Villanova's bid to repeat as national champs ends after being 'stunned' by Wisconsin

Villanova's bid to repeat as national champs ends after being 'stunned' by Wisconsin

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- They were up seven with five minutes to go and in those nightmarish final five minutes, everything that could go wrong went wrong.

The Villanova Wildcats committed bad turnovers. They missed shots. They didn't box out and allowed follow shots. They committed fouls.

Against some teams, against most teams, Villanova could have gotten away with the mistakes and moved on. Against a tough, veteran, talented Wisconsin team, it meant the end of Villanova's reign as national champions.

"They made a lot of plays down the stretch and we give them all the credit," Kris Jenkins said. "I don't think we did anything wrong, they just did everything right."

Wisconsin outscored Villanova, 15-5, over those final five minutes, turning a seven-point deficit into a 65-62 win and for the fourth straight year a berth in the Sweet 16 (see Instant Replay).

For Villanova, it was a shocking end to another phenomenal season.

"This one is more stunning to these guys and crushing," coach Jay Wright said. "Me included. Till the last second of that game, I thought we had a chance to win the game so I wasn't thinking about this or dealing with this. I don't think any of this were prepared for this. I think all of us are still stunned."

Villanova won 32 games this year and 129 games over the past four years, the 10th-most ever by a NCAA Division I program in a four-year span.

The Wildcats won the Big East regular-season title and the Big East Tournament. They weren't just ranked No. 1, they earned the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Then they drew a team that was just as talented, just as experienced and much deeper in the second round of the East Regional.

Wisconsin, ranked as high as seventh this year, is a 27-win team out of the Big Ten and really shouldn't have been an eight seed. But you play who you play, and in those last five minutes, Villanova simply was not the best team on the court.

"They're a heck of at team, they're really experienced, four starters who are seniors, Final Four experience," Villanova freshman Donte DiVincenzo said.

"Great teams make great plays. We executed, they went on a little run, and there were some little things we slipped up on. But credit to them. They're an amazing team and they executed well at the end.

"We slipped up. They never slipped up."

Villanova trailed by eight early but battled back and used a 24-13 run keyed by Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson and DiVincenzo to build that 57-50 lead.

Then disaster.

Nigel Hayes made a layup. Five-point game.

Hayes blocked Hart's shot. Brunson missed a three. Bronson Koenig made a three. Two-point game.

Hart made one of two foul shots and Ethan Happ made a layup.

Just like that Villanova's cushion was gone.

The game was tied at 62 when Hayes faked out Mikal Bridges and drove for a reverse layup with 11 seconds left.

Hart -- who else? -- drove the lane looking for the equalizer, but he was stripped by Vitto Brown. Brown got fouled, made one of two and that was it.

"You're going to make mistakes, and we've been very good this year responding to mistakes," Wright said.

"Down the stretch, we tried to find a way to respond to each bad play and we just didn't find a way to respond at the end. We didn't have that final response that Wisconsin did."

It's hard to imagine the No. 1 team in the country being unable to protect a seven-point lead in the final five minutes of a game.

But this team just wasn't quite as deep, talented or explosive as last year's national champs. That team knew how to finish an opponent off when it had them down.

"Definitely, any type of lead like that you should be able to finish it off," said Hart, who finished his brilliant career with 19 points.

"But you have to give them credit. They played well. They made some incredible shots at the end. It's an experienced team that's been to the Final 4. Just have to give them credit."

Villanova has now lost as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed four times to opponents seeded seventh or lower in the last eight years.

The Wildcats, who got a combined eight points from three of their starters, made just one basket in the final 5 1/2 minutes.

"This is what NCAA Tournament games come down to," Wright said. "Down the stretch, they made two great offensive plays, two great defensive stops, and that was the difference in the game.

"From 57-50 the game really got shortened. They had a couple of possessions where they got an offensive rebound. They had another possession where the shot clock went down to zero, and then there was a foul called at the shot clock, so they got a whole other possession. So there weren't that many possessions.

"I think that's what the game came down to. We had a couple empty possessions at the end, and they had two great possessions. That's what close games come down to.

"We've been on the other end of that a lot. And when another team steps up and makes those plays and two great players like Koenig and Hayes make those plays, you got to give them credit."

Villanova made just five of 16 threes, just one of five in the second half. They missed six foul shots, including three in the final 3 1/2 minutes.

DiVincenzo scored 15 off the bench and Brunson scored 11, all in the second half. But Bridges was scoreless and Jenkins shot 2 for 9 for just six points with no threes.

"I hate to lose so I take every loss tough," Hart said. "This one's the same. It sucks, but we've had a great four years here, something we can definitely hang our hats on.

"We're going to go off and we'll be successful and the guys who are coming back, now they know this feeling. I just told them, make sure you don't feel this feeling again."

Jalen Brunson explains decision to return to Villanova: 'Process was simple'

Jalen Brunson explains decision to return to Villanova: 'Process was simple'

Over the past month, there has been plenty of speculation as to whether or not Jalen Brunson would decide to stay at Villanova or turn pro.

For Brunson himself, though, it was never really much of a decision.

"The process was simple," Brunson told CSNPhilly.com by phone a couple of hours after Villanova announced that the star point guard would return for his junior year (see story). "I told myself and I told my family when I came here that I wanted to try to compete and win a national championship and I want to get my degree. I did one of those things, which was probably the harder part of the deal. Now I just want to get my degree."

Brunson, a freshman on the Wildcats' 2015-16 national championship team, is poised to get that degree at the end of his junior year, thanks to the emphasis he puts on education, the encouragement of Villanova's staff and a whole lot of summer classes.

Only then will he begin to look at the next chapter of his basketball journey.

"I just think with the support I have here, they all know that this is what I want to do," said Brunson, a communications major with a 3.54 grade-point average and a recent recipient of the Big 5 Scholar Athlete of the Year award. "No one has put me down saying, 'No, I don't think it's possible, I don't think you should do it.' They really encouraged me to do so and they really helped me along the way."

There were, of course, basketball factors that led to Brunson's return, as well. The rising junior loves everything about the 'Nova program and said he's excited for the opportunity to "lead the team" as an upperclassman.

And even with Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds moving on, he believes the Wildcats will remain a force after going a combined 67-9 in his first two collegiate seasons.

"Maybe we won't have the record we've had the past couple of years," said Brunson, who averaged 14.7 points and 4.1 assists per game last season. "But I know one thing: we're gonna play Villanova basketball when we're on the court. And I think the reason for the is we're gonna have another set of leaders that brings that to the table every time we step on the court."

With Brunson coming back and Phil Booth returning from an injury-riddled 2016-17 campaign, the Wildcats will certainly be loaded at the guard position next year. Brunson is especially eager to potentially share the same backcourt as Donte DiVincenzo, who came off the bench last season but looks poised to become one of the program's next big stars.

"I'm definitely looking forward to that," Brunson said. "I've been looking forward to that ever since we met. … We have a relationship. We're really close. And I think our chemistry helps us on the court. So coming back and playing with him again is definitely going to be a plus, and I'm just really excited for the opportunity."

Jalen Brunson returning to Villanova for junior season

Jalen Brunson returning to Villanova for junior season

Jalen Brunson will return to Villanova for his junior season.

The school made the announcement Thursday, ending speculation that the Wildcats' star point guard would declare for the NBA draft or at least go through the process before making a decision, as former teammates Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins did a year ago.

“Jalen is an outstanding student who loves being at Villanova and wants to complete his degree by the end of his junior year,” Wildcats head coach Jay Wright said in a statement. “This was a simple decision made by Jalen’s family. Jalen wants to graduate, be a leader on this year’s team, and compete for a championship.”

Brunson averaged 14.7 points and 4.1 assists last season as the Wildcats won the Big East regular season and tournament championship. They were upset by Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament and finished 32-4.

His return means the Wildcats will be expected to make another deep tournament run. Villanova loses seniors Hart, Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds but still has plenty of talent coming back in Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall and Phil Booth and coming in with Omari Spellman and freshmen Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels.