It looked like this would be the year. Villanova was primed for big things, it just needed to beat the N.C. State Wolfpack. A win would grant the Wildcats their first Sweet 16 since the 2008-2009 season, when they went to the Final Four.
Villanova was not off to a great start. Despite holding a narrow 7-4 lead to start the game, the rim was unforgiving to the Wildcats. A number of open shots refused to go in. N.C. State responded with a 7-0 run, capped off by a vicious dunk by Abdul-Malik Abu. The Wolfpack now had an 11-7 lead, prompting Jay Wright to call for a time out.
After the quick break, the Wildcats were able to catch up. However, leads didn’t last very long in the first half. Both teams kept trading the lead in the same way they kept exchanging baskets. The Wolfpack was tough defensively. They had a strong interior presence that was willing to battle and grab boards. Meanwhile, they closed down on the perimeter, not giving up any space for shooters to get comfortable. Despite shooting a mediocre 28.6% on the floor in the first half, Villanova found a way to get points on the board and navigate the tough defensive front that stood in its path.
While Villanova struggled to score, its defense remained strong. The Wildcats’ defensive effort kept them in the game. They did as best as they could in keeping in front of the agile Wolfpack guards, although there were a few times they got shaken off. Things didn’t look so good when Trevor Lacey shook off his defender with ease and drained a buzzer-beating three pointer to end the first half. N.C. State took a 32-28 lead into the intermission.
The second half was more of the same. Despite having a size disadvantage, N.C. State played with greater urgency. The Wolfpack continued to bully the Wildcats inside. They outscored Villanova in the paint 34-14 for the whole game. Also, they grabbed rebounds even when they were outnumbered and they finished in traffic. On the other end of the court, Daniel Ochefu opened up second half scoring for Villanova with a nice dunk inside.
N.C. State started to slowly pull away, stretching its lead into double figures. Anthony Barber sent a nice feed inside for Abdul-Malik Abu, who made the easy layup. Thanks to that basket, the Wolfpack had a 45-33 lead with 13:29 left in the game.
Villanova started to work its way back into the game, but it seemed that every solution it came up with was countered with a swift response from N.C. State.
The Wildcat seniors refused to back down, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston accounted for 22 of Villanova’s final 25 points of the game. A Pinkston and-one would bring the game to within three points, with 2:26 to go.
N.C. State’s Lacey and Barber provided back-to-back baskets to extend their lead back to seven. Jay Wright called time out. After the quick break, Hilliard knocked down a three to close in on the Wolfpack. On the ensuing possession, Anthony Barber was fouled. He made his first free throw but missed the second. N.C. State now had a five point lead with 49 seconds remaining.
Hilliard came back and sank a deep three-pointer. Villanova now had a chance to comeback. They pressed the Wolfpack. As they tried to take the ball down court, Trevor Lacey threw the ball over the head of his teammate and the ball sailed out of bounds. With the shot clock turned off, Villanova now had a chance to at least tie the game or take the lead.
The Wildcats moved the ball around, until it went into the hands of Dylan Ennis. Ennis took a shot at a wide-open three with approximately 19 seconds left on the clock. The ball bounced off the rim and into the hands of Anthony Barber. Barber proceeded to make both free throws to give N.C. State a 69-65 lead.
The game slipped away as the pressure of time running out weighed heavier and heavier on the Wildcats. Hilliard would make another deep three to make it 69-68, but there was barely any time left. Ralston Turner was immediately fouled after corralling the inbounds pass. Turner made both to bring it back up to 71-68.
With less than two seconds to do something, Josh Hart‘s deep inbounds pass was intercepted and the final buzzer went off.
Darrun Hilliard eclipses the 1,500 career point mark. The senior guard had a game-high 27 points and was 6-of-10 from long range. JayVaughn Pinkston finished with 13 points and six rebounds. Phil Booth chipped in nine points and was 3-for-4 from three-point range.
As for the Wolfpack, they won the battle of the boards, 45-32. Four different players finished in double figures. Trevor Lacey had a team-high 17 points, six rebounds, and four assists. Anthony Barber finished with 13 points. Abdul-Malik Abu and Lennard Freeman each had double-doubles. Abu had 13 points and 12 rebounds. Freeman added 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Villanova ends the season at 33-3 overall.
Thank you Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston for the memories.