Back-to-back Top 5 wins
Villanova is just the fourth team in the last 24 years to beat two Top 5 teams as an unranked opponent in back-to-back games:
• Villanova, Jan. 2013: Beat No. 5 Louisville, No. 3 Syracuse
• Ball State, Nov. 2001: Beat No. 4 KU and No. 3 UCLA
• UConn, Jan. 1990: Beat No. 5 Syracuse and No. 2 Georgetown
• Kansas, Nov. 1989: Beat No. 2 LSU and No. 1 UNLV
Source: Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN)
The big question in the Villanova locker room following Saturday’s Big East game at the Wells Fargo Center wasn’t how the Wildcats earned their second straight upset over a Top 5 team with a stunning 75-71 overtime victory over No. 3 Syracuse.
The big question was much more pressing: Where was freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono?
“We lost Arch,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright revealed afterwards. “We had to say our team prayer without Arch. We waited but we couldn’t find him.”
As it turned out, Arcidiacono got swallowed up in a sea of ’Nova students, who rushed the court for the second time in the span of four days.
On Tuesday, it was an upset of No. 5 Louisville that triggered the pandemonium, and Arcidiacono – who drilled the game-tying three-pointer to send Saturday’s game into overtime – wasn’t prepared for the encore.
“Honestly, I was trying to get out of there but I was at the opposite corner of my locker room,” said a smiling Arcidiacono, who eventually was located. “People were grabbing me. One was kid was trying to take off my jersey. It was fun but hopefully people know we don’t need that anymore. We got our two wins and let’s hope the rest of these we’re expected to win and they don’t have to rush the court.”
For most of the 2012-13 season, the idea that Villanova (13-7 overall, 4-3 Big East) should be expected to beat anybody, let alone a nationally ranked team, seemed laughable. The Wildcats lost to Columbia at home by 18 points. They lost to Alabama by 22. They sputtered through two different three-game losing streaks.
But after two straight victories over Top 5 teams, the case could certainly be made that the Wildcats are now a national contender.
To put the accomplishment in the appropriate context, the last time Villanova beat two Top 5 teams in a single week was the 1985 Final Four when they topped Memphis and Georgetown to win a national championship. And it’s believed to be the first time that it’s ever happened in the regular season.
“It takes time to build a team,” Wright said. “That’s what we’re doing here. We’re building a team.”
For most of Saturday’s game, Villanova looked like a more cohesive team than mighty Syracuse, which had won eight straight games, as well as 28 of its last 29 conference contests. The Wildcats scored the game’s first 10 points and led by as many as 11 midway through the first half.
But the Orange (18-2, 6-1) showed why they’re one of the best teams in the nation, taking a 59-53 lead with four-and-a-half minutes left.
“You guys can see that we played really well and you can see why Syracuse is a team that can win a national championship, because they just don’t go away,” Wright said. “They just keep coming and coming. They made so many adjustments.”
Villanova was eventually able to whittle Syracuse’s lead down to three points, and after Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams – who shot a woeful 4-for-17 from the field – missed the front end of the one-and-one, the Wildcats had a chance to tie in the final seconds, made possible when legendary Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim opted not to foul.
James Bell missed one chance at a potentially game-tying three-pointer, but Mouphtaou Yarou got one of his game-high 16 rebounds and dished it out to Arcidiacono, who did not miss, tying the game with 2.2 seconds left. A desperation heave from Syracuse was off the mark, sending the game to overtime.
“Mouph was a beast,” Arcidiacono said. “He just got a rebound – we usually talk to the big men about turning and facing – and he just turned and saw me in the corner. I did a little shot fake and just put it up and luckily it just went in.”
Once the game went to OT, it was Bell’s turn to provide the dramatics. The junior guard drilled two three-pointers and scored eight points in the extra session to send the crowd into an absolute frenzy.
Before overtime, though, Bell scored just five points and mostly struggled. For the game, he shot 5-for-12 from the field, 3-for-9 from three-point range and 0-for-2 from the foul line.
“He’s got amazing guts, this kid,” Wright said. “And he really takes responsibility for our team. He’s our leader off the court. He talks to everyone. He’s an amazing young man. That’s how you win big-time games, when you have guys like that.”
Before Arcidiacono and Bell took over down the stretch, it was sophomore guard Darrun Hilliard that carried the load for the ’Cats. Hilliard finished with a career-high 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting, to go along with seven rebounds and six assists.
Wright said Hilliard was the key in Villanova’s ability to break through Syracuse’s patented 2-3 zone.
“That was the difference this time as when we played at Syracuse,” Wright said. “At Syracuse, we got the ball inside to our bigs and made some shots but we couldn’t penetrate with our guards. And [Saturday] he got inside the zone and got fouled, got inside the zone and made plays. He had an amazing game. He also had a great defensive game.”
Like Arcidiacono, Hilliard said he enjoyed the court-storming a little less on Saturday than he did on Tuesday – “they get real crazy on the court,” he said – and that this week is a great indicator of the team’s progress.
“We’re getting better every day,” Hilliard said. “In the beginning of the season, we were an inexperienced team but we kept working hard and kept having faith in the coaching staff.
“But we can’t let this be our season. We’ll enjoy it but then we’ll go back to work.”
Wright will certainly make sure his players enjoy this before they go back to work. And he’ll enjoy it, too. Weeks, after all, don’t get much better than this for a college basketball team.
“We are off tomorrow and the greatest thing about these 11:00, 12:00 games is on Saturday night you get a nice Italian dinner and it’s the greatest,” Wright said. “But when you lose an 11:00, 12:00 game, this day lasts forever. So this is one we will really savor.”