Defending champion Villanova shows its experience in NCAA Tournament first-round win over Saint Mary's

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Defending champion Villanova shows its experience in NCAA Tournament first-round win over Saint Mary's

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HARTFORD, Conn. — Villanova got off to a slow start in defense of its NCAA championship against a determined, defensive-minded Saint Mary's team that came in confident after a season-defining win.

But the Wildcats, a No. 6 seed in this NCAA Tournament after an up-and-down season, have one thing no team in the field of 64 has: a pair of leaders who have won two national titles.

 NPhil Booth scored 20 points, fellow senior Eric Paschell added 14 and Villanova held off 11th-seeded Saint Mary's 61-57 on Thursday night.

"We're growing, our young guys are growing, but we have two seniors who do everything for us, on and off the court," coach Jay Wright said. "We're just so lucky to have them."

Sophomore Jermaine Sameuls added 12 points for the Wildcats (26-9), who led for almost 33 minutes, but never by more than eight points.

"The tempo was excruciating," Wright said. "We felt going in we were going to have to grind with them."

The Gaels used the same slow pace to upset Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Tournament, and it gave them a chance against Villanova (26-9) in a tense opening-round matchup.

Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts each had 13 points for Saint Mary's (22-12). Ford's basket in the lane after a few nifty moves got the Gaels within six points at 61-55 with 34 seconds left.

After Paschell missed a foul shot on the other end, Fitts cut the deficit to four points with a leaner in the lane. The Gaels had two more chances in the final seconds, but Fitts hit the rim on a 3-point attempt and Villanova freshman Saddiq Bey stole the ball from Ford in the final seconds to seal the win.

"We had a few games this year where we put the press on and were able to get back in the game," said Ford. "And if we get a few of those loose balls, or maybe make a three when we were down four, I think it's a different game."

Saint Mary's led 30-28 at the half, but Booth scored the first five points after intermission during a 12-3 run that put the Wildcats up 40-33. He had 12 points and five of his six assists in the second half.

"We weren't doing that bad, actually," Booth said. "It was more that they were playing very well and we were trying to match how they were bringing it. I think we just had to take it to another level, because they were playing at a high level."

Big picture

Villanova: The defending champions are in the tournament for the 14th time in 15 seasons and improved to 14-1 since 2016.

Saint Mary's: The Gaels are 4-6 in opening-round games in the NCAA Tournament and 5-10 overall. Saint Mary's has advanced to the Sweet 16 once in the modern era when it beat the Wildcats in 2010. There's a reminder of that run in the hallway outside the locker room that the players see as they walk out to practice each day in McKeon Pavilion.

Empty arena

The game tipped to a relatively empty arena, but it wasn't because nobody had bought tickets.

Fans of the Wildcats, many of whom made the 4-hour drive from Philadelphia to Hartford, Connecticut, were lined up along with Gaels fans behind metal detectors as security emptied the arena from the afternoon session.

"You worry about those things, you know?" Wright said. "We have a lot of guys in the NCAA Tournament for the first time thinking, `This is the NCAA Tournament?' There's no one in the stands."

By halftime, the 16,000-seat XL Center was nearing capacity, but some frustrated fans were sill filing in.

From distance

The game was billed as a battle between one of the nation's top 3-point shooting teams in Villanova against some of the nation's best perimeter defenders. In the end, the Wildcats finished 8 of 20 from behind the arc, while Saint Mary's was 8 of 22.

On the boards

The taller Gaels won the rebounding battle 33-29 and 10-5 on the offensive end. The Wildcats didn't have an offensive board until the second half and that led to an 11-4 advantage for Saint Mary's in second-chance points. Wright said this year's team was hurt by the transfer of 6-foot-9 Dylan Painter, but is going to have to find a way against taller opponents.

Up next

Villanova will play No. 3 seed Purdue in the second round Saturday.

Villanova's X-factors, chances at history in 2019 NCAA Tournament

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Villanova's X-factors, chances at history in 2019 NCAA Tournament

The NCAA Tournament tips off Tuesday night with the start of the First Four in Dayton. There are a couple prominent Big 5 storylines as college basketball takes center stage for the next three weeks. Namely, Villanova is trying to do something that hasn't been done in 44 years: win three national championships in the span of four years.

Then there's Temple's Fran Dunphy coaching in his 17th and final NCAA Tournament before stepping down at the end of the season.

Here's a breakdown of what lies ahead for the local teams.

Can Villanova make history?

The Wildcats are back in the NCAA Tournament for the 14th time in the last 15 years under Jay Wright. They arrive with plenty of momentum after winning their third straight Big East Tournament last week at Madison Square Garden. Villanova is riding a ridiculous wave of postseason success — since the 2016 season, the Wildcats have a 26-2 record in Big East and NCAA Tournament competition.

Now they set out to win a third national championship in the last four years. That hasn't been done since the UCLA dynasty in the mid-1970s.

Villanova is flying under the radar compared to previous years in terms of contending for a national title. The Wildcats are the 6-seed in the South Region and will play St. Mary's on Thursday night in Hartford, CT. St. Mary's comes into play with a 22-11 record after a shocking win over then-No. 1 Gonzaga in the WCC championship game last week.

Villanova is battle-tested and has one of the premiere coaches in the country. The Wildcats are led by two terrific seniors in Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, two guys with tons of NCAA Tournament experience. Those are the positives.

The biggest negative? Villanova's lack of depth. Wright's rotation essentially shrunk to six players during the Big East Tournament.

Sophomore Jermaine Samuels and freshman Saddiq Bey are the X-factors. Both Samuels and Bey have had their moments this season and were critical to Villanova's success last week. If Samuels and Bey can step up to complement Booth and Paschall, the Wildcats will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.

Fran Dunphy's last stand

Dunphy has pretty much done it all during a remarkable career. A standout player at La Salle, he received a master's degree from Villanova and has served as the head coach at both Penn and Temple. His "Mr. Big 5" nickname is well deserved.

He had tremendous success during his 17 seasons at Penn, winning nine Ivy League titles and going to nine NCAA Tournaments. Dunphy carried that success over to Temple, winning three straight Atlantic 10 Tournaments from 2008 to 2010. He has led the Owls to eight NCAA Tournaments during his 13 seasons as head coach.

The one thing missing from Dunphy's resume is success on the sport's biggest stage. He has a 3-16 career record in the NCAA Tournament. Dunphy's Owls will try to improve that record on Tuesday night against a Belmont team that won 26 games this season.

Dunphy is a great coach, terrific man and has been a wonderful ambassador for college basketball. It would be a great story if Temple sends him out with a nice run in this NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Tournament: Villanova draws Saint Mary's in South Region matchup

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NCAA Tournament: Villanova draws Saint Mary's in South Region matchup

East Region | West Region |South RegionMidwest Region 

Printable bracket with game times  

Nothing will ever erase Virginia's history as the first men's No. 1 seed to lose its NCAA Tournament opener.

At least now the Cavaliers' wait for the chance to make up for that unprecedented loss is nearly over.

The Cavaliers are the second overall No. 1 seed and back in the South Region bracket after losing to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County — better known as UMBC — a year ago. Virginia lost 74-54 to UMBC, becoming the first men's No. 1 seed ever to lose to a 16 seed.

Virginia (29-3) will play an NCAA Tournament newcomer in Gardner-Webb (23-11) of the Big South Conference on Friday in Columbia, South Carolina. Coach Tony Bennett said his Cavaliers know what they have to do to be successful.

"We also realize that we're susceptible as every team is in this tournament and sometimes that's as valuable to know instead of thinking you're invincible," Bennett said Friday of the NCAA Tournament. "So if we play well, hopefully we can go 1-0 and then we'll address the next one."

This is the seventh time Virginia has been a No. 1 seed and the fourth time in six seasons, though the Cavaliers still are looking to reach their first Final Four with Bennett and first since 1984.

Second-ranked Virginia had been in the running to be the top overall seed after winning a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title only to lose 69-59 to No. 12 Florida State in the ACC tournament semifinals. The Cavaliers' only other losses this season were to Duke, the overall No. 1 seed.

They go into this tournament ranked first in the KenPom.com overall ratings, second in adjusted offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) and fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Reaching the Final Four in Minneapolis won't be easy. The Cavaliers find themselves in a bracket with Tennessee, which was the nation's top-ranked team for nearly a month with the Vols hoping for a No. 1 seed until being routed in the Southeastern Conference tournament final Sunday. The No. 2 seed Vols open Friday in Columbus, Ohio, against Colgate (24-10).

The Wisconsin Badgers, who reached the Final Four in 2014 and 2015, are a possible regional semifinal opponent in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 28. There's also Villanova and Cincinnati, which just beat No. 11 Houston for the American Athletic Conference tournament title just before the brackets were released.

Here are things to know about the South Region:

Shadow of Sister Jean: The Tennessee Volunteers (29-5) can sympathize with Virginia's pain over an early NCAA Tournament loss. The Vols earned their first berth since 2014 only to lose in the second round last year, 63-62 to Loyola-Chicago with famous fan Sister Jean watching. The Vols' only losses this season have been to ranked opponents: Kansas, Kentucky, LSU and Auburn (twice).

Now they play Colgate, the Patriot League tournament champ. The Raiders are 2-0 all-time against Tennessee and are making their first trip since 1996, when they had Adonal Foyle.

Defending champs: Villanova (25-9) will try to defend its title — and win its third championship in four years — as the sixth seed playing No. 11 seed Saint Mary's (22-11) on Thursday in Hartford, Connecticut. The Big East champs haven't been seeded this low since 2013. Their opener will be a rematch of 2010 when Saint Mary's upset the then-No. 2 seed Wildcats.

Injury watch: Kansas State (25-8) is hoping to have senior forward Dean Wade back for the fourth-seeded Wildcats' opener Friday in San Jose against UC Irvine (30-5). Wade missed both games at the Big 12 Tournament, and he was still wearing a walking boot on his right foot Sunday when the bracket was announced. Wade is their second-leading scorer, averaging 12.9 points a game.

Home sweet home: Cincinnati might not be happy being seeded seventh. But the Bearcats (28-6) only have to travel about 100 miles to Columbus to play No. 10 seed Iowa (22-11) with a possible second-round game against Tennessee.

The rest of the bracket: Third-seeded Purdue (23-9) plays No. 14 seed Old Dominion (26-8) in Hartford on Thursday, and No. 8 seed Ole Miss (20-12) meets nine-seed Oklahoma (19-13) on Friday in Columbia. No. 5 seed Wisconsin (23-10) meets 12th-seeded Oregon (23-12) on Friday in San Jose, with the Ducks having just won four games in as many days for the Pac-12 tournament title.

Path to Minneapolis: The bracket goes through Louisville's KFC Yum! Arena for the regional rounds on March 28 and March 30.