Big game from Yarou helps make the difference for Villanova

Villanova's Mouphtaou Yarou prepares to block a shot attempt of St. John's JaKarr Sampson. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Villanova's Mouphtaou Yarou prepares to block a shot attempt of St. John's JaKarr Sampson. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 15, 2013

NEW YORK - Even on their best days this season, and there have been some very good ones, the Villanova Wildcats made it hard to believe they are destined to stick around very long once tournament time begins.

Well, tournament time has begun, the Wildcats are undefeated in the postseason, and it's still a little hard to believe.

Coach Jay Wright would agree there is a question whether his team, a mixture of talented youth and workmanlike veterans, can manage an extended stretch of good basketball.

"They think they can beat anybody, but playing at that level every night has not been a strength," Wright said this week. "Do we have the consistency? We'll see, and that's what a tournament comes down to. You have to play well every night."

Fortunately for the Wildcats, that wasn't really the case against St. John's on Wednesday night in Villanova's opening game of the Big East tournament. Villanova didn't play particularly well, but that didn't matter against a skittish St. John's team that was without its leading scorer.

The Wildcats won, 66-53, and won largely because the Red Storm chose to harass Villanova on the perimeter and take their chances with whatever happened in the frontcourt. What happened was Mouphtaou Yarou made 9 of 10 tries from the field, and that was really the difference.

"They made the decision to make him beat them, and it's not a bad game plan," Wright said. "And he came up big-time. He was big."

Yarou is always tall, but not always big. This time, the Wildcats got the whole package.

Villanova could have made things a lot easier if it retained the momentum that was built in the first 10 minutes of the game. Much of what happened as Villanova took an 18-6 lead, however, had to do with how poorly St. John's was playing.

As it was, when the Red Storm woke up slightly and stopped giving the ball away, Villanova suddenly, and a little unexpectedly, had a game on its hands. St. John's matched Villanova's run with an 18-6 spurt of its own to close out the half and tie the game.

Overall, it was a sloppy game as the teams combined for 34 turnovers, and some of that was due to lenient officiating. The officials didn't whistle away the incessant contact under the basket, and Villanova, a team that has scored 596 points at the line this season, didn't attempt a single free throw in the first half.

The refs were letting them play and, for unfortunate long stretches, neither side could.

If this was frustrating from a Villanova point of view, it was also more than a little terrifying. It was generally assumed that the Wildcats - with their three signature wins over Louisville, Syracuse, and Georgetown - had already done enough to qualify for the NCAA tournament field. But what if the Wildcats tossed up a true clunker in their first conference tournament game, against a 10th seed playing without its leading scorer (the suspended D'Angelo Harrison)? What if coming to a halt at 19 wins made just enough of a psychological difference to the committee?

Those are "what-ifs" that Villanova would rather not have contemplated all the way to Selection Sunday, particularly since a win over St. John's meant that magic 20th win, followed by a no-lose situation against Louisville, ranked No. 4 in the nation, on Thursday night.

"We're going to take whatever the committee decides, but I felt good about us and I still feel real good," Wright said. "It would have been a long week at home waiting. Now, as long as we can keep playing, we'll keep going for the next game."

The Wildcats made sure there would be a next game in this tournament by finally responding to the aggressiveness St. John's was bringing. When Villanova finally got going, the Red Storm was winning by three points, 31-28, and had outscored the Wildcats 25-10 after their dreadful beginning to the game.

Unlike the first half, Villanova pounded the ball inside and did earn the calls that put the Wildcats on the free-throw line. They were already in the one-and-one situation with just under 12 minutes still to play and eventually got to the line 23 times in the second half. That, if you remember, is 23 more than in the first half, which should be a record if it isn't.

The second half looked like Big East basketball, and, as the conference closes down the final season of the league as we have known it, it was a good time for Villanova to reach into the past. The Wildcats defended, they scratched their way into the basket area, and they used the unseasonably hot hand of Yarou.

"The aggressiveness and toughness has to be there," Wright said. "You know when you come into a Big East game, it you're not up to the physical battle, you're not even in the game. You have to start with that."

Villanova remains a team that is easy to doubt. The month of March doesn't figure to last that long for the Wildcats. They are still around, though, and there's no doubting that.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at Follow on Twitter @bobfordsports. Read his blog at


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