 seconds left to force O.T.
The No. 7 ranked Wildcats took over from there shooting 11-for-12 from the line to put it away.
"Our guys have a maturity and basketball I.Q. about them that is really unique," said Wright, whose club avenged a 78-62 loss to the Orange last year at the Carrier Dome. "They have a great feel for what’s needed at the time and great unselfishness. All these guys played in that game last year and now they’re a year older."
The transformation started in the locker room at halftime, where with the ‘Cats down 43-31. Seniors Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard let their teammates know in no uncertain terms their performance was unacceptable.
"I can’t really say what we said," laughed Pinkston, who led the way with 25 points and 10 rebounds, followed by Hilliard’s 23 and Hart’s 21."Basically, 'Just pick it up.' We needed to step up as leaders. People probably counted us out of the game when we were down, but we had a sense of urgency."
Somehow that got them through in a game reminiscent of those memorable Big East wars of days past which Wright says can only bode well down the line.
"We don’t thank our rivals enough," said Wright, whose club overcame 5-for-23 shooting at the start while Syracuse lit it up 17-for-27, 63 percent. "When Syracuse comes in here this place rocks. I had three former players all say the same thing. 'Syracuse—Villanova, no matter who plays here, no matter who coaches here, it’s the same thing.'
I think we have to really appreciate that.This is as important a game to us as any Big East game. It’s Northeast basketball.It’s what the (old) Big East was. It’s a great rivalry."
While Syracuse leads the series 38-34, Wright is now 12-9 vs. Boeheim. The difference Saturday, though, wasn’t coaching.
"We have upperclassmen who carry our team," said Wright, whose club now takes on NJIT--which won recently at Michigan -- before starting Big East play New Year’s Eve vs. No. 15 Butler. "That was probably the difference today."
Experience, we should’ve been taught by now, generallyis.