The Wildcats have made losing a way of life these last few weeks, and on Tuesday night they found a new way to lose, blowing a 16-point halftime lead to a 10-22 South Florida team that had beaten just two Big East teams all season. Villanova made just four field goals in the second half and scored just 20 points. The Wildcats lost their composure in the final minute, missing free throws and turning the ball over and not defending.
They completely crumbled. That is what fragile teams do. Now, Villanova's losing streak is at five.
"I thought we got tentative with the lead," Wildcats coach Jay Wright said afterward. "We haven't won a game in so long, everybody got scared and short with shots."
Villanova's collapse has been so complete that it is next to impossible to place the blame on one person or one thing, but any assessment of the Wildcats season must start with Wright. He has not pushed the right buttons with this team. He has constantly shuffled players in and out of the lineup. He is trying things because nothing is working, and the result has been that there are no set rotations and no chemistry on the court.
This is the second straight season that Villanova has collapsed at the end, and while Wright maintains that the two seasons and two teams are vastly different, the results have been eerily similar.
Whatever Wright is doing isn't working.
It didn't look Tuesday night like the Wildcats had tuned Wright out. They were hustling and trying, diving for loose balls, and trying to make things happen. The players just looked so tentative, leaving shots short, passing up open shots. In the second half, the only player who really did anything was Maalik Wayns, which made it hurt all the more that Wayns cost Villanova the lead down the stretch, and ultimately the game.
He made a mistake. With 24 seconds left and Villanova clinging to a one-point lead, Wayns had to inbound the ball from the sideline. South Florida had everyone covered, so Wayns tried to pass it to Antonio Pena under the Bulls basket.
It was not a smart play. It was a panicky play. South Florida guard Anthony Crater stole the ball and easily scored a layup for a 68-67 Bulls lead.
Wayns drove to the basket on the other end, as he had been doing all half, got to the foul line and sank two free throws. Crater drove in for a layup with five seconds left and Wayns missed a contested three-pointer as time expired.
When it was over, Wayns sat on the Madison Square Garden floor, his head in his hands. Corey Stokes pulled him up, and Corey Fisher draped an arm around Wayns' shoulder and led him to the sideline.
"I made a bad pass," Wayns said afterward.
Here is the perfect illustration of Villanova right now: The Wildcats made their first 20 free throws, but in the last minute, with the game on the line and the pressure at its highest, Stokes and Wayns each missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity.
They got tight. They played not to lose.
"When things go bad, when it rains, it pours," Wright said.
Wright was left to look for silver linings. Villanova will have more than a week off before the NCAA tournament, time it will use to get Stokes' bothersome hamstring healthy. Mouphtaou Yarou will need time to heal after he went up to challenge a shot inside and fell hard to the floor. He required stitches to close a gash on his face and had a sore right arm and ribs.
But time will not heal the Wildcats' injured psyche. Wins in the Big East tournament would have been the only thing to help that.
"We were really feeling good coming into this game," Wright said. "We had great practices, and we were really looking forward to playing a number of games. We hoped. We hoped. This wasn't in the plan. . . . We came in here expecting to win, and now we have to deal with what comes next."
Pick them up. Build them back. It is a routine Wright has become used to, but whatever he has been doing has not been working. Now, there is not enough time to fix it.
Villanova is done. The final loss is only a formality now.
Contact columnist Ashley Fox at 215-854-5064 or email@example.com.
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