Sparked by Brunson, Wildcats Advance to Elite Eight


Courtesy of Villanova Athletics

Jalen Brunson led the Wildcats in scoring with 27 points. 

Kevin Gamgort

On Friday, March. 23, Villanova and West Virginia tipped off in a memorable Sweet 16 matchup at TD Garden in Boston, one in which the ‘Cats came away with a 90-78 victory.

Fresh off a dominant 81-58 victory over Alabama in the Round of 32, the Wildcats prepared for a stout West Virginia team. Known for their tenacious press style defense, which has earned them the nickname “Press Virginia,” the Mountaineers are an aggressive opponent.

Although a No. 5 seed in the Big Dance, West Virginia has been playing their best basketball in March. Much of this success can be credited to star senior guard Jevon Carter, who averages a team leading 17.4 ppg on the season.

Although the ‘Cats faced injuries and struggles last month, they have been on fire since winning the BIG EAST Tournament. The game started with a splash, as Omari Spellman hit a corner three-pointer to give the ‘Cats a 3-0 lead on their first shot of the game.

Spellman finished the game with 18 points, scoring 13 in the second half, while also grabbing 8 rebounds and 3 blocks. His performance did not go unnoticed.

“Omari can shoot,” said ‘Nova’s point guard, Jalen Brunson. “He can make plays. He can do all of that. He’s a great defender. It’s nothing that we’re not already used to. I mean, we expect that of him. He’s supposed to play at a high level every game.”

As a unit, the Wildcats shot a staggering 27-54 (50%) from the field. Jalen Brunson could not be contained by West Virginia, scoring a game high 27 points in the game.

It was a hard fought game for the ‘Cats, one that Head Coach Jay Wright hopes his players will benefit from.

“I told (Bob) Huggins that this is the toughest game we have played in,” Wright said. They are really tough physically, smart, they scrap and that was the ultimate survive and advance. I hope we survive. I hope we can get another game like this.”

At the first commercial break with 15:55 to go in the first, Villanova led 14-8. Shooting a perfect 6-6 from the field, the Wildcats were firing on all cylinders. In a chippy game, the ‘Cats and Mountaineers continued to trade baskets back and forth. A three-point ball from Carter at the 8:06 mark gave West Virginia their first lead of the game, 25-24. The ‘Cats answered back but had to put Donte DiVincenzo on the bench at the 5:37 mark, after he committed his third foul. A strong press from West Virginia forced Villanova into back to back turnovers, as West Virginia pulled out to a 33-30 lead with under five minutes to go in the first half. An and-one three from Brunson helped Villanova regain the lead, 39-37 with under two left. An exciting first half came to an end with Villanova leading 44-42.

At the half, Brunson led the ‘Cats in scoring with 16 points, shooting 5-9 from the field. With Mikal Bridges and DiVincenzo spending significant time on the bench due to foul trouble, Brunson had to take over the first half. Villanova shot 15-29 (51.7%) with 14 rebounds and nine assists. West Virginia shot 15-31 (48.4%) from the field and were led by Dexter Miles’ 11 first half points.  

The second half got off to a similar start as the first, with a Villanova three-point basket, this time, from Eric Paschall. A quick West Virginia run gave them a 50-47 lead with 15:24 left in the contest. The crowd was roaring after Sagaba Konate blocked a dunk attempt by Bridges followed by back and forth play from both teams. Although exciting, this spanned a 2:26 period in which neither team scored. A West Virginia three broke this streak and gave them a 55-52 lead with 12:07 to go. The Mountaineers hit their stride, forcing Wright to call a timeout down 60-54 with 11:04 left in the game. During this span, the ‘Cats were 1 of 10 from the field and had not scored a basket in 3:14. This dry spell was caused by erratic shooting and turnovers. The Wildcats tied the game with 10:10 to go, with baskets from Brunson and two made free throws by Paschall. A Bridges three-pointer made the Villanova faithful erupt, as they took the lead 63-60. The crowd grew even louder when a block and dunk by Spellman forced Huggins to call TO at the 8:59 mark. An 11-0 run sparked by Spellman’s play on both ends of the floor, helped Villanova regain the lead. Coming out of the timeout, excellent team passing resulted in a DiVincenzo three to give the Wildcats a 68-62 edge. Following this, a three from Bridges and an emphatic dunk from Paschall gave Villanova their largest lead of the second half, 73-64. The Wildcats continued to pour it on, extending their lead to 81-71 with 2:12 left in the contest after a Spellman three-pointer forced a timeout. Villanova would close out the victory, 90-78.

With the win, Villanova punches their ticket to the Elite Eight and will play Texas Tech on Sunday.