Friday, March 23, 2018

Villanova shows value of commitment to team dynamic as Wildcats roll into East Regional final

Omari Spellman rises up to block attempt from West Virginia's James Bolden in second half as Villanova outscored Mountaineers by 18 over final 11 minutes to reach East Regional final. (Photo by Philadelphia Inquirer)

BOSTON -- Throughout the season, few teams have shown the ability to flip the switch as quickly or efficiently as Villanova. No matter the situation, no matter the opponent, when the Wildcats are fully engaged and executing their machine-like style on both ends of the floor, it is almost impossible to find a school in the nation equipped to completely stop the arsenal on the Main Line.

Friday night proved to be more of the same for Villanova, but not without a fair amount of drama in the early stages of the second half. When West Virginia took advantage of foul trouble to some of the Wildcats' key players -- Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges each had two fouls on their respective ledgers before halftime, Donte DiVincenzo three before the intermission -- and relied on its press to forge a six-point lead with just over eleven minutes remaining, Jay Wright called a timeout, then looked at his junior leaders and found the reassurance to fret no longer.

"That's our leadership," a proud and validated Wright declared as the Wildcats (33-4) shook off the challenge from their former Big East Conference foe and proceeded to outscore West Virginia by a 36-18 margin following his timeout, en route to a 90-78 victory in the first of two East Regional semifinals at TD Garden. "I just looked at Jalen, Mikal and Phil (Booth), and I could see in their eyes (that) we were good. If I didn't -- if I looked in their eyes and saw fear or worry -- I would have maybe went a little crazy. But I didn't, and I just wanted to make sure we kept our confidence and stayed committed to our game plan."

Having Bridges, a projected lottery pick in June's NBA Draft, attack West Virginia's shot-blocking savant Sagaba Konate head-on, allowing Brunson to slash his way into the lane and dissect the basket, was only the beginning. Omari Spellman, whose second half dominance turned back the clock to his mastery of Seton Hall just seven weeks ago in Philadelphia, was the final piece of the puzzle.

"Coach always tells me to catch and shoot," the Big East Freshman of the Year said after posting 18 points and eight rebounds, connecting on four of seven field goal attempts from three-point range while blocking three shots in the process. "I was just having a shoot-'em-up, battle-in-the-streets mentality, just trying to take the right shots and be aggressive."

"After the game, Allie LaForce asked me, 'How do you think Omari played?" Brunson recalled before praising a teammate that Wright has called as complete a player as he has ever had. "And I just said we're used to that. Omari can shoot, he can make plays, he can do all of that. It's nothing we're not already used to. It's just our confidence we have in each other."

As is the ability to get on the same page and synergy better than any other contender, which in the heat of March, speaks volumes as Villanova attempts to chase down a second national championship in three seasons.

"I think our experience is definitely going to be able to help," Brunson said of the Wildcats remaining locked in. "Just being able to go through what we did a couple of years ago and last year shows the highs and lows of college basketball. I just think it comes so much (from) thinking our next game is our biggest game. Nothing changes -- no matter who we play, where we play, what kind of game it is -- nothing changes for us. I think we've got to really take pride in that and really just stick to what we do, and not worry about anything else."

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