VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Just eight days ago, they had recorded their second win in five days over a top-5 team, something no Villanova Wildcats team had done in 28 years.
It was impossible not to think that Villanova had arrived. It was impossible not to think about a return to the NCAA tournament. It was impossible not to think about finally breaking into the national rankings.
Now maybe it’s time to ask … what exactly is this Villanova team? Good enough to beat No. 5 Louisville by nine and No. 3 Syracuse by four and then lose at Notre Dame on Wednesday and at home to unheralded Providence on Sunday afternoon.
“When you look at this from the outside, you’ve got to say two teams maybe you shouldn’t have beat and two teams you had a chance to beat and you didn’t, what’s going on?” coach Jay Wright said.
“But I definitely don’t want our guys to panic. I didn’t want them to get too high after those two wins, and I don’t want them to get too low now. I want them to just keep getting better, and I think they will.”
Guard Bryce Cotton clanked in a straight-on three with three seconds left to give Providence a wild 55-52 win over the Wildcats at the Pavilion Sunday (see Instant Replay).
Villanova, which desperately needs wins to return to the NCAA tournament after a disastrous 13-win season last year, led by 10 early, trailed by six at halftime and led by four at 39-35 with 11:30 left when Providence went on a 17-4 run, holding the Wildcats without a basket for 10 minutes and building a 52-43 lead with just 2:07 left in the game.
But the Wildcats rallied furiously behind JayVaughn Pinkston and James Bell, who combined for nine straight points in 84 seconds, with Bell’s two foul shots tying the game with 43 seconds left.
“We squandered the lead,” Cotton said. “But we did a good job staying mentally tough when it happened.”
Villanova got the defensive stop Wright wanted, forcing Vincent Council into an awkward step-back jumper with 12 seconds left, but freshman guard Josh Fortune rebounded and kicked the ball out to Cotton, who launched the game-winning three with three seconds left.
Just like that, the Wildcats were back on a two-game losing streak, their NCAA chances once again in question just a week after a historic five-day stretch. Villanova has lost five of its last seven, with the only wins coming against top-5 teams.
“It’s somewhat disappointing, but you know in this league, you can get beat any night, just like Syracuse lost yesterday [to Pitt], and we beat two of the top teams in the country last week,” guard Darrun Hilliard said.
“We don’t want to get too high and off these losses we don’t want to get too low either. We know how good we can be, and we know that we’re going to get better every day. … Keep playing Villanova basketball, and we’ll be back.”
Villanova fell to 13-9 overall and 4-5 in the Big East. Providence, 11-11 overall and 3-7 in the Big East, had lost nine of its last 11.
“I thought whoever got the last shot would win,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “We were fortunate to get the last one.”
Villanova held Providence to just two baskets in the first 11½ minutes and just two in the first 9½ minutes of the second half.
But Providence – 8 for 31 inside the arc – was 10 for 15 from three. Freshman Josh Fortune, averaging just 2.3 points per game in the Big East, made all five of his three-pointers, including four in a 6 ½-minute stretch of the first half.
“He was definitely the X factor,” Cooley said. “Nobody expected him to do that, including myself.”
Despite Providence’s hot shooting from three, despite Villanova’s awful shooting (28 percent from the field, 13 percent from three), despite Villanova’s 10-minute stretch without a basket, the Wildcats were still somehow in position to win.
But when Fortune rebounded Council’s miss with nine seconds left, it meant Providence got the last shot – not 'Nova.
“What I was most upset about was the rebound,” Wright said. “We had a great defensive stop, we’ve got to get the rebound. We get the rebound, nine seconds left, we’re in the 1-on-1, we’ve got a good shot [to win].”
On Thursday night in Providence, Cotton missed a three at the buzzer that would have sent the Friars’ game against UConn into a second overtime.
This time, he didn’t miss.
“It felt good, but the one against UConn felt good too, and it rimmed out,” Cotton said. “It was good to see one go in.”
If Villanova rebounded Council’s miss?
“We’re all sitting here all happy,” Wright said.
Hilliard led Villanova with 17 points and was 10 for 10 from the foul line but made just 3 of 13 shots. Mouphtaou Yarou had 10 points and 14 rebounds.
Villanova made just 2 of 15 from three-point range against Providence, who came in ranked 12th in NCAA Division I in three-point defense.
“You can’t let it be frustrating,” Wright said. “And I don’t want these guys to get frustrated. I don’t. I feel completely confident we can … get better and we can win at the pole. But it’s a possession or two, we can lose. It’s just what we are right now.
“I know it looks bad, but I’m not frustrated. I’m really not.”
Wright is correct about the margin for error in Big East games being miniscule. Three of Villanova’s five conference losses have been by five or fewer points.
But the selection committee doesn’t care about close losses. Villanova needs wins. Probably 20, including the conference tournament in New York, to reach the NCAA tournament.
They’re sitting at 13-8 with nine regular-season games left. And with teams like Pitt, Marquette, Georgetown and UConn still on the schedule, the Wildcats simply can’t afford to lose any more games they’re supposed to win.
“It’s a team that’s growing,” said Wright, whose team faces DePaul in Chicago on Tuesday. “And I know it doesn’t look good, but we’re going to learn, we’re going to get better, and we’ll see where we are at the end of this.”