BOSTON—The good news was it got ugly. It’s not that there was nothing aesthetically pleasing about Villanova’s 90-78 Sweet 16 win over West Virginia on Friday night—Mountaineers forward Sagaba Konate’s two-handed volleyball swat of a Mikal Bridges tomahawk dunk attempt will surely go down as the block of the tournament; Eric Paschall’s payback slam was a thrill; and Omari Spellman may have one-upped both in a single, 10-second end-to-end sequence that contained both acts. But those highlights were accompanied by a chippier slog than the final score would suggest, the more telling total perhaps being the 48 personal fouls between the two teams, which often stunted an up-and-down game into an oscillation between sprints and stoppages. And in this style (and in their emerging on the right end of it) the top-seeded Wildcats saw a version of themselves to which they aspire, and one that could carry them deeper still into March.
“That’s who we are,” said sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo. “We’re a grinding team. We’re not a pretty-boy team.”
That DiVincenzo offered that ending disclaimer unprompted is telling. Villanova had blitzed its way through this tournament’s opening weekend, burying Radford and then Alabama under heaps of three-pointers (making 14 and then 17, respectively), much as they had so many teams throughout the regular season. It’s a manner of attack that can breed an unfounded reputation for softness, a perception DiVincenzo often infers from opponents’ physical aggression and one that is directly at odds with Villanova’s constitution. That much should be clear after a win in what Wildcats coach Jay Wright called “the most physical, physically demanding, mentally demanding 40 minutes we've played in a long time.”
Of course, Friday’s game started out as yet another shooting clinic. The Wildcats made their first six shots from the floor and 10 of their first 13. But West Virginia’s vaunted press defense appeared to unnerve the Wildcats, who nearly matched their full-game season average by turning the ball over nine times in the first 20 minutes (and who also lost DiVincenzo and star wing Mikal Bridges to foul trouble for most of the first half). That Villanova managed to lead by two at halftime appeared almost anomalous, and was largely thanks to the cool playmaking of senior point guard Jalen Brunson, who scored 16 points in the opening period.
But despite visual evidence to the contrary, the Wildcats had prepared extensively for how the Mountaineers would play them. Spellman had said he expected a “street fight” between the teams, and Villanova spent this week’s practices preparing for full-court pressure by running drills in which its first unit had to follow a defensive stop by running an offensive possession against a seven-man D, with the two extra defenders running in from the sideline at the change of possession. “And they don’t call fouls on walk-ons,” said senior guard Denny Grace, one of the sideline-chargers. They drew too from their experience against the ball pressure of St. John’s and the length of Providence. “But there’s nobody like West Virginia’s pressure,” said assistant coach Ash Howard, who handled the Wildcats’ scouting of the Mountaineers.
The Mountaineers pushed out to a six-point lead in the second half, but soon the aggression of their defense began catching up with them. By the 12-minute mark, Villanova was already in the double-bonus, and the Mountaineers’ (and perhaps the country’s) best defender, the ball-smothering point guard Jevon Carter, was moved back in West Virginia’s press as he tried to play with three fouls. His backcourt mate, Daxter Miles Jr., played much of the second half with four. “When the whistle keeps blowing, it really takes away your aggression, you know,” said Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins, who added that Carter and Miles are “the heart and soul of this team. They're the guys that everybody looks to. They're the guys that who make things happen.”
It was the Wildcats’ own defense that would key the game’s—and their offense’s—turnaround. After falling down six, Villanova allowed just 12 points over the next 10 minutes, during which it also did not turn the ball over once and scored 32 points of its own. “They weren’t able to set up in the press because we were getting stops and rebounds,” DiVincenzo said, “and we were able to kick it early before they got set.”
The game’s tide would not reverse again. “In this tournament, to be down six against a team like that in the second half and battle back, you know in the next game that's going to happen,” Wright said. “So you don't want it to happen the first time in a final eight game. And just the physicality, the toughness of that team, that's what a final eight game is going to be like. I think that's a really valuable game for us, really valuable.”
Brunson finished with 27 points and Spellman, a redshirt freshman, had perhaps the best game of his young career, scoring 18 points to go with eight rebounds, three assists, and three blocks, and of course the sequence of the night, when he practically blocked James Bolden’s shot through the TD Bank floor and slammed down teammate Phil Booth’s missed transition layup on the other end. Only a few minutes later came Paschall’s dunk over Konate, arguably the best shot-blocker in the country, which Paschall was busy discussing with a TV crew in the postgame locker room when Howard, the assistant coach who had game-planned the Wildcats’ win, entered the room, smiling wide.
“Great scout!” Paschall shouted.
“Great dunk!” came Howard’s reply.
It was a celebration of one of the game’s prettiest moments. But it was the grinding that got them there that may lead to more celebrating yet.