Led by a poised Jalen Brunson, Villanova remain resolute against a tough Texas Tech team and advanced to its second Final Four in three seasons
BOSTON – The nets had been sheared, the TV interviews done, the bucket of confetti dumped over his head by his players on the podium during the post-game trophy presentation. When Villanova coach Jay Wright finally entered his team’s locker room after its 71-59 win over Texas Tech, earning the program its second Final Four appearance in three years, he expected a moment of solitude. After each of their games the Wildcats are lead in a recitation of the “Glory Be” prayer by their team chaplain, Father Rob Hagan, and though Wright had told them to pray without him after Sunday’s victory while he fulfilled post-game media obligations, he was greeted in the hallway by a gleeful Mikal Bridges, who told his coach, “We waited for you!”
Wright entered the room to see the Wildcats gathered in their customary circle, but what he did not see—at least not at first—was the uncapped water bottles each player held behind their backs. When Wright joined the circle, his players revealed their ruse, dousing him with water while they jumped around him in jubilation.
“He loved it,” said senior walk-on Denny Grace. “He was dancing in the middle of it.” Strewn on the carpet in front of Grace were crumpled Dasani bottles crunching under the steps of wandering reporters and staffers, while splash-marks still stained the ceiling tiles above him and water clung to the plastic covering of the closest fluorescent light. In the hallway outside his coach held court with TV reporters while a gray towel dangled from his left hand just outside the frame. “I’m freezing right now,” Wright said, “but it’s a good feeling.”
Phil Booth, a junior guard, had initiated the bait-and-switch, and afterward he said it was an idea he had inherited from older members of previous teams, one they had done as recently as last season, to commemorate a close win over Virginia. That’s only fitting, given how spending any time at all around the Wildcats reveals a team diligent in its maintenance of tradition. Nine years ago Wright earned his first Final Four berth in this same arena, and Sunday’s win came one day shy of the second anniversary of Villanova earning its most recent trip, on the way to its 2016 national championship. Now the Wildcats—upstarts in 2009, trying to break through two years ago, and plucky eighth-seed underdogs way back in 1985—head to San Antonio this week in a manner none of their predecessors had: as one of the final weekend’s heavyweights, one of two No. 1 seeds left standing in a chaotic, often-thrilling NCAA tournament.
Sunday’s win was Villanova’s eighth in a row by a double-digit margin, but aside from an OT win over Providence in the Big East tournament final, it was the win in that group most misrepresented by such categorization. The Wildcats fell behind 9-1 in the game’s opening three minutes, only to methodically outscore the No. 3-seeded Red Raiders 35-14 over the rest of the half, so controlling the game that Ryan Arcidiacono, the point guard on Villanova’s 2016 title team, tweeted, “This game is over already.”
But the Wildcats—who had made 47.8% of their threes in their first three tourney wins, taking a whopping 54.4% of their field goal attempts from that distance—would soon find themselves lured into a fight in which they struggled to land the decisive blow. They made just four of 24 three-point tries in the game, bothered by the aggressive man-to-man that helped make Texas Tech the nation’s third-most efficient defense this season, and ultimately shot their worst percentage from the field (33.3%) since Dec. 2015. “They’re one of the best defensive teams in the country,” said Bridges, who shot 3-for-10 from the floor. “They showed it today.”
Villanova found some salvation on the boards, grabbing 20 offensive rebounds (its most in five years), 11 of which came from either Eric Paschall (who finished with 14 total) or freshman forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who was forced onto the floor for long stretches due to foul trouble from Bridges and Omari Spellman. “We really got whipped on the boards,” said Texas Tech coach Chris Beard. His Red Raiders chipped away until they were within five points with four minutes remaining, but their means were equally inefficient, shooting an identical 33.3% from the floor. (It was at the free-throw line, where the Wildcats earned 17 more attempts and made 15 more of them, that the game’s margin was largely built.) “That's one of the best defenses we've played against,” Beard said. “You know, we got some good shots, but they were all contested.”
In some ways their victory Sunday was a continuation of the Wildcats’ win on Friday night, when they ground (and shot) their way past an unrelentingly aggressive West Virginia full-court press amid myriad whistles and collisions. After that game guard Donte DiVincenzo said, “we’re not a pretty-boy team,” and on Sunday his coach appreciated the win over Texas Tech in much the same way. “It was beautiful to us in a sense that it was so ugly,” he said standing in a TD Garden hallway, navy suit still damp as he spoke to a reporter from the NCAA’s website. “They forced us to show our toughness. I’m glad they did and I’m glad we did it and I’m proud of our guys that responded that way.”
It was junior point guard Jalen Brunson, who made just four of 14 field goals Sunday and perhaps best embodies Villanova’s poised, unflinching demeanor, that was named the East Regional’s Most Outstanding Player. Before that he led his teammates’ in their sprint down the floor as the game’s final horn sounded, his fists balled and head tilted back as his voice crescendoed in a primal shout of celebration. He and DiVincenzo—a redshirt sophomore who arrived at Villanova with Brunson but missed the 2016 title-winning season with a broken foot—met in a corner of the floor and wrapped one another in a bear hug. “It was just a feeling,” DiVincenzo explained later, “that we finally did it together.”