Last year, the Wildcats left the CONSOL Energy Center with a bitter taste in their mouths after a loss to N.C. State in the Round of 32.
Despite the start of a new season, questions and criticism surrounding the loss continued to haunt Jay Wright and his team regarding their recent string of early exits in the NCAA Tournament.
After deflecting those questions and choosing to wait until March with their one-day-at-a-time approach instead, the Wildcats found themselves back in the second round of the tournament.
This time around there will be no early exit, no jokes involving the Round of 32, and certainly no doubt.
They finally answered the question and did so in an emphatic manner, rolling past 7-seed Iowa 87-68 to move onto the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009.
“The biggest thing is honestly that I’m just done with answering the question about getting to the second weekend,” Ryan Arcidiacono said.
Four different Wildcats scored in double figures, Josh Hart (19 points), Arcidiacono (16), Kris Jenkins (15), and Jalen Brunson (12), as they came together to make up Villanova’s balanced attack and defensive effort led the way to victory.
“They did a very good job of moving the ball, and I think we didn’t come out with the intensity defensively that we needed against a team like that,” Iowa point guard Mike Gesell said. “They’re a team that is very unselfish.”
The game started in a close, back-and-forth manner with both teams trading baskets early.
After Iowa’s Dom Uhl drained a three to tie the game at 13 with 13:37 to go in the first half, Villanova responded with an 11-2 run to get some separation from the Hawkeyes.
The run was capped off by a 3-pointer by Brunson to make it 24-15 with 10:44 remaining.
From there, the Wildcats found the hot hand. The Hawkeyes were dismantled by Villanova’s ball movement. They didn’t have a solution on defense to guard the Wildcats’ dribble penetration.
Villanova’s guards were able to attack the basket and finish inside. When Iowa thought that was problematic enough, Villanova began to kick it out to the perimeter. It felt like the ‘Cats couldn’t miss from long range, starting the game off going 7-for-10 from beyond the arc.
They just seemed to be one step ahead of the Hawkeyes, who found themselves quickly overwhelmed with the balanced attack. Villanova’s ball movement almost always seemed to find the open man to knock down the shot.
As Villanova’s shots plopped through the net and Iowa struggled to provide an answer offensively, the Wildcat lead ballooned.
“They’re really difficult team to guard and a lot of times really talented offensive teams play defense in spurts, and they don’t,” Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery said. “They play defense as well equally as they play offense.”
Villanova took a 54-29 lead at half. After the break, the Wildcats were able to push the lead to as high as 34.
The second half wasn’t as polished and clean as the first half for Villanova. The Wildcats turned the ball over nine times and allowed for the Hawkeyes to battle back.
Now, Villanova’s lead was too large, allowing for it to cruise to the final buzzer, but Iowa capitalized on a cold shooting stretch to cut the lead down to as low as 16 with 1:44 remaining.
However, by then, it was far too late.
Everyone on Villanova’s bench got a piece of the action by the time the final buzzer sounded.
Now the Wildcats will venture into uncharted territory as they navigate deeper through the tournament. Their next stop will be in Kentucky for the Sweet 16.
“Miami might have a lot to say about what happens there, but I have great confidence in [in the team] that way, I really do,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said.
The Wildcats will face the Hurricanes on Thursday night.
“There is a positive not being in Philly,” said Wright, about not being to play at the Wells Fargo Center. “But I’d still rather be in Philly.”