Philadelphia -- Villanova got punched in the mouth, knocked to the mat and struggled to answer the ten-count. But, when they rose, they roared and finished the bout with a silencing right hook. One that shook the nation.
The Wildcats proved they could take a knockout punch from a team that had a superior matchup in length and athleticism, and get back up. More importantly, after not leading for one second in regulation, Villanova proved it can deliver the knockout blow when necessary.
It was one of the best basketball games Villanova had played all season and head coach Jay Wright stressed the importance of "experience" for his undefeated roster. For 39 minutes in regulation it was Syracuse. For the last minute and the following five, the home team silenced their doubters.
"Going into this game, a lot of people were saying 'oh, you should handle them,'" Wright said post-game Saturday afternoon from the Wells Fargo Center. "And I said 'Syracuse/Villanova has never been anything but what we just saw...We have upperclassmen, namely JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard, that carry our team. We are very fortunate to have seniors like that. That was probably the difference today."
Pinkston had his best game of the season, and one of the best in the last two years. Sophomore Josh Hart showed poise, hitting nine of his 11 free throw attempts. Ryan Arcidiacono had one of his best passing performances of the year, totaling nine assists and willing the Wildcats into overtime with great on-ball defense.
It's been a narrative through 11 games thus far, Villanova is nowhere near the same team they were this time last year. And experience plays a lot into the equation. The three Wildcats who scored more than 20 points against the Orange (Pinkston, Darrun Hilliard and Hart) were there last season for the disappointing loss away from home.
This year the tide has turned. The Orange were sloppy when it mattered. Villanova finally showed the killer instinct they were missing in the Round of 32 just nine months ago.
"Experience. These guys all played in that game and now they're a year older. It's such a difference in college basketball," Wright said comparing this year's team to last season's loss. "[Michael] Gbinije didn't play in that game. [Chris] Mccullough didn't play in that game. [Kaleb] Joseph didn't play in that game. BJ Johnson didn't play in that game, Tyler Roberson didn't play in that game. That experience is a big difference."
'Cuse got juiced
Villanova never led for a second of regulation against Syracuse. They were only tied twice heading into overtime. And, they rattled the Orange in the late seconds of the contest and took an opportunity to seal the win.
In the beginning of the season, it was usually the huge offensive outputs and solid defense that carried the Wildcats to a win. Saturday, it was a defense-first mentality that clawed them back into the game. And legendary coach Jim Boeheim, agreed. In a short-winded press conference, Boeheim did take the time to praise the Wildcats performance.
"Just a tremendous effort defensively," Boeheim said as he opened his post-game presser. "They got inside a little bit against us in the second half and that turned the offense around. When they tied the game they made a couple great plays...It was a great effort, but at the end of the game, for whatever reason, we couldn't get the ball inbounds and they made a great play."
Boeheim was his normal "chipper" self following the team's fourth loss this season, but the old coach did stress the importance of playing teams like Villanova in the non-conference slate. 18,000 plus flooded the Wells Fargo Center for the one of the biggest rivalries made in the Big East, now held outside of it.
And Boeheim, with his now-famous wit, made it clear that scheduling Villanova was of importance to his and Wright's program.
"Should we play Illinois? Kentucky or somebody?," Boeheim asked the media. "Or should we play teams we've always played. It's a great rivalry. They are great games. Last year we played St. John's and Villanova and we won. I like that a lot better. But it doesn't work that way all the time. It's a great game. It's a great rivalry. There were a lot of people in the building tonight. And when Villanova plays somebody else here, they're not going to get 18,000."
Adding the strength of Villanova, whether it be this season or last, was important to Syracuse. It helped their young guys learn how to played against one of the nation's more experienced clubs and toughest defenses.
But, this year, Boeheim said that the Wildcats are a legitimate club. And he did so, without his classic sass.
"Well right now they're in the top six or seven in the country. That's pretty good," Boeheim said. "I don't see them fading away. I think they have a really good team."
- Darrun Hilliard is going through "concussion tests" according to Jay Wright and wasn't permitted to return to the game after he was kicked in the face by Syracuse forward Chris McCullough. Hilliard kept asking to get back in the game during overtime. It's unknown if he will be healthy for the December 23rd matchup with NJIT.
- Boeheim kept saying that experience didn't play a factor on both sides for the game, it was more of his team not finishing when they had the opportunity to
- Wright stressed that his team needed to have a game like this: "It's not a matter of coming out perfect...it's how you react"
- Villanova has played in overtime 17 times in the last five seasons, they are 12-5 in those situations
- This marks the ninth 20 point game for Hilliard, the second for Hart and the 15th of Pinkston's career. Pinkston notched his first double-double of the season and seventh of his career.