Villanova makes its case for tournament berth with bruising win

Ryan Arcidiacono keeps the ball out of the reach of Georgetown's Otto Porter Jr. Villanova outscored the Hoyas by 30-4 at the foul line. MICHAEL PEREZ / Associated Press
Ryan Arcidiacono keeps the ball out of the reach of Georgetown's Otto Porter Jr. Villanova outscored the Hoyas by 30-4 at the foul line. MICHAEL PEREZ / Associated Press
Posted: March 08, 2013

Not that there was any pressure, but Villanova went into Wednesday's game against No. 5 Georgetown knowing that a win over the Hoyas probably would put the Wildcats solidly into the NCAA tournament field and that a loss, however tough, however close, could require them to win at least two games in the maw of the Big East Conference tournament next week.

The edge between success and failure is that of a razor at this time of year for schools that have alternately soared and stumbled during the regular season. Villanova, respectable but not remarkable in the conference, has done a little better than expected this season. Not enough better, however, to get any favors it doesn't earn.

Well, the Wildcats earned whatever they got from the 67-57 win against Georgetown. They paid the price in bruises and floor burns, but if this game got them into the NCAA tournament, then it was all worthwhile.

Villanova finished the Big East regular season with a 10-8 record and climbed into position to be the seventh seed in the conference. That's not the top of the world, but it's a better vantage than the Wildcats would have had with a loss to the Hoyas.

Nothing is certain, of course. There are too many variables to the calculus of the NCAA tournament field. A resumé that includes three wins over teams ranked among the top five won't hurt, though.

"Everybody has a unique resumé, but having 10 wins in this league, with the wins we have, quality wins against high-caliber teams, I think we would be [in]," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "I know we're close enough that things could happen, too. So, I think we're in a good spot, but we're not going to worry about that. We'll just try to get better and better."

The Georgetown game was typical of what you expect from a good Big East game - a lot of defense, a constant search for offense, and a tenacity from both sides that makes it difficult to watch at times. Big East games are not won, they are survived.

By the end of the first half, all 10 starters had turned over the ball at least once and the two teams combined for 21 turnovers. Credit can be given to the aggressive, trapping defenses or blame to the ball handlers who dribbled into those traps. Either way, it was a game without much flow, and that worked in Villanova's favor.

The stat sheet at the finish told an odd tale, at least in one regard, with Villanova attempting 42 free throws to just eight for Georgetown. In a game in which both sides were aggressive, that seems like an improbable discrepancy, and it really seemed that way to Georgetown coach John Thompson III. That's life, however, and the Hoyas live with jump shots a lot, and that doesn't draw a lot of fouls.

By matching Georgetown's defensive intensity, the Wildcats were able to build a nine-point lead with just under six minutes to go in the opening half, 23-14. And then by falling into the same traps, they saw that lead nearly disappear by halftime.

The Wells Fargo Center has been good to Villanova this year. Two of the three wins that had them on the cusp of the NCAA tournament happened in the building, against No. 5 Louisville and No. 3 Syracuse. The Wildcats' other signature win came in the Pavilion against Marquette, meaning that, coupled with Wednesday's win over Georgetown, Villanova has beaten four of the six currently ranked Big East teams this season.

Those wins count for a lot. Villanova hopes they count for enough to offset a bad early loss to Columbia and a disappointing effort more recently at Seton Hall. It doesn't take much to hone the razor's edge, and those two losses are a big part of the equation.

Against that backdrop, the Wildcats knew that Wednesday's game had to be played on the floor, quite literally. The Wells Fargo court was littered with bodies as the players splayed against the floor going after loose balls. Considering there were 40 turnovers between the two teams, there were a lot of loose balls to track down.

In the second half, it was more of the ugly beauty of the league. The Wildcats made just one field goal in the final 14 minutes of the game, a three-pointer from Darrun Hilliard with 5 minutes, 37 seconds to play.

Everything else, with perhaps a whole season on the line, came from the line. That's nothing but hard work and a willingness to take punishment.

"I'm impressed by our guys," Wright said. "I'm very proud of them. You get 10 wins in this league, you're a good team."

Good enough to keep playing for a while, apparently. The Wildcats may have punched that ticket Wednesday night. That's fitting because they took a lot of punches to get there.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @bobfordsports.

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