Wildcats advance after rout of UCLA

David Cassilo

All season long, Head Coach Jay Wright has preached to his team about the importance of playing well for a full 40 minutes in each game. After defeating UCLA 89-69 in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats and the rest of the nation saw what the team is capable of when the players listen to their coach.

“These past couple games, we only put together one half,” said junior guard Reggie Redding. “Today we talked about putting two halves together. We came out strong in the first half and stepped it up in the second half.”

Describing the Wildcats first half as “strong” may not do the team justice. After being tied 9-9 in the game’s opening stages, Villanova went on a 19-2 run to take a hold of the game.

It finished the first half up 44-31. The Wildcats made 16 of their 31 shots and had six players end the first half with at least six points. This was despite the team’s leading scorer, senior forward Dante Cunningham, missing over 12 minutes of the half after he picked up his second foul.

Although they were up 13 points at the break, the test for the Wildcats would be how it began the second half. In the Big East tournament the previous week, Villanova relinquished a 16-point halftime lead to Marquette and an 8-point halftime lead to Louisville.

However, against UCLA, the Wildcats never lost the intensity they began the game with. The team started the second half on a 5-0 run and eventually built its lead up to as many as 25 points. In the end, Villanova defeated UCLA by 20. It was the team’s largest margin of victory in an NCAA tournament game since it defeated Portland 92-58 in 1996.

“They did a great job today,” said UCLA senior guard Josh Shipp. “They out played us, out-toughed us and out-hustled us. They did a great job jumping out on us, kept the pressure on and maintained their lead.”

A balanced scoring effort was what eventually wore down the Bruins. Six Wildcats reached double figures. Cunningham led the way with 18 points and contributed 10 rebounds. Senior forward Dwayne Anderson also had a double-double, finishing with 10 points and 11 rebounds.

The bench played a major role for the Wildcats as well. Sophomore guards Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes had 13 and 12 points, respectively. Overall, the Villanova bench outscored UCLA’s 29-12.

The win was also the 100th victory of the senior class of Anderson, forward Shane Clark, Cunningham and forward Frank Tchuisi. The foursome already has the most wins of any class in Villanova’s history.

For UCLA, Shipp led the Bruins with 18 points, while senior guard Darren Collison had 15 points and just one assist in his final collegiate game. Collison, Shipp and forward Alfred Aboya had made the Final Four in their three previous trips to the NCAA tournament.

While the final score is most prominent, Villanova dominated UCLA in many areas besides on the scoreboard. The Wildcats had 23 points off UCLA turnovers, while the Bruins had just four. Villanova also had 46 points in the paint while UCLA had 20. It also had a decisive advantage on the offensive glass, edging UCLA 16-8.

The dominance in almost every aspect of the game is exactly why Wright has stressed playing a complete game to his team all season.

“We haven’t really played 40 minutes all season,” Wright said. “We’ve had games where we’ve had leads. We kind of got lackadaisical. I just wanted them to understand how important of a game this is. And they played 40 minutes. Look what the results can, how good they can be.”

One of the results is that Villanova has advanced to its fourth Sweet 16 in its last five years, and its 16th in the program’s history. The Wildcats will face the Blue Devils tonight in Boston. The winner will face the winner of Pittsburgh/Xavier in the Elite Eight on Saturday.

The Wildcats have accomplished a lot already this season, and another Sweet 16 appearance just adds to what has been a memorable season. That fact is not lost on Wright, but he is not ready to begin reminiscing yet.

“It’s just the next game for us,” Wright said. “When we come back at the end of the year, we’ll look back on all this. At the end of the season we’re going to have time. Right now we have to go get ready for the next game.”

The team’s next opponent, Duke, is the No. 2 seed in the East region and is coming off of a 74-69 second round victory over Texas. The Blue Devils are 30-6 this season and were the winners of the ACC tournament.

Villanova is 3-7 all-time versus Duke. Their last meeting came in Durham on Nov. 17, 2000, where the Blue Devils won 98-85. The two teams have also met three times in the NCAA tournament before with Duke winning twice. Their last tournament matchup was in 1978.

However, Duke may need a little more than history to beat the Wildcats, at least as far as UCLA Head Coach Ben Howland is concerned.

“I think Villanova is a very good team,” Howland said. “I just told Jay [Wright] that I think they have a real chance to move forward in this tournament. Whoever’s going to put them out is going to be a very good team. They’re very, very talented, very well-coached.”

Part of that coaching was Wright’s mantra of playing a full 40 minutes. If his players continue to listen to that message and play like they did against UCLA, the team that Howland said is “going to put them out” may not exist.