The No. 3-seeded Wildcats had grown accustomed to playing the role of underdog; after all, no team has won more games as a lower seed in the history of the NCAA tournament than Villanova. Unfortunately, as members of the 1985 championship squad looked on amongst a crowd of close to 70,000, Head Coach Jay Wright and the team known for its grit and toughness just didn’t have enough for the high-octane Tar Heels. The magical run to the Final Four came to a close against No. 1-seeded North Carolina 83-69.
It was clear early that Villanova was going to have a long night. Throughout the tournament, the Wildcats have dictated their own pace and forced teams to play their best basketball. On Saturday, Villanova simply turned into a jump shooting team, and the shots didn’t fall. Wildcat players were a combined 0-6 from beyond the arc before junior guard Scottie Reynolds knocked down a three midway through the first half.
The Tar Heels on the other hand were anything but cold when it came to shooting the ball. Guards Danny Green and Wayne Ellington were a combined 5 of 8 from 3-point range and three Carolina players scored in double figures in the first half – forward Tyler Hansbrough led everyone with 14 points, Ellington had 13, and guard Ty Lawson closed out the half with 11.
North Carolina led by as much as much as 17 points in the opening half, but Villanova continued to scratch and claw, pulling the score to within 9, 49-40. Despite out rebounding the Heels, including six more offensive rebounds, and taking eight more shots, the Wildcats shot only 16.7 percent from deep on 12 attempts. North Carolina shot 54.5 percent from 3-point range.
Villanova opened the second half with what seemed to be signs of life. After a quick three-pointer from guard Reggie Redding and an easy layup from forward Shane Clark, the Wildcats had pulled to within 5, 50-45. That would be as close as they would get.
The Tar Heels immediately went on a 9-0 run during a four minute scoreless drought for Villanova to put North Carolina back up by 14 points. UNC never let go of the vice grip, exploding to an 18-point lead with just over four minutes remaining. The Wildcats continued to struggle shooting.
Villanova shot a deplorable 5 of 27 from deep and only 32.9 percent total for the game. Reynolds led all Wildcat scorers with 17 and senior forward Dante Cunningham managed a double-double, scoring 12 points and bringing in 12 boards. Sophomore Corey Fisher had 13 points off the bench but the young guard took 19 shots from the floor, 0-4 from 3-point range.
The Carolina starters came as advertised. Lawson and Ellington finished with 22 and 20 respectively, while Hansbrough and Green also scored in double figures. In the end, North Carolina made their 3-pointers and Villanova did not.
It seemed fitting that the seniors who have meant so much to this team’s run in the postseason, would foul out, forced to slowly walk back to the bench defeated. That’s exactly what forwards Cunningham and Dwayne Anderson did. The winningest senior class in Villanova history came up just short of reaching the pinnacle of college basketball. Now all that awaits is a plane ride home.
Refusing to quit, Wright continued screaming from the sideline “Let’s not go out this way!”
But go out they did.
Six days ago Villanova was on top of the world following Scottie Reynolds’ shot to send the Wildcats to the Final Four. Now though, the questions are old, the memories are beginning to fade and the task at hand is growing more evident by the minute. It is time to play basketball.
“I think we all are ready to play,” said Head Coach Jay Wright. “It actually worked our pretty nicely here. I don’t know if it’s because of our game ended the way it did against Pitt, but we needed a couple of days to enjoy that and come down from it.”
Now the only thing on the team’s mind is the Final Four. The Wildcats are considered the “new kids on the block” this weekend as they are the only team without any Final Four experience from their players or head coach. At times Wright must remind his team to keep their cool.
“Today’s practice, they’ve never seen anything like. It’s just a good start. We talked about that. Just how to handle distractions around us and try to keep our concentration. We talk about 94-by-50 feet.”
One aspect of the game that Villanova can rely on is familiarity with the venue. Although it may not be the best of memories, Villanova was in Detroit last year for the Sweet 16 when it lost to Kansas. The team has tried to take away some of that experience to help prepare for this weekend.
“Last year I remember when we came on the floor for the first open practice, we came out and were kind of in awe because of the atmosphere, the size of the arena, et cetera,” said senior guard Dwayne Anderson. “This year we came out, it was strictly business. Basically this is a business trip for us.”
By now though, the team is adjusted to the venue, city, hype and media extravaganza. The only thing left to do is to get out on the court. Although the game is still over a day away, the team is anxious to start playing.
“I think we’re very prepared,” Anderson said. “We just can’t wait to get on the floor. For example, last night we were watching film. I looked over and could see in [Reggie Redding’s] eyes he just cannot wait to be on the floor. So we’re definitely counting down till the ball goes up in the air.”
Tomorrow, all the distractions will be gone, and the trip will be about nothing more than a basketball game. Then, the Wildcats can finally do what they came here to do – take care of business.
Here are all the articles related to Villanova basketball from today’s issue:
Last team we ran this feature, it was on fellow ACC team, Duke. This time around Villanova will face a much more talented team in North Carolina. Ranked No. 1 for several weeks this season, the Tar Heels will be the second straight opponent Villanova played who has held a top ranking.
1) Who are they? North Carolina, Duke and UCLA are three of the most historic programs in college basketball, and Villanova will have played all three when it tips off against the Tar Heels on Saturday. North Carolina has already won four National Championships, with one coming under current Head Coach Roy Williams.
This season the Tar Heels start senior forward Tyler Hansbrough, junior forward Deon Thompson, senior guard Danny Green and junior guards Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson.
2) How did they get here? North Carolina won the regular season ACC title, going 13-3 within the season. Overall the Tar Heels are 32-4, with their four losses coming against Boston College, Wake Forest, Maryland and Florida State. The loss to the Seminoles was in the ACC tournament, but the Tar Heels were without Lawson.
In the NCAA tournament, North Carolina has beaten Radford, LSU, Gonzaga and Oklahoma. The closest margin of victory in those games was 12 points to Oklahoma.
3) Who to watch: Hansbrough may have a National Player of the Year award under his belt, but the key to the Tar Heels’ success is Lawson. When he is healthy, the Tar Heels are close to unstoppable. Presumably, he has overcome an injury to his toe and has looked fabulous in the team’s four tournament games. If Villanova is to win, it needs to find any way to slow down the junior guard.
4) What to expect: Although they have already played Duke and Pittsburgh, North Carolina is by far the most talented team Villanova has played. The Tar Heels have a prolific offense, scoring 90 points per game and having five players averaging at least 10 points. Villanova will need to play as well offensively as it did earlier in the season when the Wildcats knocked off Marquette and Syracuse. This will be a high-scoring contest, and the key for Villanova will be the play of Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher, as the Tar Heels have had trouble containing point guards all season.
The Wildcats will be the second game of national semifinals on Saturday. Expect the Michigan State-UConn game to go a little long and push this back to a 9 PM start.