For a while there, it was looking like this might be first upset of the tournament, like 14th-seeded American U might actually steal one from No. 3 Villanova in front of their hometown fans.
After spending most of the first half trading shots, the Eagles started hitting big threes and the Wildcats struggled to keep up. Soon, Villanova was clinging to a 20-19 lead, then looking up at a 24-22 deficit -- then, after a Villanova miss led to a Derrick Mercer breakaway layup -- a 34-31 hole that had the modest, but vocal Eagles faithful who dutifully packed the 114-115 section at the Wachovia Center roaring with approval.
The Eagles took a 41-31 lead into the locker room and led by as much as 53-42 in the second. But then things quickly fell apart. The same threes that fell harmlessly through the hoop in the first half -- American started out shooting 53.3 percent -- were bouncing high off the back iron in the second. The same helter-skelter drives that created opportunities in the paint devolved into careless possessions, led to costly turnovers and had the suddenly frantic Eagles committing unwanted fouls.
By the 7:30 mark, it was curtains. Villanova's Dwayne Anderson hit a deep three in front of his bench to break a 55-all tie. That was the dagger in a 19-2 run that brought Villanova back from the brink of elimination and, really, made the Wildcats' 80-67 victory in the first round of the East Regional look a lot easier than it actually was. "In the end," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, "we had bigger, stronger athletes that wore them down at the end." So much for American's shining moment.
1. These 'Cats are resilient. Just when you thought they would give in to the inevitable, that they might roll over and let the underdog have its day, Villanova kept its poise, stiffened its interior defense, turned up theattacks on the basket and -- as consequence -- turned back the Eagles.
2. The partisan Wildcats crowd was most certainly not a factor. This according to American coach Jeff Jones who, despite being dealt the lofty challenge of having to play a No. 3 seed on what was essentially their home floor -- the 'Nova campus is just a half-hour away from here -- wasn't about to excuse the loss on that. Instead, he borrowed a line from Wright: "Villanova just wore us down," Jones said. "I think it's as simple as that."
3. College players remain remarkably well-schooled in the art of the sports cliché. When, during Villanova's post-game news conference, senior forward Daunte Cunningham found himself groping for an answer to a question about American's first-half offensive, he sputtered a few "ums," "uhs" and "uh ... yeahs" before giving up altogether and going to the well. "Yeah, it was just 94-by 50-feet," he said blankly. "We really don't worry about anything that's going on outside the lines." Crash Davis would be proud.
American senior guard Garrison Carr had a nice Steph Curry impression going for about two-thirds of this game, bombing threes from all points around the arc. His most impressive came at the 5:12 mark, when he shook a Wildcats defender with a mean step-back move and launched a 24-footer from the top of the key that staked the Eagles to a 30-26 lead. He finished with 22 points overall and 6 of 14 from deep. Pity his basketball career had to end tonight.
As sideline presences go, Jay Wright is the George Hamilton of college coaches: His skin is always perfectly tan and his suits perfectly bespoke. He is the anti-Bruce Pearl, the rare coach whose outbursts are even soothing to watch. On more than a few occasions Thursday, when a player missed his assignment or a referee a call, Wright would speed-walk over to the nearest official with his palms open and his arms just off his sides -- like a wine opener that's almost got the cork out -- and let fly with about 30 seconds' worth of frustration, only in half-second staccato bursts. Then when he was done, he'd adjust his cufflinks or fiddle with the top button of his single-breasted jacket and stride back to the Wildcats bench like nothing had even bothered him in the first place.
Likely the tournament's toughest out in UCLA, Final Four regulars for the past three years. Though much of the nucleus is gone, the championship mentality remains. Oh, and so do Darren Collison, Alfred Aboya and Josh Shipp, which was enough to get the sixth-seeded Bruins past No. 11 VCU, 65-64. Whether that'll be enough to get them to St. Louis, though, remains to be seen.