A lot had been said about UNC Asheville’s vaunted three-point defense. The Bulldogs have held opponents to just 28.4% from long range this season, a rate that was the best in the country.
Regardless of what UNC Asheville has done all season, it didn’t stop the three-point heavy Villanova Wildcats from changing their philosophy.
They were able to crack the code, using the three-point line as one of the main components for victory in Friday’s opening round game of the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats took down 15-seed UNC Asheville, winning 86-56.
Villanova raced out to a quick lead, using back-to-back 3-pointers from Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson to start. From there, the Wildcats never looked back, holding the lead from opening tip to the final buzzer.
The blitz from beyond the arc was just a sign of what was to come. The Wildcats drained 13-of-28 attempts (46.4%) from long range for the whole game. Although UNC Asheville was able to close down on many of those tries, the Wildcats were still able to watch the ball plop right through the nylon.
“We were just catching and shooting, being aggressive against their zone,” Villanova point guard Ryan Arcidiacono said. “I think in their 1-3-1 they are really aggressive on it and you can’t be very passive. You have to attack it look for your open shots.”
Arcidiacono added a final three-pointer right at the buzzer to conclude the first half. The Wildcats took a 40-26 lead at the break.
Their perimeter play helped open up the paint, where Daniel Ochefu was able to get his way in the second half.
The Wildcats went nearly six and a half minutes after halftime without attempting a single three, a far cry from the first half, in which 17 of their 32 shots came from downtown.
During this stretch, Villanova was 6-of-8 inside the arc, with Ochefu working inside. The 6-foot-11 center was finally able to establish himself as an imposing threat over the much smaller UNC Asheville, who doesn’t have a single player taller than 6-5 in its starting lineup.
“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.”
He enjoyed a resurgent second half after being fairly quiet in the first.
The senior big man finished with a double-double, scoring a game-high 17 points and collecting 10 rebounds. He was efficient on the floor, going 7-of-9.
“Their attack confused him a little bit,” Wright said. “They were mixing up their coverages. At some time, they were coming at him right away. Sometimes they were waiting for him to put it on the floor, and he was getting a little confused because one time he’d pass it out, they didn’t come and get him. The next time they doubled him.”
This all came after Villanova left UNC Asheville on the backburner. The Bulldogs gave the Wildcats quite a scare in the first half. Just as it looked like Villanova was pulling away, with an Arcidiacono jumper to make it 21-12 with 8:46 to go in the first half.
From there, the Bulldogs responded with a 10-3 run that was capped off by a Dylan Smith three that cut Villanova’s lead down to 24-22 with 4:21 left.
The Wildcats turned the intensity on with a 16-4 run to close out the first half. The added momentum carried over to the second half, as they continued to push their lead further into double figures.
Villanova’s defense also played a role in suppressing UNC Asheville, holding the Bulldogs to just 11-of-36 (30.6%) in the second half. It was a stark contrast from the first half, in which they were able to 10-for-21 (47.6%).
“Villanova kind of pressured us a lot more than we’re accustomed to,” UNC Asheville guard Dwayne Sutton said. “Teams in our league don’t press that much, and they have long athletes in every position which kind of threw us off.”
Four other Wildcats scored in double figures – Ryan Arcidiacono (14), Kris Jenkins (12), Mikal Bridges (12), and Jalen Brunson (10).
“I told our team before the game that I didn’t think we had to play perfect to win the game, but we had to play really, really good,” UNC Asheville head coach Nick McDevitt said. “Really good. And close to perfect. And we didn’t.”
Now the Wildcats have their eyes set on the next round, where they have struggled in recent tournaments. The questions and pressure have shadowed them everywhere they have gone since a disappointing loss to N.C. State last year. Now, they will have a chance at redemption.
Villanova will take on the winner of Iowa-Temple, whoever emerges victorious in the next round will move onto the Sweet 16.
“We’ve got to go do it,” Wright said. “That’s the bottom line. If we don’t do it, it’s failure.”