VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Down 12 points. Early second half. Young team. Big East Conference game. NCAA tournament hopes on the line.
Not too long ago, this would have been another loss for Villanova. Another disappointing loss.
Maybe things are changing. Maybe Villanova is growing up.
“They’re getting mature enough now where they can win and learn,” coach Jay Wright said. “Early in the year, we had to lose and learn.”
Villanova recorded its biggest comeback win of the year Monday night, overcoming a 12-point second-half lead to beat Rutgers 71-63 in a Big East game at the Pavilion (see Instant Replay).
Villanova, which went 10½ minutes without a basket in the first half, outscored Rutgers 50-30 over the final 19½ minutes and 16-9 over the final five minutes.
“It was a good step for us, not panicking and just sticking to what we were doing,” Wright said. “We were tentative [in the first half] and I thought we just had to go out and play.
“Everybody was afraid to be the one to make the mistake instead of just going and being aggressive, and I thought the guys responded pretty well in the second half.”
Villanova shot 30 percent in the first half, 57 percent in the second half.
‘Nova was 50 percent from the foul line in the first half, 82 percent in the second half.
The Wildcats shot 20 percent from three in the first half, 60 percent in the second half.
“We just have the trust in each other that no matter what happens, if we’re up or down, we’re going to stick together and just try to play hard,” said freshman guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who had 14 points and four assists.
“In the first half, we struggled. We just didn’t play the kind of basketball we wanted to play. In the second half, we set the tone and just showed that we were going to keep grinding, no matter what the score was.”
The last couple years, Villanova struggled at the end of games. Early this year, same thing.
Over the last few weeks, a 6-3 stretch that’s included four single-digit wins, including two over top-5 teams, the Wildcats have found ways to win games at the end instead of losing them.
“We’ve been here before,” James Bell said. “We know nobody’s going to give up. We trust the guys around us, and we have each others’ back. We’re never going to give up, and that’s all we need.”
Bell, who missed his first four three-point attempts, made consecutive bombs 42 seconds apart to cap a 21-7 Villanova run that turned a nine-point deficit with 15 minutes left into a five-point lead.
Rutgers got within one but never regained the lead.
“They had a great response [to Rutgers’ big lead],” Scarlet Knights coach Mike Rice said. “Their shooters did what they had to do. They got us on our heels, and they kept us on our heels.”
Villanova’s full-court pressure forced eight second-half Rutgers turnovers leading to 15 points.
“For three minutes, it was like we never saw pressure before,” Rice said. “You can’t blink on the road in the Big East.”
Arcidiacono, Bell and Darrun Hilliard scored 14 points each, and JayVaughn Pinkston and Bell both had 11. Mouphtaou Yarou contributed eight points, 12 rebounds and two blocks.
Villanova committed seven turnovers in the first half, none in the second half.
“Unbelievable,” Wright said. “That’s unbelievable. For once, people sitting near the court weren’t worried about getting hit on the head.”
Myles Mack, who played at Paterson Catholic and St. Anthony’s in North Jersey, scored 24 of Rutgers’ 63 points on 7-for-11 shooting. He has 52 points in Rutgers’ last two games.
“In the first half, they didn’t pressure us, and we were able to run our offense,” Mack said. “In the second half, they pressured us, and we turned the ball over, and that was it.”
Villanova doesn’t have a huge margin of error to return to the NCAA tourney after missing it last year, and a loss to a Rutgers team that’s lost seven of its last eight games could have been fatal.
The Wildcats, now 17-10 overall, clinched a winning record one year after going 13-19.
Villanova has now won four of its last five games and improved to 8-6 in the Big East with four games left – Marquette at home Saturday, Seton Hall in Newark Monday, at Pitt on March 3 and Georgetown at home on March 6.
Rutgers, playing its first game without leading scorer Eli Carter, who broke his leg in a loss to DePaul Saturday, fell to 13-12 and 4-10. The Scarlet Knights have lost seven of eight since a 12-5 start.
“This game is going to help us a lot,” Wright said. “Being down 12 and not doing anything special, just doing what we had to do.
“We really struggled in the first half. We just came out and gutted it out in the second half. We had to make it ugly, and we made it ugly.”