– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
BOSTON — Even before tip, Villanova head coach Jay Wright, after seeing the game tape of West Virginia, a.k.a. “Press Virginia,” knew that going up against the Mountaineers, more any any other team his Wildcats have encountered this season, would allow the coach to assess how tough of a team he had, to go along with the obvious talent.
After the East Coast street fight on the hardwood, Villanova eventually came out of it as the toughest kids on the block.
National Player of the Year frontrunner Jalen Brunson scored 27 points while Omari Spellman provided an emotional boost with a momentum-changing block and slam dunk on consecutive possessions during a 22-6 run as top-seeded Villanova outlasted the Mountaineers 90-78 in a captivating Sweet 16 affair at TD Garden on Friday night.
Villanova advances to the Elite Eight in the East Region and will take on No. 3 seed Texas Tech on Sunday afternoon with a chance to head to the Final Four.
“When I started watching film, I just thought, man, [West Virginia] is a tough matchup,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “And if we survive this, we’re a pretty mentally tough team, and this is going to be like an old-school, grind-it-out game.”
The grind-it-out game actually turned, somewhat, into a country Western shootout, and Brunson continued to play the role of top gun. After scoring 16 points in the first half, Brunson turned into more of an all-around player during the decisive run midway through the second half, scoring seven points and providing three assists in that 22-6 stretch after the Wildcats found themselves down 60-54 – a product of West Virginia’s full-court pressure defense forcing 15 Wildcat turnovers in the game’s first 28 minutes.
Once Villanova finally started taking care of the ball, only committing one turnover in the final 12 minutes of the game (intentionally incurring a shot clock violation in the game’s final minute), the Wildcats got to business in finally taking care of the Mountaineers.
“I think the deeper we go, the better the teams are going to get,” said Brunson, who had scored 28 points combined the Wildcats’ first two NCAA Tournament victories against Radford and Alabama. “But most importantly for us, nothing changes. Nothing changes, no matter who we play, no matter where we play, what time, what day. We play every game like it’s our last. Sticking to our core values: 40 minutes of Villanova basketball.”
Villanova played with that sense of urgency in the second half, with Spellman, the freshman big man who has continued to get better as the season has progressed, epitomizing that with a stunning sequence with just over nine minutes remaining. Villanova was holding on to a 63-60 lead when Spellman, on defense, came over from the weak side to two-hand-swat a layup attempt by Mountaineer guard James Bolden. Spellman grammed the rebound and fired a quick outlet pass to teammate Phil Booth, who then missed a layup inside in transition. However, Spellman hustled down the floor and cleaned up Booth’s miss with a two-hand tip dunk to give Villanova a five-point lead, plus all the momentum after the sizable Villanova contingent roared from the stands after the finish.
“I forgot who [Bolden] was going against, but he had him chested pretty well. I just saw the opportunity for the block,” said Spellman, who finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. “I came over and got the rebound and tried to outlet it, and I saw Phil going to the hoop, and I was just thinking to myself, if he misses this, I got to get it.”
Villanova shot slightly worse from the field in the second half (48 percent) than in the first (51.7 percent), but its defense, probably the most underrated part of the Wildcats’ success this season, flipped the script on the defensive-minded Mountaineers, holding West Virginia to just 12-of-39 shooting (30.8 percent) in the second half.
“I start telling guys at the beginning of the year, man, at this time of year, if you want to win in March, you have to make open shots,” said West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins. “[Villanova] made open shots, we didn’t. We got way more shots than they got. We just didn’t make them.”
Guard Jevon Carter, playing in what would be his final game in a West Virginia uniform, had 12 points, eight assists and four steals as he continued to be the catalyst at the top of the Mountaineer press. His backcourt mate, Daxter Miles, led West Virginia with 16 points.
Respect the Tech-nique
It is no secret that Texas Tech guard and leading scorer Keenan Evans is the team’s offensive catalyst, but when he was mired in a slump during the Red Raiders’ most important game of the season, Texas Tech then relied on its two biggest strengths: balance and defense.
Four Red Raider players scored in double figures while the team forced 17 turnovers as No. 3 seed Texas Tech pulled off a historic 78-65 victory over No. 2 seed Purdue, sending Texas Tech to its first-ever appearance in the Elite Eight. The Red Raiders will play top seed Villanova in the East Region final on Sunday with a spot in the Final Four, to be played in the Lone Star State in San Antonio, on the line.
Evans, who has been playing through a toe injury over the past few weeks, awoke from his slumber soon enough to lead Texas Tech to the win, overcoming a 1-for-6 start from the field to pace the Red Raiders with 16 points, including going 9-of-10 from the foul line. (Evans was 7-of-8 from the charity stripe in the second half.)
Off the bench, forward Zach Smith went 7-of-10 from the field in scoring 14 points while grabbing five rebounds and collecting two blocked shots. In three NCAA Tournament games, Smith is 13-of-17 shooting, and his 14 points tonight were the most he has scored since Dec. 21.
Smith scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half as the Red Raiders hit 52 percent of their field goal attempts in the final 20 minutes. Also, Texas Tech missed just one of its 14 free throws in the second half as the Red Raiders did not relinquish the lead after it went into the break with a 30-25 advantage.
“Our offense opened up in the second half,” said second-year Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard, who also led a team to an NCAA Tournament win over Purdue two seasons ago when he was head coach of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. “We shot 50 percent. We had a low-turnover game. We outrebounded Purdue. And we had four or five guys in double figures and a sixth guy around that mark. It’s our formula. It’s not a secret.”
What also is not a secret is the stingy defense of the Red Raiders, and despite the fact that Purdue shot 45 percent for the game, above the percentage that Texas Tech allows its opponents to shoot this season (40.2), the Red Raiders were able to force Purdue into uncharacteristic sloppiness, forcing 17 Boilermaker turnovers. Purdue came into the game averaging just 10.6 turnovers per game on the season.
“For us, we really played in spurts today, just really never got that consistency,” Purdue head coach Matt Painter said. “We’d make a couple of positive plays, and we just couldn’t get that consistency on both ends. Some of those empty possessions really hurt us where we weren’t getting a shot at all, and that was probably the hardest thing for us, where they were getting in transition, getting the layups and the dunks.”
Sophomore guard Carsen Edwards scored 30 points for the Boilermakers, including scoring 25 of the team’s 40 points in the second half in trying to keep his team in the game. Senior forward Vincent Edwards ended his collegiate career with a double-double, 12 points and 13 rebounds, but also committed six of Purdue’s turnovers.
Today marked the second consecutive game the Boilermakers played without 7-foot-2 senior center Isaac Haas, who fractured his elbow during Purdue’s first-round win over Cal State Fullerton. Haas averaged 14.7 points and 5.7 rebounds this season, shooting 61.7 percent from the floor.