All it took was one. One shot to break the ice. One shot to incite the comeback.
After three-plus hellish halves of basketball for Villanova, after a 4-for-22 first-half shooting performance Sunday, and even after two Mikal Bridges second-half triples, the Wildcats found themselves down double digits to Virginia. Then Josh Hart elevated. And everything changed.
With Villanova trailing Virginia 49-39 with less than eight minutes remaining, Hart hit a three. A possession later, Kris Jenkins followed suit and drilled his first shot from beyond the arc in over a week. The Wildcats made all six of their second-half threes, then got a final-possession tip-in from the most unlikely of sources, Donte DiVincenzo, to stun the visiting Cavaliers, 61-59.
— Villanova MBB (@NovaMBB) January 29, 2017
Hart and Jenkins had shot a combined 0-for-13 in the first half as Virginia’s defense clamped down on anything and everything the Wildcats attempted. But Hart lifted the lid in the second half, Jenkins brought the Wildcats within four for the first time since the first half, and both hit their second threes of the game minutes later. Hart’s bomb from the top-of-the-key gave Villanova a 54-53 lead.
The Wildcats led by two in the final minutes before Virginia freshman Ty Jerome, who came out of nowhere the lead the Cavaliers with 15 points, wove his way into the lane and tied the score. But his runner left Villanova with one final possession, and left DiVincenzo with barely enough time to sneak to the front of the rim and win the game.
The significance of the occasion, and therefore of the final sequence, was hard to ignore, especially for Virginia. This wasn’t just a game against the nation’s top-ranked team. It was a game against the defending national champions, a game against a team that recently went to a place Virginia hasn’t been under Tony Bennett, and one to which it strives to go. And it was a game away from home in an NBA arena that last year, on the same night that Virginia fell short of the Final Four in Chicago, hosted a regional final of its own.
It was also hard to ignore the flashbacks to Syracuse’s crushing comeback against the Cavs 10 months ago. Virginia led last year’s Elite Eight game by 16 early in the second half. On that night, the Cavaliers didn’t necessarily let up; Syracuse, though, went on a seemingly inexorable run and won the last 10 minutes by 20 points to secure a trip to Houston.
Sunday followed a similar script. Devon Hall’s three put Virginia up 13 with 13 minutes to play. Once Hart and Jenkins hit their threes, though, Villanova’s offense began to click.
But before they did, the game was all about Virginia’s stifling defense.
Coming off arguably its worst performance of the season in an upset loss at Marquette, Villanova came into Sunday in search of an antidote for its ailing shooting stroke. The Wildcats had hit just six of 34 three-point attempts on Tuesday, and their offense had faltered down the stretch. They quickly realized, though, that the matchup with the Cavaliers couldn’t have been more untimely.
Virginia held the home team to a season-low 22 first-half points, and proved to be about the worst antidote possible. The Cavs’ defensive performance was that of a vintage Tony Bennett team. They swarmed drivers, flew out to shooters and made each possession a long, arduous adventure. Every shot at the rim was contested by two defenders. Villanova was 3 for 10 inside the paint in the first half, and 1 for 12 outside it.
The game was also slow — really slow. It featured just 55 possessions, the second-fewest of any Virginia game this year, and the fewest of any Villanova game. The national Division I average is over 69 possessions per game.
Against many teams, Virginia’s first half performance, which had it ahead 31-22, would have been more than enough to see it on to victory. But Villanova isn’t many teams. It was the nation’s top-ranked team for a reason, and is now 20-2 for a reason. Virginia falls to 16-4 despite 40 minutes of basketball that were full of positives.
None of those positives should be at all surprising either. The Cavaliers had a bumpy start to ACC play; they lost two of their first three, and gave up 1.28 points per possession to Pittsburgh. But they’ve otherwise been magnificent. They came into the day ranked second nationally by KenPom, and only five days earlier had stifled one of college basketball’s best offenses. They held Notre Dame to 0.86 points per possession on 3-of-18 shooting from beyond the arc in South Bend.
Bennett’s starting lineup might not have the natural offensive skill that last year’s Malcolm Brogdon- and Anthony Gill-led team did. But this year’s team manufactures quality shots by running thorough offense and maintaining patience. It also has two sharpshooters off the bench in Jerome and fellow freshman Kyle Guy.
Despite the loss to a Villanova team that assuredly belongs in the top five, Virginia made a few statements Sunday that suggest it should be a part of that conversation as well.