VILLANOVA AND TEXAS TECH ADVANCE TO ELITE EIGHT
After victories on Friday night, the Wildcats and Red Raiders will face off Sunday afternoon at 2:20 on CBS with a trip to the Final Four on the line
By Matt Sottile
#1 VILLANOVA WILDCATS 90, #5 WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS 78
Villanova (33-4) squared off against West Virginia (26-10) on Friday night, in a matchup that paired the best offense in the country against what was considered to be the toughest defensive test they would face all season, a team whose toughness and pressing abilities on defense earned them the nickname, “Press Virginia.”
With just over 11 minutes remaining in the second half, Villanova faced its biggest deficit of the NCAA Tournament, trailing West Virginia 60-54. Their level of physicality failed to match that of the Mountaineers, and even though shots had fallen down and they were still in the game, it looked as if WVU had exhausted the opposition and might end the Wildcats’ season.
Then, in the blink of an eye, Villanova exploded on an 11-0 run over the next 1:59, including a tough drive to the hole from junior guard Jalen Brunson, who initiated contact and completed the three point play, followed by a Mikal Bridges three pointer from the corner on the next possession.
The ensuing sequence that unfolded ignited the Nova Nation faithful that were in attendance and propelled the Wildcats to a lead they would not give up for the rest of the game.
West Virginia guard Josh Bolden tried to drive the lane and lay the ball off the glass from the left block. Big East Freshman of the Year Omari Spellman then rose towards the hoop and viciously swatted Bolden’s layup attempt. He secured the loose ball, and after passing it to Phil Booth, trailed his guard up the floor to follow the missed shot. Spellman elevated, soared through the air and delivered a thundering putback slam dunk over Logan Routt, forcing Bob Huggins to take a timeout and raising the already electric atmosphere at TD Garden to a decibel level that was unmatched all night long.
When asked after the game about his fantastic play that covered all 94 feet, Spellman told reporters, “I saw Phil going to the hoop, and I was just thinking to myself, if he misses this, I got to get it. So it just happened to come off the right way, and I just tried to finish it.”
Like Spellman, Villanova also tried to finish things off in the ballgame, thanks in part to their stellar three point shooting. Although they struggled in the first half, sinking only 6 for 13 from beyond the arc, they came out of the locker room after halftime and were able to match the level of West Virginia’s intensity and physicality, effectively breaking the press that forced nine first half turnovers.
The West Virginia press required the Wildcats to string together long crosscourt passes, some of which resulted in odd-number fast breaks for Villanova, but more often culminated in sloppy, forced passes resulting in turnovers.
Villanova made seven of their 11 second half three point attempts, including three from Spellman. ‘Nova now holds the record for most three pointers made through three NCAA Tournament games, with 44, and they are only ten three pointers away from tying the all-time record for most three points made in a single season (432, set by VMI in 2007).
Villanova head coach Jay Wright commented that once his team felt comfortable against the press in the second half, they were able to drive to the basket and get the Mountaineers in foul trouble.
“I think we got used to the physicality, we got used to the aggressiveness, and were executing better… We were more aggressive in the second half,” said Wright. “We missed shots, but we got to the foul line, and I thought that was important for us early in the second half”
Villanova was captained by Brunson, who led all scorers with 27 points and got to the free throw line on multiple occasions, going 8 for 9 from the charity stripe.
Less than seven minutes into the second half, West Virginia had already picked up seven team fouls, putting Villanova in the bonus and allowing them to shoot 18 free throws in the 2nd half. The Mountaineers committed the first six fouls of the half, before the Wildcats picked up even one.
It didn’t help that the Mountaineers’ three leading scorers, Daxter Miles, Jr., Jevon Carter, and Sagaba Konate, all were playing with at least three fouls only 27 minutes into the game.
West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins responded to a question concerning how his team’s foul trouble affected his mindset. “When the whistle blows, it really takes away your aggression, you know. And then [Jevon Carter] had three, Dax had four. They’re the heart and soul of this team… They’re the guys who make things happen.”
Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles, Jr., two senior guards that have given so much to West Virginia’s program, stepped off the court for the last time together on Friday night.
Miles had a nice stretch of play to begin the game for the Mountaineers, scoring 8 of the team’s first 11 points. He finished as the team’s leading scorer, with 16.
Jevon Carter struggled for most of the night, and finished the night shooting only 6-for-13 from the floor. Despite a disappointing finish to his career, he still leaves Morgantown as one of the best players in recent program history.
Huggins ended his postgame press conference by stating, “I’ve never had anybody work the way this guy here worked. Never have had anybody to put the time in that he’s put in. He deserves a better ending, I think.”
The dominance of Omari Spellman and Mikal Bridges helped neutralize a West Virginia frontcourt, led by Sagaba Konate and Esa Ahmad, that was getting points in the paint and outmuscling Villanova in the first half.
Ultimately, Villanova’s shooters caught fire when it mattered in the second half, made their way to the free throw line, and forced Huggins to reevaluate his team’s level of aggression in the last 10 minutes of the game, an attribute they pride themselves on, and one that makes their defensive press tick.
Villanova moves on to their 14th Elite Eight in school history, and will face the Texas Tech Red Raiders at 2:20 EST on Sunday afternoon, with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
#3 TEXAS TECH RED RAIDERS 78, #2 PURDUE BOILERMAKERS 65
Chris Beard served as an assistant coach on the Texas Tech sideline from 2001-2011, with his tenure beginning under legendary Red Raiders coach Bobby Knight. After a stint as the Arkansas Little-Rock head coach, one that also knocked Purdue out of the tournament in 2016, he ultimately returned to Texas Tech, filling the vacancy left by Tubby Smith’s departure for Memphis.
Beard has instilled new vigor and energy into this program, and because of his arrival, Texas Tech (27-9) is headed to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history.
“It’s special for a lot of reasons,” said Beard, following his team’s 78-65 victory over Purdue (30-7). “But the main reason it’s special by far, not even close, the number one reason is these players. These guys have come together, and we started our first year and we were close. This year it’s nice to get over the hump… These guys have worked extremely hard. It’s one of the most unselfish teams that I’ve ever coached.”
One of the players that made the win special was senior guard Keenan Evans, the team’s leading scorer (17.7 ppg) and unquestioned leader. Evans only rolled in four points in the first half, but yet again, his play was at the highest level down the stretch and ultimately finished as the team’s leading scorer, with 16 points, including 12 in the second half.
Evans helped initiate an 11-0 run for the Red Raiders in the second half that his team never looked back from. Evans sank two free throws, followed by a three pointer to start the run.
Texas Tech looked like the more athletic team all night long. They were consistently pushing the pace and getting points in transition, and when the shots weren’t falling, Zach Smith and Justin Gray were often on the blocks and able to turn misses into offensive boards and easy putbacks.
Texas Tech’s depth proved to be a key advantage for them: their bench outscored Purdue by a whopping 33-6 margin. The ability to shuffle fresh legs on the court was seen in the box score, in the form of 17 forced turnovers, and a 15-2 advantage in the points off turnovers category.
“I think we have the best bench in the entire country. Any one of those guys can start for any team, and everybody knows their role. That’s one of the best things about our team. Everybody has a role and accepts it, and they do it well,” added Beard, following his team’s win.
The Red Raiders weren’t showing any signs of weakness despite a slow start from Keenan Evans. Four players ended the game in double figures, and following a stretch in the first half in which both teams failed to score for over six minutes, Texas Tech rallied to score the last ten points of the first 20 minutes of play, turning a five point deficit into a 30-25 lead at halftime.
Carsen Edwards, who finished with 30 points for the Boilermakers, nearly doubled the total of Evans, Texas Tech’s leading scorer. His terrific play continued from postseason play over the last few weekends and into Boston. Even though Edwards finished the night 11-for-20 from the floor and sank over half of Purdue’s threes, the only other offensive production came from senior starters Vincent Edwards and PJ Thompson, a duo that combined for 22 points.
“Carsen did a good job of breaking them down and getting in the paint, and it wasn’t that we weren’t at other times. We just couldn’t finish some plays,” said Purdue head coach Matt Painter.
Matt Haarms, the replacement for Isaac Haas, Purdue’s 7’2” center who fractured his elbow in the First Round vs. Cal State Fullerton, shot the ball only five times, for a total of four points, along with a disappointing figure of three rebounds.
Haarms hit the deck hard with just over a minute to go in the first half, and was seen grimacing while holding his right elbow, an injury that flashed Purdue fans back to last weekend, when Haas went down on a similar fall.
All Haas could do was sit on the sideline and cheer on his fellow teammates, dressed in a Nike shirt that read “EMPATHY,” over his bulky elbow brace. The engineers at Purdue were called upon by the hoops team to construct something that would pass NCAA standards and allow Haas to play. Despite passing the requirements the association set for the brace, Haas simply didn’t feel comfortable enough to give it a go and play effectively for his team.
Texas Tech made Purdue uncomfortable all night, and the Red Raiders, who finished 4th in the country in defensive efficiency locked down when it mattered most, after Purdue had trimmed the deficit to only three points with 5:44 left in the game.
The Boilermakers only converted on two field goals in the next four and a half minutes, while Texas Tech put the game out of reach with an 11-0 scoring run.
The Red Raiders fans that made the long trip from Lubbock, TX to TD Garden remained on their feet for the majority of the second half and urged their team to finish the deal and accomplish something that no Red Raiders team had ever done before them, in reaching the Elite Eight.
The entire Texas Tech team made their way over to the front of the red-clad fan section to sing the Alma Mater following their historic victory. Both fans and players alike erupted at the game’s conclusion, a celebration that carried on late into the night on Causeway Street in Boston.
After Chris Beard was asked about Texas Tech reaching the Elite Eight for the first time in program history, he responded, “I respect the tradition, but when questions are asked like that, I’ve only coached these guys for two years. To me, we just made the — what’s it called? The Great Eight?”
Keenan Evans, sitting alongside his head coach, was there to respond to the question posed by his coach, just like he has responded to most of the unanswered questions facing the Red Raiders this season. His one word response both correctly identified the name of the round they would be advancing to on Sunday afternoon, and described the level of play of Evans has been performing at all year long.