NCAA Tournament: Villanova's penchant for free throws pays off


NCAA Tournament: Villanova's penchant for free throws pays off

Brackets: East | Midwest | South | West

His whole career had come down to this moment. He was the guy with the basketball in his hands with the game on the line. He was the guy Kansas had to foul. He was the guy walking to the free throw line while 12,000 Kansas fans hooted and hollered and a national TV audience watched to see if he would blow the free throws, blow the game, blow the season for Villanova.

That’s all Villanova senior Ryan Arcidiacono faced Saturday night in the final minute of the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament South Region championship game at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.

Now, honestly. Did you really think "Arch" was going to miss?

“At that point, I was thinking of every single time I've worked on my free throws throughout my whole life,” Arcidiacono said. “This one gym I especially shot at, (with) my AAU coaches, just by myself with no one in the gym. I was thinking about how we always end practice shooting free throws.

“I thought about our video director, because we were working on my free throw throughout the whole year, and I found a groove throughout the end of the year. So I had a lot of things running through my mind. I was confident it was going to go in.”

With Villanova up 56-54 at 0:33, Arcidiacono made two free throws, and 11 seconds later, with the lead now 58-57, he made two more.

The lead was 60-59 at 0:13 when Kris Jenkins hit two straight, and it was 62-59 when freshman Jalen Brunson finally made it a two-possession game with the clinching foul shots at 0:03.

The slightest slip-up would have left the door open for top-ranked and top-seeded Kansas, but Villanova's foul shots enabled the Wildcats to beat the Jayhawks, 64-59, ending their 17-game winning streak.

None of those eight straight foul shots in the final 33 seconds even touched the rim.

Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish.

The Wildcats do a lot of things well. Their defense has been brilliant in the tournament. Their three-point shooting — even with a terrible shooting night Saturday — has been third-best in the entire NCAA Tournament.

They’re second among all tournament teams in assists, first in steals, fourth in two-point shooting and second in scoring.

But they’re out of this world shooting foul shots.

“I know at the end-of-the-game situation we all want the ball for free throws,” Arcidiacono said. “It's what we start practice with — working on our form all the time. We finish practice the same way.

“In every situation, we'll shoot three, two, one and one and one. Coach puts the pressure on us at the end of practice, and I knew anyone who's going to the line at the end of the game, they were going to be calm, cool and collected making the free throws.

“We know we can shoot the free throws really well. And if we got to the foul line, it would be to our advantage.”

Villanova is second in NCAA Division I in foul shooting at 78.4 percent, trailing only UConn, which made 79.3 percent of its free throws this season.

This year's 'Cats are on track to break Villanova school record for foul shooting. It’s currently 78.1 percent, set by the 2007 team.

So far in NCAA Tournament wins over UNC Asheville, Iowa, Miami and Kansas, Villanova is shooting 85 percent on 56 for 66. The Wildcats made 18 of 19 foul shots in both games in Louisville, a remarkable 94.7 percent in consecutive games.

Villanova is the first team in at least 50 years to shoot 94 percent or better from the line in consecutive NCAA Tournament Games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

In this year’s NCAA Tournament, only South Dakota State (94.1 percent in one game), UConn (91.2 percent in two games) and Utah (.900 in two games) have shot better than the Wildcats from the line.

Villanova has made 90 percent of its foul shots in eight games this year — most of any team in the country over the last six years.

Phil Booth (86.6 percent), Kris Jenkins (85.0 percent) and Arcidiacono (83.0 percent) are all well above 80 percent, and freshmen Mikal Bridges (78.6) and Jalen Brunson (78.2) aren’t far off.

Since Jan. 6, Arcidiacono is shooting 88 percent from the line on 66-75, and Jenkins is right behind at 85.7 percent on 60-70. Since Jan. 20, Booth has missed just three times and is shooting 87.0 percent.

Villanova (33-5) faces Oklahoma (29-7) at 6:09 p.m. Saturday in a national semifinal game at NRG Stadium in Houston. 

“We do spend a lot of time on it all year round,” coach Jay Wright said. “We spend a lot of time on technique shooting. We spend a lot of time on every possible situation in foul shooting, every day in practice.

“With people on the line, without people on the line, a three-shot foul, a two-shot foul. We even practice missing a foul shot in case we're down two and we have one shot with three seconds left. 

“So it’s a big part of our program all year round.”

Saint Joseph's comeback bid comes up short vs. Florida

AP Images

Saint Joseph's comeback bid comes up short vs. Florida

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Keyontae Johnson saw Florida’s big lead shrink to almost nothing in the final minute. He made sure his teammates didn’t let this one get away from the Gators.

Johnson had a career-high 22 points to lead the Gators to a 70-62 victory over Saint Joseph’s at the Charleston Classic, playing without ejected leading scorer Kerry Blackshear Jr. on Thursday. Not that it came easily as Florida (3-2) saw its 18-point lead cut to 64-62 in the final minute.

“We just communicated, told everyone to stay together,” Johnson said. “We stayed locked in.”

The focus proved the difference as Florida hit six foul shots down the stretch while Saint Joseph’s missed two shots and committed a pair of turnovers.

“Down the stretch, I thought we showed a tremendous toughness,” Florida coach Mike White said.

The Gators needed it with Blackshear missing almost all of the game. He played three minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls. Then he was thrown out when he was battling underneath and his elbow looked like it hit Saint Joseph’s guard Taylor Funk. Blackshear, who came in averaging 14 points and 12 boards, was called for a flagrant two foul and sent off the court.

Blackshear’s departure seemed to energize the Hawks (2-3), who trailed 43-27 when the Florida star left the court. That’s when St. Joseph’s went on a 29-16 spurt to cut it to three points on Funk’s basket with six minutes left.

But Johnson followed with a basket and Andrew Nembhard made another to extend the lead.

St. Joseph’s had one last charge, slicing things to 64-62 on Ryan Daly’s layup in the final minute. The Hawks had several chances to tighten things, but could not. “We’re not going to go down easy,” Daly said.

Florida will take on Miami here Friday for a spot in the Charleston Classic finals.

The Hawks face Missouri State on Friday.

Johnson also had a game-high 12 rebounds. Nembhard added 16 points.

Florida took control quickly and appeared to make this a runaway as Noah Locke had two 3-pointers and Nembhard also hit one from behind the arc as the Gators went ahead 11-2 less than two minutes in and steadily built its lead.

St. Joseph’s had hit 34 first-half 3s combined its first four games. It made just one of its 14 long-range attempts this time as it fell behind.

Daly led the Hawks with 25 points.

Swider scores 26, No. 17 Villanova routs MTSU 98-69

USA Today Images

Swider scores 26, No. 17 Villanova routs MTSU 98-69

CONWAY, S.C. -- It’s been awhile since No. 17 Villanova shot this well from long range. Cole Swider has never scored like this.

Swider scored a career-high 26 points with six 3-pointers, and the Wildcats routed Middle Tennessee 98-69 on Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Myrtle Beach Invitational.

Collin Gillespie added 16 points and hit four 3s, Justin Moore finished with 15 points and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl had 11 rebounds to help Villanova (3-1) - which never trailed, led by 35 and shot 57% while winning its second straight following a 25-point loss at No. 10 Ohio State.

And yet, another number in the box score caught coach Jay Wright’s eye - Swider’s seven rebounds.

“He’s more than just a shooter,” Wright said.

And the Wildcats have plenty of those. They made 18 3s - one shy of the school record, and their most since they also had 18 in a victory over Kansas at the 2018 Final Four.

“They have elite size with great shooters,” Middle Tennessee coach Nick McDevitt said, “and any short close-out or decent close-out results in three points.”

Eleven of them came during a first-half barrage that pushed the lead well into the 20s. Swider hit his fifth 3 from the corner shortly before the buzzer to put the Wildcats up 53-28 at halftime.

Saddiq Bey then took the lead to 30 with a 3-pointer two minutes into the second half.

Donovan Sims scored 18 points and C.J. Jones had 16 for the Blue Raiders (3-2). Leading scorer Antonio Green, averaging 23.5 points going into the game, finished with four points on 1-of-7 shooting while dealing with foul trouble.

“They’ve got a lot of interchangeable parts, so they were switching just to never let him see space,” McDevitt said.