Villanova Wildcats

No. 5 Villanova hangs on to beat Tennessee in Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal

USA Today Images

No. 5 Villanova hangs on to beat Tennessee in Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- Fifth-ranked Villanova walked into the locker room at halftime facing a double-digit deficit against Tennessee and several players battling foul trouble.

The way coach Jay Wright figured, there was at least one positive note: His Wildcats should be fresh and ready to roll out of the break.

Jalen Brunson scored 25 points to help Villanova rally from 15 down and beat Tennessee 85-76 in Thursday's semifinals at the Battle 4 Atlantis, earning a trip to the championship game.

The Wildcats (5-0) trailed 44-29 with 1:39 left before roaring out of the break with a dominating run. Villanova scored the first 11 points as part of that 23-2 burst, with the Wildcats playing far more aggressively and getting out in transition.

"I would love to tell you I came up with some great strategy," Wright said. "It was just we made it through the first half with everybody in foul trouble. ... We just said, `All right, we've got everybody back, let's go play, let's do what we were supposed to do.'"

Villanova shot 52 percent after halftime, fueled by Tennessee's 12 second-half turnovers that helped the Wildcats get loose on the break. The Wildcats also had an aggressive edge that got them to the line 24 times after halftime.

"That's how we should play, and throughout the whole game," said Mikal Bridges, who had 21 points. "You just saw parts of that today, in the beginning of the first half and the beginning of the second half. We practice every day trying to play like that for 40 minutes."

Villanova built a 15-point lead with 4:40 left before having to hold off a late rally by the Volunteers (3-1).

Grant Williams scored 20 points for Tennessee, which clawed to within 79-76 on Admiral Schofield's 3-pointer with 51.6 seconds left. But that was as close as the Volunteers got, with Villanova hitting four free throws and getting a breakaway dunk from Donte DiVincenzo with 13.2 seconds left to seal it.

"When they get points easily off turnovers, and out in transition, and also they get more possessions on offense, it's hard when you don't have those shot opportunities," Williams said. "I think their pressure really took us out of our offense.

"In the first half we did a good job of getting to what we wanted. In the second half, they just ran us out of what we wanted."

Big picture
Tennessee: The Volunteers were coming off an overtime win against No. 18 Purdue in the first round and they were poised to add an even bigger upset. But that flat second-half start wiped out a strong half's worth of work and squandered the momentum that came through their board work and converting turnovers.

"We went in and they were feeling pretty good obviously and they were saying all the right things," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "But we didn't come out and do the right things."

Villanova: That's two straight days the Wildcats put together a second-half spurt to take control in the Bahamas. They did it in Round 1 against Western Kentucky to finally break the game open, but this one -- full of active hands, deflected passes and guys diving on the floor -- brought them back in a game that was once getting away from them.

Foul issues
Villanova had five players with at least two fouls by halftime, including starting forward Omari Spellman (three), Bridges (two) and Brunson (two). The game had a total of 52 fouls between the teams.

Brunson's scoring
Brunson scored 18 of his 25 points after halftime, finishing the game 8 of 16 from the field and 9 for 9 from the line to go with six assists.

"(Teammates) give me confidence," Brunson said. "Coach gives me confidence. I put the work in, I should have confidence in myself."

Second-half numbers
Villanova scored 14 of its 21 points off turnovers and 10 of its 12 fast-break points after halftime. The Wildcats also made 20 of 24 free throws after halftime and 33 of 37 for the game.

Up next
Tennessee: The Volunteers will play the North Carolina State-Northern Iowa loser in Friday's third-place game.

Villanova: The Wildcats will play the N.C. State-Northern Iowa winner in Friday's championship game.

Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

USA Today Images

Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

VILLANOVA, Pa. — There were many reasons why Villanova was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And many more for why it's one of just two top seeds still standing.

The Wildcats do a lot of things well. They have depth, they can shoot from three, they defend, they are well-coached and they play hard. But perhaps their greatest attribute isn’t physical or psychological.

It’s experience. 

Of 'Nova’s core six, five were on the national championship team two seasons ago. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth played key roles on that squad. Donte DiVincenzo (injured) and Eric Paschall (transfer) were on the team but did not play. Having players that talented and that seasoned can’t be quantified. Not to mention a coaching staff still in tact from that title team. 

Between that run in 2015-16 and playing one of the toughest schedules in the country in a battle-tested Big East conference, there is nothing this group has not seen.

“Obviously the playing experience is most important but having coaches who have been in it," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said Monday. "Having guys like Donte, Eric, who were sitting out, be a part of that '16 run — that’s important, too. They learned a lot, they picked up a lot. To be able to share that experience with the young guys, I think that helps this team a lot.”

DiVincenzo agreed with his coach's sentiment.

“We’ve seen the biggest stage," the redshirt sophomore guard said. "Although myself and Eric were not playing, we were there and witnessed it and we know what it takes not only to win it but to get there.”

Next up for Villanova is the Sweet 16 and fifth-seeded West Virginia on Friday night in Boston. The Mountaineers begin guarding you in the parking lot. It is a 90-foot torture test of relentless pressure, end to end. A brutal matchup for any team.

But rest assured, Villanova will be prepared and won’t be overwhelmed. 

“No matter what the stage is, we don’t care," Bridges said. "You can put us anywhere, we’re going to play the same game. We tell the young guys, 'Don’t think of it as the Sweet 16, think of it as the next game.'"

It may be more than just the next game.

But the moment won’t be too big for this bunch that’s seen it all.

How Sweet it is — 'Nova crushes Alabama

USA Today Images

How Sweet it is — 'Nova crushes Alabama


PITTSBURGH — Mikal Bridges hit five 3s, scored 23 points and helped No. 1 seed Villanova put the field on notice that it's the team to beat with an 81-58 win over ninth-seeded Alabama on Saturday.

The Wildcats (32-4) are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since they won the 2016 national championship. Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth -- and yes, The Big Ragu -- look every bit the favorite to make it two in three years.

Villanova plays Friday in Boston against the Marshall-West Virginia winner.

The sport is still buzzing from top-seeded Virginia's 20-point loss to 16th-seeded UMBC on Friday night.

Alabama (20-16) failed to make it two No. 1s KO'd in less than 24 hours.

After a tense first half in a round that has given the program fits, the Wildcats hit their first six 3s in the second and put on a thrashing up there among the most dominant under coach Jay Wright.

Bridges, who averaged 17.9 points and played his way into a likely NBA draft lottery pick, scored 1 point and missed all five shots in the first half. He found his groove once the second half tipped. Bridges scored the first 5 points of the half and then finished a thunderous alley-oop on a pass from Booth that made it 41-27 and sent the Wildcats wildly waving their arms in celebration headed into a timeout.

Bridges hit his first three 3s in succession to cap an 18-1 run and a Sweet 16 berth was in sight.

Brunson added a 3 to make it 56-31 and the rest of the half was simply a countdown to Boston. Villanova made 17 of 41 3s.

The Wildcats lost in the first weekend as a 1 or 2 seed in 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2017.

Villanova got a brief scare that it might add `18 to the list against Alabama.

The Wildcats live-and-die by the 3-pointer -- they say, "shoot em' up and sleep in the streets" -- and when it's on, look out. The Wildcats are as dangerous as any team in the nation.

When it's off, well, that's how they're so upset-prone in March. They missed eight of their first 11 3s in the first half and Alabama briefly grabbed the lead.

Donte DiVincenzo steadied Villanova with three straight 3s that brought a gasp from the crowd and gave the Wildcats a 22-15 lead. He threw in a fastbreak layup off his own steal and hit his fifth 3 of the half to make it 32-27.

DiVincenzo -- the redheaded guard nicknamed "The Big Ragu" -- scored all 18 of his points in the half. Villanova attempted 20 3s (made seven) out of 27 shots.