By Nancy Armour |
Villanova has, by far, the nation’s highest-scoring offense. It makes threes by the dozens. While the Wildcats aren’t automatic at the free throw line, they’re pretty darn close.
So of course it was defense that carried Villanova to the Final Four.
“It means a lot to do that, just to know we could tough a game out like that,” Eric Paschall said after Villanova booked a spot in San Antonio with a 71-59 victory against Texas Tech on Sunday afternoon that was far tougher than the score indicated.
“We worked hard all year,” added Paschall, who had 14 rebounds, including six offensive boards. “We did a great job of it, and we just kept getting better. So it shows that we can fight through a lot.”
When you have players like Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges, offense is going to be your identity. The ability to hit three-pointers like it’s a pop-a-shot contest only adds to the perception.
But don’t let the gaudy numbers blind you to Villanova’s grittiness. The Wildcats have quietly grown into one of the country’s best defensive teams, and never has that been more apparent — or more important — than in the postseason.
Texas Tech was just 20-for-60 from the floor, making it five opponents in a row that Villanova has held below 37%. The Wildcats outrebounded the Red Raiders by a whopping 51-33, including a 20-11 edge in offensive boards.
And for the seventh time in nine games, Villanova held its opponent to 70 points or less.
Most days, Villanova’s ability to clamp down on its opponents gets little attention. Only after a careful scan of the box score do you notice the opponent’s low shooting percentage and the wide edge the Wildcats have in rebounds.
On Sunday, though, the defense was all there was to see. Villanova’s 33.3% shooting was its worst in more than two years. Since Dec. 7, 2015, to be exact. Its four three-pointers was its second-fewest of the season, only one more than the season low set against Providence last month.
It went long stretches without scoring in the second half, when Texas Tech pared what had been a 15-point Villanova lead to five points with 4:13 left. The Wildcats held Texas Tech to just two field goals the rest of the way.
Sure, five Wildcats finished in double figures. But take away the free throws, and Paschall would have been the only one.
“(Texas Tech) had us scouted extremely well, took away our threes, really tested our ability to play tough and ugly,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I think that was their game plan. I think Chris did a great job with it, and our guys responded.”
There was a time this season when Wright wasn’t sure that would be the case.
He and his players freely admit that defense was not their strength when the season began. But the offense was good enough, and versatile enough, that it didn’t matter for the first two months of the season.
And then came that trip to Butler, a loss that ended both Villanova’s unbeaten streak and the illusion that the offense could make up for the Wildcats’ defensive shortcomings. The Bulldogs rained shots from all over the court early, and finished the day shooting 60%.
“That kind of was a slap in the face to us,” Wright acknowledged. “We said at that time, `We’re not going to just change this … it’s going to go back to basics. It’s going to take a lot of time.’ ”
The players bought in and, as the weeks passed, Wright could see progress. But he could also see the calendar.
“We were afraid we might run out of time,” Wright said. “We had to keep practicing to get better defensively and rebounding-wise.”
About a month ago, however, it all came together.
Games like Sunday’s aside, the offense is still a sight to behold and a beast to try and stop. But defense, as the saying goes, is what wins championships, and the Wildcats can finally say they’re a complete team.
“That was definitely our best effort of the year,” Wright said after he finally got a look at the stat sheet.
“It’s specifically gratifying to see 33% and outrebounding them in the biggest game so far,” he said. “That’s truly gratifying.”
Villanova, the defensive juggernaut. Who ever would have imagined?
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.