When he reflects on his years at Villanova, Darrun Hilliard won’t think about the early NCAA exits or the lack of a Final Four appearance or any of the other unfulfilled dreams.

He’ll think about his teammates, his friends, his brothers.

He’ll think about his personal growth from freshman year to today.

He’ll think about how much his years at Villanova meant to him personally.

“Looking back, coming in as a 17-year-old kid who was mentally unstable, you know?” he said.

“Coming in and finding coach (Jay) Wright and finding players like JayVaughn (Pinkston) and Arch (Ryan Arcidiacono) and Daniel (Ochefu) and then Dylan (Ennis) coming in and all these different characters and over the span of my career I was able to kind of break out of my shell and kind of open up to these guys and it just motivated my game.

“It’s more than teammates with these guys. These guys helped me more off the court than on the court.”

Hilliard spoke in the Villanova locker room at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh late Saturday night after Villanova lost as a top-two seed to an opponent seeded seventh or lower for the second straight year and third time in six seasons.

His final game as a Wildcat was a 71-68 loss to NC State in the NCAA Round of 32.

Villanova finished the season 33-3 but failed to advance to the second weekend for the sixth straight year.

“It’s tough,” said Hilliard, who scored 27 points in his final college game, including three deep three-pointers in the final 86 seconds that kept Villanova’s desperate hopes alive.

“These guys have meant so much to me. These guys are my brothers. My everything.

“I grew up being an only child, and I just … these guys have been my safe haven, you could say. Saved my life.

“I just wanted to thank them for everything they did for me. They saved my life. That probably sounds overboard, but it’s true. They really helped me become the person that I am and the man that I am today.”

Hilliard finished his career with 1,511 points, 400 rebounds and 176 steals. On Monday, he was named Big 5 Player of the Year (see story).

He leaves Villanova 18th in career scoring. In his three years as a starter, Villanova went 82-22, including a 62-8 mark the last two years.

As his teammates came over and hugged him, Hilliard spoke of the lessons the younger Wildcats would learn from yet another upset loss on college basketball’s biggest stage.

“I mean, going out like this, it just wasn’t our day,” he said. “God has a higher purpose, and we may not see it now, but I think we’ll see it in the long run.

“I really believe it’s a higher purpose than this. It’s going to teach the young guys how hard it is to get to this point. And how to face adversity.

“I’m sure this will be one of the most pivotal points in everybody’s life, not just on the basketball court. I just think there’s a higher purpose.”

Hilliard has a chance to play in the NBA and will definitely get opportunities to play professionally somewhere.

For now, he said his immediate plans don't involve basketball.

They just involve family. Which is most important to him.

“I might go back to Bethlehem and hang out with my mom,” said Hilliard, who grew up in Bethlehem, biked to Eagles training camp practices as a kid and attended Liberty High -- the same high school as Chuck Bednarik.

“I don’t know. Just get away from basketball. Go eat some McDonald’s or something.

“If I catch an (NCAA Tournament) game I might (watch). But I might just disappear for a little bit and drop off the face of the earth.”