With a three-point lead, their two best free-throw shooters, Wayns and Corey Stokes, missed the front ends of two one-and-ones in the final 48 seconds after South Florida turnovers. Until the miss by Wayns, the Cats had knocked down their first 20 free throws.
But the worst moments came after the ball was knocked out of the hands of Corey Fisher and went out of bounds in the backcourt, forcing Wayns to inbound from the side.
Unable to find anyone open, Wayns inexplicably lobbed the ball toward his own basket, where he hoped 6-foot-8 Antonio Pena would outjump 6-1 Anthony Crater for it. But the pass was too long, and Crater intercepted it and laid it in, in one motion, with 22.8 seconds to play to give the Bulls (10-22) a one-point lead.
"We run that play every day," Wayns said. "I thought Tone had a point guard on him and I thought he could outjump the point guard. But I made a bad pass."
Wayns came back to hit two free throws, the last of his 24 points, with 11.6 seconds to play. But Crater, holding the ball to the right of the free-throw circle, saw a lane open up after a defensive mix-up. The lane was big enough to drive an 18-wheeler through it, and Crater notched the winning layup with 5.1 seconds left.
Asked why his offense went stagnant in the second half after scoring a season-high 49 points in the first, Villanova coach Jay Wright said it had something to do with the fact that his team hadn't won a game since Feb. 19.
"We got tentative with the lead," he said. "We hadn't won a game in so long, everybody got a little scared, a little short on their shots. They didn't play with confidence with the lead."
The Wildcats converted only four field goals in the second half, on 18 attempts, with an offense that consisted of mostly Wayns dribbling the ball and trying to make something happen.
Stokes, back after a one-game absence with a left hamstring injury, scored 16 points in the first half, then got few touches and one shot in the second. Fisher picked up three fouls in the final 1 minute, 59 seconds of the first half and did not play with the same aggressiveness in the second.
Another problem was the lack of an inside game. Sophomore center Mouphtaou Yarou fell hard to the floor with 4:58 left in the opening half while trying to block a layup by USF's Shaun Noriega. Yarou suffered a laceration to his right cheek that needed stitches, Wright said, and a possible rib injury, and did not return.
With 'Nova short a big man, the Bulls capitalized, posting a 16-4 edge in points in the paint in the second half while outrebounding the Cats, 19-12.
"They pounded us inside, pounded us on the glass, and made all the big plays down the stretch, and we couldn't get stops," Wright said. "We couldn't get a stop down the stretch. When it rains, it pours. That's what's happening. We've got to fight through it and just keep battling and trying to get mentally tougher."
The Wildcats looked outstanding on offense in the first half, shooting 59 percent from the field and 58 percent from the three-point arc and getting 39 points from Stokes, Wayns, and Fisher. But that changed in the second half, and one must wonder how much the Wildcats have left for the NCAA tournament.
"We were feeling good coming into this game," Wright said. "We were looking forward to coming here and playing a number of games, we had hoped. This wasn't in the plan. I don't have the answer right now to what we're going to do next. But we came here expecting to win, and we've got to deal with what comes next."
Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or firstname.lastname@example.org.