NEW YORK (CBS) — In the long run, the hard way may have been the best way for Villanova.
After cruising in the Big East Finals against Creighton last March, Villanova has to outlast a valiant Providence squad before coming away with a 76-66 overtime win.
The Wildcats needed every ounce of energy to hold off the Fryars and Cats Coach Jay Wright says this type of victory may toughen his team for the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
“You don’t want it that way when you start the game,” said Wright. But when it’s over, you just know how much this does for you team’s mental toughness. If you get into tough games in the tournament, you know you’ve been through that recently, which is good for us.”
It hardly looked like the game would be good for Villanova after Providence took the lead on an 11-0 second half run. Trailing by two in the final minute, Jalen Brunson hit two clutch free throws to force the overtime session. It was all Villanova in overtime as the Cats outscored the Fryars, 16-6. Brunson had been 1-for-3 at the line before hitting the two biggest free throws of the tournament.
“I approach every free throw the same,” Brunson said. “Make or miss, it’s just concentrating and focusing on the basket and myself. My teammates always have confidence in me.”
There has been talk that the Big East isn’t the same as it was during its early days, but Saturday night’s instant classic no doubt brought back memories of the glory days of the conference.
“It was sold out and you could hear it from the beginning,” said Wright. “There was tough, physical play and you don’t see that as much anymore in college basketball. Just the crazy plays and guys battle and great athletes with coaches who know each other really well. It was old school Big East.”
Brunson had 31 points, while Tournament MVP Mikal Bridges added 25. It came against a surging Providence Defense which knocked top-seeded Xavier out the previous night. Wright has tremendous respect for Providence Coach Ed Cooley and two coaches who knew each other well were at their best on the grand stage of Madison Square Garden.
Providence missed a last-gasp shot at the buzzer and played in its third straight overtime game.
“Their length is daunting,” Wright said. “I just think Ed is one of the best coaches in the country. He’s always got a great game plan and we know each other so well. They’re as prepared for us as anybody.”
Whether this tough test will help Villanova in the NCAA Tournament remains to be seen. For one night, the Wildcats were pushed to the limit as memories of the old school Big East were on display in New York City.
“What an incredible college basketball game,” Wright said. “We just feel so lucky to be a part of it.”