BOSTON–Somehow it was fitting that when Villanova and West Virginia met in Friday night’s NCAA East Regional semifinal game, former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese and Danny Gavitt, son of Big East founder Dave Gavitt, were watching the festivities at the TD Garden.
Officially, the game was a battle between the No. 1 seeded team from the Big East and the No. 5 seeded team from the Big 12, a battle won by Villanova, 90-78.
Tranghese, sitting in the first row behind the team benches, and Gavitt, sitting at courtside in his official capacity as the NCAA’s Vice President for men’s basketball championships, knew better.
So did anyone familiar with the recent history of both programs, back when they were cast as rivals in the old Big East conference from 1995-2012, Nova held a 12-11 edge. It was basketball without finesse or pretense, highlighted by some spectacular spurts.
When asked how many times he had seen that type of game between those two teams, Tranghese laughed. “”Quite often,”’he said.
What the Garden crowd saw was hand-to-hand combat disguised as a basketball game. “”That,”’ said Wright, whose team is on the cusp of making it into its second Final Four in three seasons, “”was ultimate survival. It’s hard to get used to their physicality. That was the ultimate survive and advance. I hope we survive.”
Playing any Bob Huggins coached team is never simply a matter of scoring more points. The Mountaineers, who finished their season with a 26-10 record, play an in-your-face type of game that is literally that from the opening tap.
It didn’t matter that Villanova, which won the national championship two seasons ago, led by Jalen Brunson’s 27 points, made their first five shots, looking very much like the team which had rolled to easy tournament wins over Radford and Alabama.
The Mountaineers contested every move Villanova made coming out of its pre-game huddle. At halftime, Nova held a 44-42 lead, but Wright was almost at a loss for words about what had just happened. “”There’s complete chaos out there,” he said.
It didn’t get any easier in the second half when West Virginia went on a 10-0 sprint and then another 8-2 burst, grabbing a 6-point lead at the 11 minute media time out break. It was the biggest deficit Villanova had faced in the entire tournament.
“”That was the most physical, physically demanding, mentally demanding 40 minutes we’ve played in a long time,” said Wright. “”They keep coming at you.”
What slowed West Virginia down were the officials whistles which came with increasing frequency in the second half as Villanova kept making its three point shots (13 of 24) and hitting its foul shots (23 of 27).
Huggins, clearly frustrated, was asked about the foul trouble which diminished the Mountaineers aggressiveness to a point.
“”When the whistle keeps blowing, it takes away your aggression, you know..” said Huggins.
Conversely, Nova, which broke the game open in the final minutes with an 11-0 burst, became more aggressive, particularly Omari Spellman. The redshirt freshman had 18 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots, including 13 points, 5 rebounds and three blocks in the second half.
It was, as usual, a typical Villanova effort in which each player fills roles that are needed to be filled at the most crucial times.
“”It’s just our confidence we have in each other,” said Brunson, who went through a stretch in the first half when he scored all 11 of Villanova’s points.
In an NCAA tournament which has refused to follow form with two 9 seeds (Kansas State, Florida State) an 11 seed (Loyola-Chicago) still playing, Villanova knows the road to San Antonio and the Final Four still has a major pot hole in Texas Tech, which rolled to a 78-65 win over Big Ten regular season champion Purdue in Friday night’s other East Regional semifinal game.
The Red Raiders (27-9) are as tenacious as West Virginia on defense and are deeper than West Virginia, which is security blanket against over zealous officials. “”It’s our identity,” said Texas Tech coach Chris Beard. We have a lot of faith in our whole roster, we use a lot of different guys and tonight was fitting. That’s the way we have played all year.”
Villanova says it will be ready. “”I think the deeper we go, the better the teams are going to get,” said Brunson. “”But most importantly for us nothing changes. Nothing changes no matter who we play, no matter where we play, what time, what day. It doesn’t matter. We play every game like it’s our last.”