PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Villanova’s 2015 tournament loss to NC State in the round of 32 had no bearing on today’s outcome against Alabama. But it would be hard to argue the Cats’ recent history in the second games of the opening weekend didn’t briefly hang over PPG Paints Arena Saturday.
Especially after stars Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges combined for five first half points and a pesky Crimson Tide squad only trailed 32-27 at the break.
If not for Donte DiVincenzo’s five threes in the opening stanza, paranoia might have set in for those who made the trip across the Pennsylvania Turnpike to watch Jay Wright’s top-seeded team.
Brunson sat for most of the half because of foul trouble, and Bridges struggled to find his touch—he missed all five of his goal field attempts. Whatever Wright said at halftime must have clicked for the Big East champs, and most notably, Bridges.
The projected lottery pick erupted for 22 points after the break, and Villanova stormed into the Sweet 16 behind a blazing second half shooting performance, rolling the Tide, 81-58.
The second round has tormented Wright and Villanova in recent memory. The aforementioned loss to NC State here in Pittsburgh three years ago and again to Wisconsin in last year. After a less than inspiring first half, the Cats quickly squashed any chance of seeing their season end early.
Villanova looked every bit of a national title contender to start the second half, zipping the ball around the perimeter and finding open shooters. Bridges scored 16 points in the first four and a half minutes, including 11 straight at one point, to turn a two-possession ballgame into a 22-point laugher. He finished with a game-high 23 points.
“Coach told me to be aggressive and be ready, play off my jump shot,” Bridges said. “My teammates found me wide open, and it was catch and shoot.”
The Cats as a team hit their first eight attempts from deep to start the second half and drilled 17 overall for the game, tying a season high. They ramped up the defensive pressure, too.
Alabama shot 48 percent as a team in the first 20 minutes and controlled the scoring in the paint, 14-4. The Crimson Tide connected on only nine of 25 attempts in the second half, and star freshman Collin Sexton was the only player in double-figures with 17.
“I think Mikal explained it best, because we have the freedom to shoot because we’re not really worried whether shots go in or not,” Wright said of his team’s second half defense. “Some nights they’re going in, some nights they’re not. What we can control is how well play together defensively and how hard we play defensively.”
“It’s been a challenge for this team because we have a lot of young guys, and we’ve been getting better as the season has gone one. I think what’s exciting about this team is that we’re probably playing our best defense and rebounding the best now than we have all year.”
With Brunson and Bridges struggling in the first half, DiVincenzo, the pride of Wilmington, Del., carried Villanova. He connected for three straight triples during one stretch, and his fifth three in the waning seconds of the half injected the Cats bench with a dose of momentum that ultimately carried over through the break.
“It’s more responsibility of making the right play,” DiVincenzo said of stepping up in the first half for Brunson and Bridges. “I just know when I’ve got it going, a couple shots going down, they were loading to me, trying to deny the ball. I just had to make the right play, whether it was a shot or pass.”
Villanova entered the tournament as one of the favorites to win it all, and with top overall seed Virginia and trendy pick Arizona having already exited, the Cats might now be the clear favorite. If they continue their hot shooting ways, not many teams will have the firepower to keep up with them.
They’ll return to Boston for the regional final, the site of Scottie Reynolds’ thrilling game-winner in 2009 over Pittsburgh and Jamie Dixon. Waiting for Cats will be either West Virginia or Marshall. Those two teams will duke it out Sunday at 9:40 p.m. EST in San Diego for Mountain State Supremacy.