The Wildcats– who were the top seed overall– were bounced from the NCAA tournament here Saturday, losing to a bigger, fundamentally sound, Wisconsin team, 65-62, in a second round game at the Key Bank Center.
The Big Ten Badgers were not your typical eighth seed. They had three upper class stars– forward Nigel Hayes, 6-10 center Ethan Happ and guard Bronson Koenig– and were arguably the second best team in the Big Ten. And they were more than the Cats could handle.
Villanova found out like so many other defending national champions how hard it is to repeat.
Hayes scored 19 points, dropping a layup in traffic with 11.4 seconds left to lift the Badgers to a 64-62 lead, then closed out the Cats on the next defensive possession.
Villanova wanted to get to ball to sophomore first team All Big East point guard Jalen Brunson and run a play in the half court. But when the Badgers took that option away with full court pressure, senior All America guard Josh Hart took inbounds pass, went the length of the floor and was stripped by Hayes and Vitto Brown as he tried to drive the ball to the basket with 3.4 seconds remaining
“We got all the way to the rim,”’ Wright said. “And that’s what you want to do. You want to be aggressive going to the rim and try to score and get fouled. They made a great defensive play.”
Hart fouled Brown, who made one of two free throws. The Cats struggled to control the rebound and were never able to a last shot off.
Despite the fact the Cats won 32 games and dominated the Big East again, this was the third time in the last four seasons the Cats have failed to reach the Sweet 16 as a 1 or 2 seed.
“To me, there’s no dishonor in losing in this tournament,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We’ve lived through it. You are judged by how you play in this tournament and that’s the reality of it. You’re a one seed, you’re supposed to get to the Final Four, get out of your bracket. That’s probably what we have to do to be a success. And as you know, we accept, we’ll take it. We’re not going to define ourselves that way, but we get it.”
Maybe we should have seen this coming. The Cats looked sluggish in an opening round win against 16th seeded Mt. St. Mary’s and they started slowly against the Badgers. Still, Villanova, which benefited from Happ and Koenig– the Badgers best shooter– being handcuffed to the bench for an extended period in the second half, looked like it might on the verge of taking control after red shirt freshman guard Donte DiVincenzo made a three pointer to give the Cats a 57-50 lead with five and a half minutes to play.
But nothing lasts forever. The Cats scored just one field goal and made three free throws the rest of the way.
“They do a good job of getting into you physically, taking away three-pointers and forcing an ugly game,” Wright said. “You have to be willing to win an ugly game and I thought we were. We were doing it for a while, but down the stretch they got us.”
Wright tried to be philosophical in the post game media season.
“This is the greatest sporting event in our country,” he said.”Just being in it, I say there should be nothing negative about this tournament. I say this every year at Villanova, we can’t take it for granted. It’s so special to be a part of it. Every time you win and get a chance to advance, cherish it. You’re playing the best teams in the country. You’re going to come down to games like this, you know? We had a game like this against Kansas last year and we came out on the good side of it. We had a game like this NC State in 2015, and we had a shot to win it and we missed it.”
The Cats’ decorated senior class of Hart, Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds will always have the memories of four glorious years. They finished their careers with a 129-17 record, four regular season Big East titles, four Big 5 titles, two Big East tournament championships and that hallowed national championship. But it also make losing that much more difficult to digest.
Hart, who scored 19 points, finished with 1921 points in his star studded career, 10th on Villanova’s all-time list. But it seemed like little consolation to him in a somber locker room. “Sometimes the ball doesn’t go your way,” Hart said. “This team was just as good, if not better than last year’s team. Last year, we might have gotten away with a blown call or made a shot. That’s how it is. It stinks, but it happens.”
For Wisconsin, which has taken down three No. 1s– Arizona in 2014, Kentucky in 2015 and now the Cats– the beat goes on. “All of those games we’ve been the underdog,” he said. “You have all types of ranking systems, statistics. The thing with all those algorithms is they can’t calculate heart, will to win, toughness, desire. And that’s the thing we have.”
This could be their one shining moment. “Seeds don’t matter,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “I told the guys I don’t care where we’re seeded. We have to win six games. Let’s start with these two.”
For the Cats, the ride is over.