Villanova wants Bell to go in style -- with wins

Villanova wants Bell to go in style -- with wins

March 19, 2014, 9:15 pm
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Senior James Bell has yet to win an NCAA tournament game with Villanova. (AP)

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The rest of them have another chance. James “Tahj” Bell doesn’t.

Bell, Villanova’s only senior starter, is 0-for-the-NCAA tournament since arriving on the Main Line.

His freshman year, the Wildcats opened the season 17-2 and closed the season with six straight losses, blowing a 10-point lead against George Mason in an NCAA game in Cleveland.

His sophomore year, Villanova matched a program-worst with 19 losses and didn’t play in the postseason.

Last year, the Wildcats fell behind by 20 points, briefly took the lead and ultimately lost by seven to North Carolina in Kansas City.

On Thursday night, Villanova seeks its first NCAA tourney win since 2010 when it faces Milwaukee at the First Niagara Center. Villanova, 28-4, is seeded No. 2. Milwaukee is 21-9. The game is scheduled to tip off at 9:25 p.m., although it will likely be later than that.

It’s Bell’s last chance to walk off the biggest stage in college basketball with a W.

“It means a lot to me to get a win in the tournament,” Bell said before Villanova’s practice Wednesday. “Being my senior year, you never want to go out. Somebody has to lose their last game, but you never want to go out like we have in the past.”

Despite a recent slump in which he’s shot below 30 percent in a seven-game stretch (see story), Bell has been Villanova’s MVP this year. He’s averaging 14.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists and was the Wildcats’ only first-team All-Big East pick.

“Tahj is the heart and soul of this team, and we want to send him out on a good note,” said junior guard Darrun Hilliard, the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer at 14.3 points per game.

“And not just winning one game in the tournament. We obviously want to get pretty far in the tournament. I know he hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since he’s been here -- I haven’t either -- so we both kind of want that burden off our back, and we’re just looking forward to playing [Thursday].”

Reserve guard Tony Chennault and rarely-used Nick McMahon are Villanova’s only other seniors.

Everybody else is expected back.

“For him, Tony and Nick, this is their last chance,” Hilliard said. “They’ll never be able to do this again. We just want to play our hearts out for them and send them out on a good note.”

Villanova’s three-year drought without an NCAA win is the program’s longest since a seven-year gap from 1998 through 2004, the first four years of that stretch under Steve Lappas.

The Wildcats’ last tourney win was a 73-70 overtime decision over Robert Morris in Providence in 2010 -- another 2-15 game.

Last time ‘Nova got out of its region was 2009, when the Wildcats reached the Final Four and lost to North Carolina in the national semifinal game.

“I think one of the things that happened in the Big East tournament is I forgot how special this is to the kids, because we’ve (coaches) been doing this for a long time,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

“But it helped remind me that no matter how many times we've been here to the tournament, to these kids, they want to win games.

“Villanova has won a lot of games. James Bell wants to win. It's far more important to these kids maybe than I've remembered. I think it's far more important than any of us know.

“He wants to win. They all want to win an NCAA tournament game, and I think it's a big part of their inspiration.”