Villanova trounces UNC-Ashville in NCAA Tournament opener



Eugene Rapay

Daniel Ochefu came hobbling out of the Big East Tournament. The 6-foot-11 center sprained his ankle just before the Wildcats’ first game and went on to play just 47 minutes over the span of three games.

He wasn’t the only one left New York hurting, as the Wildcats suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the championship game.

On Friday afternoon, they showed that none of that mattered anymore.

“We got over it extremely quickly,” said Ochefu, about the Big East Tournament loss. “We had the selection show the day after, and we found out we were playing UNC Asheville. So everybody just eliminated that loss out of their mind. We learned what we could from it, and we started preparing for UNC Asheville.”

The short-term memory worked out well for Villanova, as it advanced to the Round of 32 for the third straight year, rallying behind a double-double performance from Ochefu in an 86-56 victory.

The senior center did not seem bothered by his ankle or the loss that took place one week ago, as he shot an efficient 7-of-9 on the floor, en route to a game-high 17 points and 10 rebounds.

“It wasn’t bothering me,” said Ochefu, regarding his ankle. “I think it was just everything mental. As soon as I started going, I eliminated everything in my mind and just started worrying about playing Villanova basketball.”

He came to life in the second half, when he scored 12 of his points. Ochefu was rather quiet in the first half but later became an imposing force inside that the smaller UNC Asheville could no longer handle.

“In the second half, we told him, just choose score first,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “Just go, and then if they come, trust your instinct. You’ll make the right decision. And he did. He was great.”

It also helped that the Wildcats were able to dismantle the staunch 3-point defense that the Bulldogs had. UNC Asheville boasted the lowest 3-point shooting percentage allowed, allowing opponents to make only 28.4 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc.

Villanova did not shy away from pulling up from downtown, making 13-of-28 (46.4 percent) of its attempts from long range.

With 3-pointers falling at the perimeter for Villanova, it also helped pave the way for Ochefu to work inside.

The Wildcats looked to him early in the second half, as they transitioned from a perimeter game to a more gritty attack in the paint.

He made 10 of Villanova’s first 19 points in the second. The balanced approach allowed for the Wildcats to pull away even more, as the Bulldogs did not have an answer.

It also didn’t help UNC Asheville that Villanova’s defense contained it in the second half.

After shooting 10-of-21 (47.6 percent) on the floor in the first half, the Bulldogs could not replicate that same success, going just 11-of-36 (30.6 percent) in the second half.

Despite the fact that Villanova had never trailed at any point in the game, UNC Asheville did not make it easy.

At one point in the first half, it threatened the Wildcats’ lead. After a Ryan Arcidiacono jumper made it 21-12, UNC Asheville responded with a 10-3 run that was topped off by a Dylan Smith 3-pointer to make it 24-22.

“We just tried to keep grinding and keep playing Villanova basketball,” Arcidiacono said. “There wasn’t anything in particular, no crazy speech, but we just tried to go out there and just work on the little things. By doing that, we were able to be aggressive against their zone and make some shots and get some stops.”

The Wildcats refocused and closed out the first half with a 16-4 run to take a 40-26 lead at the break. The second half became a mere formality as they pushed the gap further into double figures.

Aside from Ochefu four other Wildcats scored at least 10 points – Arcidiacono, Kris Jenkins, Mikal Bridges, and Jalen Brunson.

Now, the Wildcats turn their focus to the Round of 32, where they have faltered in the last couple of years.

Villanova has been asked about last year’s loss all throughout the season, now it has a chance to answer the question on Sunday. The Wildcats will take on the winner of Iowa-Temple and will try to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009.

“We’ve got to go do it,” Wright said. “That’s the bottom line. If we don’t do it, it’s failure.”