Villanova Wildcats

Josh Hart overcomes late miscues to put Villanova in Big East Tournament title game

Josh Hart overcomes late miscues to put Villanova in Big East Tournament title game


NEW YORK -- Tough to imagine a Josh Hart turnover in the final seconds of a tight Big East Conference tournament game against Seton Hall.

Now imagine it happening two years in a row.

Last year, Hart committed a costly turnover with 20 seconds left and Villanova leading Seton Hall by two in the Big East championship game. That turnover led to Isaiah Whitehead's game-winning basket and foul shot and Seton Hall's upset win over Villanova.

Even though Villanova roared to the NCAA title a month later, it's a play that haunted Hart.

"It does still," he said at his locker Friday night.

Fast forward to this year.

The opponent again was Seton Hall, and this time it was a semifinal game with 46 seconds left and Villanova trailing by a point.

And again the unthinkable.

Another Hart turnover.

And even in the heat of battle before a packed house at Madison Square Garden, Hart couldn't help think back to the turnover a year earlier.

"Oh, man," Hart said after Villanova had hung on for a 57-55 win in the Big East semifinals (see Instant Replay). "That came to my mind for a second. For a quick second I thought about that one."

It wasn't Hart's only gaffe in the final two minutes. On Villanova's previous possession, with 1:16 left and Villanova trailing by a point, he missed the front end of a one-and-one.

A very rare and very rough stretch for the national Player of the Year candidate.

"I'm a competitor and I missed that front end of that one-and-one down one," he said. "I'm like, 'Come on, Josh, you can't miss the front end of a one-and-one with two minutes left in the game down one. You can't do that."

Next possession? The turnover.

"Coach called a play," he said. "I was a little too aggressive. I should have passed it. Turned the ball over. 'Come on, Josh.' Two things that are uncharacteristic for me."

Villanova is a successful basketball team because it's very talented and very well-coached, but it's also a remarkably tight-knit group of kids that are unfailingly unselfish and team-oriented.

After his critical turnover, the four other Wildcats on the floor came over and encouraged Hart as Seton Hall prepared to inbound.

"Everybody came over and said, 'Attitude, let's get a stop,'" Hart said. "That's why this team … I think we're a good team but that's why I think we can get better. Times like that where you make what could be a costly mistake, everyone comes up to you and says, 'Next play, hey, let's get a stop.'

"I said, 'I'm right there with you, let's go.' And we came and we got some stops."

And Hart got redemption.

When Kris Jenkins' potential game-winning three from the left wing sailed long, Hart soared over Seton Hall's Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado and gave Villanova the lead with 9.6 seconds left.

Hart was fouled and made the free throw, and after Delgado into missing a game-winning attempt in the paint, Villanova had a dramatic win and for the third straight year a berth in the Big East title game.

The Wildcats will play Creighton at 5:30 p.m. Saturday in the championship game.  

"I knew it was hard," Hart said of Jenkins' miss. "Right when he shot it I said, 'Oh, that's off.' I knew he put a little bit too much mustard on it and it bounced perfectly. Half of that was luck."

Hart finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds as Villanova improved to 30-3 with its third win over Seton Hall this year. The first two were by 22 and 30 points.

"I got a good look and he was in a perfect position to follow it up," Jenkins said. "He's a great athlete. He's the best player in the country. Whether he gets the award or not, I don't care. He's by far the best player in the country. Nothing he does ever surprises me."

Jalen Brunson added 13 points for Villanova, and freshman Donte DiVincenzo had nine off the bench.

Villanova shot just 26 percent in the first half and fell behind by 11 points. The Wildcats shot 59 percent in the second half.

Really, this game was an instant replay of last year's. At least for the first 39 minutes and 50 seconds.

"Very similar," Hart said. "I think the last play, last year we did something very uncharacteristic and we learned from that. This year, we buckled down, we had our attention to detail the last couple possessions and we got stops."

Villanova, which scored a tournament-record 108 points in its 41-point win over St. John's on Thursday, made just five of 19 threes Friday and really had to scramble for every point it got.

Nothing came easy for the Wildcats.

"I'm glad we were able to be challenged like that," senior center Darryl Reynolds said. "It doesn't happen a lot, so you've got to be thankful for those challenges because they make you stronger. To pull through a game like this, it teaches you a lot about yourself and a lot about your team.

"It's just sticking together and making sure, 'Hey, let's not panic.' Are we mad that we're down? Of course. But let's not panic and lose our minds."

Villanova has been in enough big games to understand how to respond when trailing by double digits.

"We couldn't dwell on the past, we couldn't dwell on the mistakes we were making defensively, we definitely couldn't dwell on the shots we were missing," Brunson said.

"So we just thought about the next play and hopefully get better and keep fighting. As long as we're together, as long as we're fighting like that, we're going to be good. As long as we stick together."

Nobody kept fighting in the face of adversity more than Hart.

"Luckily my guys picked me up," Hart said. "We got some stops at the end and luckily we were able to gut out this one. A little bit different from last year. At least the ending was different."

Villanova still sitting pretty in the AP poll

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Villanova still sitting pretty in the AP poll

Villanova is getting pretty accustomed to this whole No. 1 thing.

For the fifth time in the last six weeks, head coach Jay Wright's Wildcats are No. 1 in the AP poll, receiving 63 of 65 first-place votes this time around. This week's spot on college basketball's top perch came after a successful week that saw the 'Cats smother then-No.10 Xavier, 89-65, on Wednesday evening at the Wells Fargo Center. The Musketeers fell to No. 11 after the defeat. Villanova followed that up by holding off a feisty St. John's squad, 78-71, at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.

The Wildcats sport this No. 1 ranking heading into their own rivalry week this week. They head to Washington, D.C. on Wednesday to battle historic Big East rival Georgetown, led by first-year head coach and Hoya great Patrick Ewing. The Hoyas are 12-5 on the season, but just 2-4 in conference play. They most recently fell to No. 19 Seton Hall this past Saturday. After that, it's on to Connecticut for an old-school Big East matchup with the Huskies. The teams last met in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, a game UConn won on its way to the national championship. Villanova, though, holds a 33-31 all-time advantage.

As for the rest of this week's top five, Virginia moved up a spot to No. 2, Purdue jumped up to No. 3, Oklahoma shot up five spots to No. 4. and Duke crept up to No. 5.

Click here to view this week's top 25 poll in its entirety.

No. 1 Villanova holds off St. John's

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No. 1 Villanova holds off St. John's


NEW YORK — Donte DiVincenzo hit six 3-pointers and scored 25 points to help No. 1 Villanova silence a rowdy New York crowd and hold off upset-minded St. John's 78-71 on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

Shammorie Ponds came close to leading the Red Storm (10-8, 0-6 Big East) to their first win over a No. 1 team in 33 years. Ponds scored a career-high 37 points in front of 17,123 fans at the Garden.

Ponds punished his body as he crashed the lane for tough buckets -- going up-and-under and seemingly straight through defenders -- over the final 10 minutes that cut it to 69-65 with 1:18 left. He sank a rare jumper (all his field goals were 2-pointers) that pulled St. John's within 71-67, and suddenly the chants of "Let's Go Nova!" were drowned out by cheers for the Red Storm.

The Wildcats (16-1, 4-1) were flawless from the free-throw line over the final minute to avoid the startling upset.

Ponds, a 6-foot-1 guard who scored 31 points against Missouri in November, took just about every shot for the Red Storm down the stretch.

Once called the Michael Jordan of Delaware by coach Jay Wright, DiVincenzo simply wouldn't let the Red Storm get too close. Each time St. John's seemed set to start a game-changing run over the final 7 minutes, DiVincenzo buried 3s, hitting three that gave the Wildcats leads of nine, 10 and 11.

Mikal Bridges had 15 points and 11 rebounds for Villanova. The Wildcats went 13-for-30 on 3-point range.

Ponds was a one-man band for St. John's. No other player scored in double figures and his 15 baskets were two more than the rest of the team.

Jalen Brunson and Bridges hit 3s early in the second half to start to build a cushion and DiVincenzo added another 3 for a 10-point lead. That completed a torrid stretch of eight 3s on Villanova's last eight attempts.

St. John's hit one 3 the entire game -- one! -- and that snuffed any chance at a win. St. John's hung around for most of the first half and put checks in the boxes of things needed to do to beat Villanova.

Tariq Owens had a big block on Bridges under the basket that brought a packed MSG crowd to its feet. Bryan Trimble Jr. buried a 3 for a 20-17 lead and Brunson, one of the top players in the nation, fumbled the ball on the next possession. The Wildcats, who have seemingly fixed the defensive troubles that plagued them the last month, lost their 3-point stroke, missing 8 of their first 10 attempts.

The Wildcats pulled themselves together and showed why they're again the elite team in the Big East. DiVincenzo hit two 3s and scored eight straight points to give them the lead for good and Omari Spellman hit a 3 to send Villanova into halftime with a 34-27 lead.

St. John's: Yes, the Red Storm were actually 10-2 on Dec. 20 and off to one of their best starts in two decades before this tailspin started. The Red Storm lost all three games on this homestand and there's little sign there will be an immediate turnaround. St. John's hasn't defeated a No. 1 team since Chris Mullin was in uniform, not the coach. St. John's beat No. 1 Georgetown 66-65 on Jan. 26, 1985.

Villanova: The Wildcats won their 13th straight game in the series. Villanova, the 2016 national champions, is rolling toward its fifth straight Big East regular season championship.

Villanova puts its No. 1 ranking on the line Wednesday at Georgetown.

The Red Storm play another Top 25 team when they visit No. 10 Xavier on Wednesday.