The Barclays Center was in a state of euphoria when the final buzzer sounded.
The year 2009 felt like a distant memory for Villanova, which was the last time the Wildcats reached the Sweet 16.
The wait seemed even longer due to the recent string of early exits from upset losses.
Ryan Arcidiacono and his teammates raised their arms in celebration, as the weight that pressed heavily onto their shoulders dissipated into the air, blown away by the echoes from exuberant cheers.
A voice on the loudspeaker announced the final score, with the Wildcats winning 87-68 over Iowa, and then it went on to share that Villanova was indeed going to the Sweet 16.
It was much needed confirmation after back-to-back nightmarish losses spoiled the Wildcats’ dreams in the last couple of years. It was reality coming into fruition, no longer just a dream.
Arcidiacono released one giant exhale as he looked up to the ceiling, breathing one great sigh of relief.
Just seconds before the buzzer went off, he met with his coach and they embraced each other with a tight hug, as he checked out of the game for the final time.
The two have seen many games together. Sunday marked the 140th game in which Arcidiacono wore the blue and white, the most out of any player in Villanova history that came before him.
During his four years as a Wildcat, Arcidiacono has become synonymous with Villanova basketball. In some ways, he has even become one in the same as Villanova head coach Jay Wright.
“They all call him my son,” said Wright with a smile, in regards to Arcidiacono’s teammates.
It feels like the connection between the two has lasted beyond the last four years. After all, they share the same roots.
Both Wright and Arcidiacono are natives of Bucks County, Pa.
Wright went to high school at Council Rock High School North. Although he himself did not go to Villanova, playing basketball for Bucknell instead, his wife did attend the Main Line university. In fact, his wife lived in the same hall as Arcidiacono’s mother.
As for Arcidiacono, he went to neighboring Neshaminy High School, a rival of Council Rock North’s. His parents both went to Villanova and his passion for the ‘Cats was instilled in him ever since he was young.
“The kid grew up watching Villanova basketball,” Wright said. “Him putting on a Villanova jersey is like a kid at Alabama putting on an Alabama football jersey. He just lives it.”
It was destined for Arcidiacono to go to Villanova, and it seemed that fate brought Wright and him together.
Since Arcidiacono first set foot on the Pavilion court as a freshman, he was on the team’s starting lineup.
He even earned the rare distinction of being named a team captain as a first-year player.
Over the years, he earned a penchant for making clutch plays, not shying away from taking and sinking big shots in much-needed moments. He also became known for his hustle and drive on the floor, unafraid to sacrifice his body for loose ball – even if it means diving into the scorers’ table or the stands.
“Ever since day one, I think we’ve had trust in each other, and he trusted me as a freshman and throughout my years,” Arcidiacono said. “I try to think of myself as him on the floor because he tells me, if he was to play and when he played, that’s how he wanted a player to play. So I just take pride in wearing this jersey at Villanova, and just my relationship with Coach is very special.”
Wright watched Arcidiacono blossom into a star and a fan-favorite. In four seasons, No. 15 has amassed 1,529 points and 525 assists.
He has become a staple for the program. He and Wright have been endured so much in a four-year span.
There was his tumultuous freshman year, where the team turned itself around after a 13-19 season the year before. Then came the ascension to becoming one of the best teams in the Big East, bringing in three conference regular season titles and a Big East Tournament championship.
There were also the crushing upset losses in the NCAA Tournament in Arcidiacono’s sophomore and junior years.
Those losses dogged Wright, Arcidiacono, and the program for nearly 365 days. They grinded through the regular season to make it back to the second round, and there was nothing left to do at the end but just take one deep breath. The heat from outside forces had died down for that instance.
“It’s definitely a sigh of relief,” Arcidiacono said, after the game. “I just think the biggest thing is I’m honestly just done answering the questions about getting past the first weekend.”
With the pressure relieved, everything had culminated in that moment of embrace between a coach and player who have gone through so much together.
Battling through the hardships and triumphs over the last few years, there’s no doubt that Arcidiacono and Wright have gotten close and share a special connection. Not only does Arcidiacono simulate his coach, sometimes their connection is telepathic.
“I really don’t talk to him that much. It’s amazing — he is me,” Wright said. “He takes care of everything. We know exactly how we think. We’re right — his family — his parents grew up where my parents grew up in northeast Philly. It’s just we’re the same person.”
However, everything is finite.
There will be a time when fans will look at the court and see that number 15 isn’t there. A time when Wright will need someone else to facilitate practice and lead the team. The special moments they have are limited in number. With the excitement of advancing deeper into the NCAA Tournament, comes the reality that the next game may be the last.
The next 40 minutes, may be the last. The Wildcats are battling for more time, more seconds to be with one another as they strive to achieve a greater goal: an NCAA championship.
Even in the excitement, Wright knows this reality all too well. He is now nearing the end of his 15th season. During that time he has seen many players come and go, but he knows that he has something great with Arcidiacono.
“I really do worry about not having him here next year because I’m going to have to work harder because he just — everything he does is what I do.”