'Nova didn't save best for last

Posted: March 25, 2014

BUFFALO, N.Y. - Standing in a hallway outside a morose Villanova locker room well past midnight Saturday, coach Jay Wright referenced the two most important stretches of the game that ended his team's season.

First, there was the 11 1/2-minute span when Villanova failed to make a field goal, despite a pair of early personal fouls keeping Connecticut star Shabazz Napier on the bench for all of it. Later, and more significant to the game's final result, a 77-65 Wildcats defeat, there was the second-half Shabazz show.

Villanova did not make enough shots to advance to this week's Sweet 16. Nor did it make enough defensive stops, especially in the second half and especially against Napier, the Huskies' playmaking senior guard who scored 21 of his 25 points after halftime.

The early-tournament exit by the Wildcats, the top-ranked of four No. 2 seeds, came on the heels of two uninspiring performances. A 28-3 record and regular-season Big East title had given way to a surprising conference-tournament quarterfinal loss to Seton Hall and Thursday's less-than-encouraging win over 15th-seeded Milwaukee. Then came Saturday.

"It hurts a lot," guard Darrun Hilliard said among a somber room of Wildcats in the bowels of Buffalo's First Niagara Center. "[You always] dream to make it to the Final Four and be on that type of stage. But it takes a lot more than just dreaming."

The reality is that Villanova, a team that started the season unranked and rose all the way to No. 3, will be judged much more so by its disappointing postseason showing rather than its impressive regular season. Wright, who concluded his 13th season at the helm, certainly understands that.

"It's fair. It's the way college basketball is: You get judged by what you do in tournaments, whether you win a conference tournament, whether you advance in the NCAA Tournament," the coach said. "It's the way you get judged. So we are what we are. We are what our record is. But among our team, we take pride in all the other things we did and we'll build on that."

Villanova, which less than 2 weeks ago was in contention for a No. 1 seed, has plenty to build on for next season. Of its nine-man rotation, it loses only two players to graduation, starting guard James Bell, who regained his shooting stroke in his final collegiate game, and Tony Chennault. Hilliard, Ryan Arcidiacono, JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu headline an experienced group of returning players.

But on a night like Saturday, the loss still so fresh, it was difficult for Wright and his players to think too much about 2014-15.

"We went down fighting for these seniors and we're going to have to respond and learn from it," said Arcidiacono, who recorded team highs with 18 points and six assists on Saturday.

Villanova shot just 35.3 percent from the field, a mark 10.6 percent less than its average entering the night. UConn (28-8), a No. 7 seed that advanced to this week's Sweet 16, shot 44.2 percent and made nine of 20 three-point attempts. It scored 20 points off 16 Villanova turnovers.

The Huskies also had the best player on the court. For Napier, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, the second half went something like this: three-pointer. Steal and layup. Alley-oop pass. Deep three-pointer. Another deep three. One more three. A nifty up-and-under layup.

There wasn't much Napier didn't do, putting on a show despite suffering a badly bruised right shin that had him on the bench, briefly burying his head in a towel, for a stretch during the game's waning minutes. His string of three consecutive three-pointers midway through the second half widened the scoring margin. Overall, he made nine of 13 shots - he misfired from only long range - in a super-efficient 25 minutes, two personal fouls having limited him to just 8 first-half minutes.

"He just goes out there and plays," said second-year UConn coach Kevin Ollie, the former 76ers guard whose first two NCAA Tournament wins came against Big 5 rivals Saint Joseph's and Villanova. "He does whatever we need to win. If that's scoring a scoop shot, if that's being my unpaid coach for 12 minutes, that's what he does."

The Wildcats knew Napier was capable of such late-game heroics. Two years ago, when the teams still were Big East foes, the then-sophomore's desperation triple at the overtime buzzer of a tie game sent fans at the Wells Fargo Center home in disappointment. Now in his final collegiate season, the 6-1 Napier leads the Huskies in points, rebounds, assists and steals.

"He's a great player," Hilliard said. "He makes a lot of tough shots. [He's] fast as hell and just an all-around great player. If he wants to go somewhere after college, I definitely think that he can do that."

Napier and the Huskies denied the Wildcats their first trip to the Sweet 16 since the 2008-09 season, when Scottie Reynolds' runner sent them to the Final Four. It's the second time in 4 years they've lost as a No. 2 seed in the Round of 32, the 2009-10 squad falling to 10th-seeded St. Mary's.

The Villanova teams that have played deeper into March, Wright said, continued to improve as the season progressed. When it came to the postseason, that was not the case for this season's team.

"Even if you win a [conference] championship, you win a game in the NCAA Tournament, you've got to just keep finding ways to get better," he said. "All our teams that made long runs just kept finding ways, finding ways."

As Wright noted after the game, tournament runs often hinge on matchups. On Saturday, the Wildcats just didn't have an answer for the Huskies' small but speedy guards, particularly Napier.

"I think we took a great step forward from last year," Arcidiacono said. "We had three seniors [Bell, Chennault and Nick McMahon] who led the way for us. But we can definitely take this in stride and just use it as motivation in the offseason, to just keep getting better and keep pushing each other throughout the offseason . . . It's going to be tough to leave these three guys. They've done so much for our team this year."

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