Villanova's win over Syracuse feels like old times

Posted: January 27, 2013

The game was over, the court was still flooded by happy Villanova fans, and everything was fine except the Wildcats were missing their point guard.

"We lost Arch," Jay Wright said. "We had to say our team prayer without Arch because we lost him in the crowd."

Out there in the madness, Ryan Arcidiacono was jumping around with the students who stormed the court. His prayer, a three-pointer from the baseline at the end of regulation, had already been answered. Arcidiacono made the shot to send the game into overtime, and Villanova held on for a 75-71 win over No. 3 Syracuse.

It wasn't a pretty game, which is to say it was a typical Big East game. This season, the last one in which the league will exist as we have come to know it, carries a poignant quality.

"I was an assistant in the '80s and this today was the exact same game," Wright said. "Syracuse and Villanova, going down to the wire. And then you say to yourself, 'It's the last one.' It's starting to hit me. I get sentimental about it because I'm not going to do this anymore."

Wright was a lot more sentimental than he would have been had the Wildcats lost, but either way, it would have still been a good week for Villanova. For the first time this season, the Wildcats played two straight games at a very high level. That doesn't guarantee a win in the Big East, but it guarantees an opportunity to win.

"In this league, if you play with a high level of consistency, you're still going to lose some games, but if you're not playing with a high level of consistency, you're going to lose a lot of games," Wright said. "This game was really the first time we were able to make adjustments and execute. We've had some games where we were able to make adjustments, but didn't do it well. This game, we did both."

And that made it a very good day for Jay Wright.

"Big time," he said.

It was a good day because, like everyone else, even Wright didn't know if things would ever click for the Wildcats this season. Five of the players in the regular eight-man rotation are either freshmen or sophomores, including three starters.

Going into the last two games, Villanova looked like a team that didn't shoot the ball particularly well, gave it away too often, and defended effectively only in spurts. Having lost back-to-back games to Pittsburgh and Providence (with a horrendous 25 turnovers against the Friars), the Wildcats showed nothing that tipped off what was coming.

That turned out to be consecutive wins over opponents ranked among the top five in the nation, with an impressive win Tuesday against Louisville and then Saturday's ritual engagement with Syracuse. It doesn't mean Villanova is good enough to be in the same postseason conversation with those teams, but it means the Wildcats are probably not going to fade away as they did last season.

"This means we have a chance to be a good team in this league," Wright said.

At the moment, with the Big East that still exists, that still means something.

"This is how you start," Wright said.

If swingman Darrun Hilliard plays like he did against Syracuse, the start might turn into something. The rest of the Wildcats shot 35 percent from the floor, but Hilliard made 8 of 11 shots from the field, got himself to the line nine times, and scored a career-high 25 points. He also had career highs in rebounds (7) and assists (6).

"We're getting better every day," Hilliard said.

There were a bunch of heroes for Villanova - including Arcidiacono for his three-pointer at the end of regulation and James Bell for a pair of three-pointers in overtime - but Hilliard made everyone else's heroics possible. He was the difference between losing your point guard in the mob scene and watching glumly as the fans trudge quietly up the steps and out.

So, for the second straight game, the Wildcats knocked off a big team - just like old times. Syracuse has only two losses this season, one to Temple and this one to Villanova. The Orange might be good enough to be national champions, but they definitely aren't going to win the City Series.

"Now we've got to keep it going. We've got to do it on the road," Wright said. "We have to keep that consistency going."

That's the trick, but for the first time this season, Villanova might be capable of pulling it off. It was just an old-fashioned ugly win in an old-fashioned ugly league, but the game and the setting still felt familiar.

For the first time in a while, the winning felt familiar, too.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, and follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

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