Don't look now, but Villanova has a home court advantage again. After taking down the 5th-ranked Louisville Cardinals on Tuesday, the Wells Fargo Center found its voice as regulation time expired on Saturday against Syracuse — creating a sonic boom as Ryan Arcidiacono hit the buzzer-beating 3-pointer to tie the game at 61.
Villanova had 10 points before the Orange could blink an eye at the start of the game, but the 'Cats early lead wouldn't keep them comfortable all game. The lead, which was 32-26 at halftime, dissipated quickly at the start of the second half, leaving the Wildcats to battle with the Orange the rest of the way.
The Wildcats may have needed more than regulation time, but they had plenty left in the tank for another 5 minutes, especially with Jerami Grant and Baye Moussa-Keita fouling out for Syracuse in the second half. When the clock ticked under a minute, the students creeped closer to the court, ready to storm it with a 73-69 victory.
"That three at the end," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Mouphtaou Yarou getting that offensive rebound and then the three, made the difference."
It was the program's second win over a top-5 ranked team in the past week.
"What a week for us," the coach exhaled. "We played really well and you can just see why Syracuse is a team that can win the National Championship, because they don't go away, they just keep coming and coming. They made so many adjustments . . . I don't need to get into it, it's just why Jim Boeheim is a hall of fame coach."
It was only the second time Villanova had ever knocked off two top-5 teams in a single week in program history. The last time that happened, was during the 1985 Final Four, when they beat both #5 Memphis State and #1 Georgetown in back-to-back games.
"There was like point-five seconds left and the one side [of the student section] started rushing, so I said, 'Darrun, get me the ball.' Then I got it and just threw it up and did this [ducked]," Arcidiacono told reporters afterward. "Just braced myself for all of these kids. One kid was trying to take off my jersey. Honestly, I was just trying to get out of there."
"It was fun, but hopefully like, people know that we don't need that anymore. We got our two in, and lets hope that for the rest of these, we're expected to win."
His teammate Darrun Hilliard added, "The first time, I was enjoying it, but this time I was like, 'I gotta get out of here."
If you ask Jay Wright, the key to the last two games was consistency.
"It's starting to create a level of consistency for us, a high level of consistency — which to be a good team in this league, you have to have — and you're still going to lose games. I thought Louisville played really well and they came in here and they lose the game. I thought Syracuse came in here and played a extremely well and they lose the game. So, in this league, you can play at a high level of consistency and still lose some games, but if you're not playing at a high level of consistency, you're going to lose a lot of games.
"That's what we're starting to get to. That doesn't mean we're going to roll off every game, but it means we have a chance to be a good team in this league."
Hilliard led the Wildcats with 25 points and scored the first seven points for the 'Cats, scoring as many as the entire Syracuse team a little after the midway point of the first half. He connected on 3-of-6 from beyond the arc to help the 'Cats neutralize the Syracuse 2-3 zone defense. The Cat's were 9-of-27 overall from downtown, with James Bell contributing three triples of his own and Arcidiacono knocking down two, including the chuck at the buzzer that sent the game into overtime.
Bell started hitting big shots late in the game, a trick that isn't new for the Wildcat.
"I am amazed at his countenance, I really am, because he does this all the time," Wright glowed about the junior. "You think, 'why don't you come out early in the game and do this,' 'why don't you come out in the middle of the game?' He did this in the St. Joes game, he did it in the Purdue game, he did it in another game. He's got guts, this kid, he really takes responsibility.
"That's how you win big-time games like that, when you have guys who have great character and great guts."
Hilliard also managed to play without committing a turnover for 38 minutes, while dishing out 6 assists. Arcidiacono had 2 assists, 2 turnovers and 2 steals. Yarou led the team with a tremendous 16 rebounds, eight of them on the offensive glass.
"Unbelievable performance, 25 points, 6 assists, I thought [Hilliard] was really the key to us attacking the zone," Wright said. The difference this time and when we played them at Syracuse; at Syracuse we got the ball inside to our bigs and we made some shots, but we couldn't penetrate with our guards, and [today] he got inside the zone, got fouled when he got inside the zone, made plays. He had an amazing game.
"He also had a great defensive game."
Both teams had four players scoring double-digits in the game, with Arcidiacono (10), Bell (13), and Yarou (14) joining Hilliard for the Wildcats. Brandon Triche lead the way for the Orange with 23 points, being joined by Michael Carter-Williams (17), Jerami Grant (12) and C.J. Fair (10). Rakeem Christmas led for 'Cuse on the boards with 10.
Each team had 18 offensive rebounds, but Villanova beat Syracuse on the defensive glass to take a 50-41 edge on the boards. Some of that rebounding success can be attributed to the high-low sets that the Wildcats have moved to instead of their traditional 4-out look on offense.
"We've had to do that this year because that's what our personnel is," he explained. "All of our guards are so young that the experience of our big guys is more efficient right now, so we've changed our approach, but we'll get back to [the 4-out].
"I think it gives us a better chance to offensive rebound. We had 18 offensive rebounds, but we usually don't shoot threes as well, so you have to make up for the threes with offensive rebounds.
"Now, getting nine threes was big today too, down the stretch, that was big, but you've got to get your threes different ways. You've got to get them from offensive rebounds, you've got to get them from inside-the-post-out, as opposed to always our dribble-drive. We would dribble-drive, kick it, but we don't get them that way."
Villanova committed 14 turnovers, down from 19 on Tuesday, and while Jay Wright claimed that the turnovers didn't phase him earlier in the week, they were a point of emphasis today.
"[W]e only had 14 turnovers against them, and they create turnovers like Louisville does. So every time you turn it over against them, they're gone, and they're efficient. It's Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino, they work together, they do the same thing. If you turn the ball over, they are on the attack and they practice it and they're good at it. So our lack of turnovers was really the key, if you remember early in the game, they got a couple and we called time-out.
"You can't turn the ball over against these guys and not get the ball down to the baseline. If you turn it over up-top, they're scoring."
Villanova is also the school that lost an early-season game to Columbia (currently tied for first in the Ivy) by 18 points, and made mental errors down the stretch in an overtime loss to La Salle. Even the start of the Big East season was rough on the 'Cats, losing three straight after winning over St. John's and USF, to go to 2-3. Now, the 'Cats look like a team that can make beat anybody.
"Just playing together," is the difference between the earlier struggles and the double-upsets of this week, according to Wright. "These guys have never played together before, these guys [Arcidiacono and Hilliard] have never played together before, Tony Chennault has never played with these guys before. It's just everybody learning what we do together, it's still a team sport . . . it takes time to build a team and that's what we're doing here, we're building a team.
"That's why these two games were so huge. We can talk to them about our '09 team, our '11 team, our '06 team, they weren't there, they don't have anything to do with that. They respect it, but it almost puts more pressure on them."
"It's important that they own something special themselves."