The millionaire dollar question stands: will Villanova win tonight in the Big East Tournament semifinals?
On the bright side, this isn’t a David vs. Goliath, Villanova-has-no-chance-in-hell kind of game. Sure, ‘Nova is the underdog. The Butler Bulldogs locked in the second-seed, giving them the home field advantage on an old turf field that is closer to a family room carpet than playable surface. They’ve already beaten the Cats in a 3-2 overtime win during the regular season on Sept. 17. But it goes to say, Villanova is no Average Joe’s, and if they show up like they did against DePaul in the quarterfinals, they will be fine.
“Even though we didn’t score a goal against DePaul, I think we dominated most of the play,” said senior forward Padraic McCullaugh. “And that gave us confidence going into the next game.”
The ‘Cats outshot DePaul 23-14 in last Sunday’s match. Even more notably, Villanova’s goalkeeper Will Steiner did not see action until the second overtime, when he made his first save more than 100 minutes into the game.
Going into tonight’s playoff game, which is Villanova’s first appearance in the league semifinal since 2011, the Wildcats have to be excited for a stroke of misfortune that will hurt the Bulldogs.
Butler’s star freshman, Isaac Galliford–who recently was unanimously voted for Big East All-Newcomer Team–is sidelined for tonight after getting a red card when he accumulated a pair of yellow cards in the quarterfinals.
“It’s going to help a lot that [Galliford] just got a red card in the last game,” McCullaugh said. “As much as [David Goldsmith] is the goal scorer, [Galliford] is the guy who brings the ball forward and is their most creative attacking player.”
Even with Galliford out, Goldsmith–Butler’s senior forward–is no force to be underestimated. The unanimous Big East Offensive player of the year alone had two goals and an assist in the two team’s previous meeting.
This season, he has been among the national leaders in goals and shots, and was named the NCAA National Player of the Week. If ‘Nova is going to win tonight, it needs to shut down Goldsmith and cannot let him have a field day in the box. In the last matchup, an unmarked Goldsmith rebounded in front of the net in the first half and redirected a lofted ball with his head inside the 18-yard box in overtime. Simply put, if you don’t put constant pressure on him, he is going to find the back of the net.
“We had a new backline, being our first Big East game,” McCullaugh said. “I don’t know if they were exactly ready for it and Butler was a tough game. But I think now dealing with him [Goldsmith] will be a lot easier and our experience through these last nine or ten games will help. And [Galliford] out will help neutralize [Goldsmith] as well.”
There’s no doubt this game is going to be close. Last time these two teams faced each other, the ‘Cats trailed 1-0 at half. Then, at the 47 minute mark, sophomore midfielder Zach Zandi capitalized on a penalty kick to even the score. But no more than six minutes later, Butler responded with shot outside the left post and Villanova was left chasing the game again.
“Carlin always says were a two-to-one team and it takes us getting scored on to react,” said McCullaugh.
Throughout this season, the ‘Cats have responded under pressure. When one set back happens, they don’t completely derail. Look back at the beginning of the season–Villanova loses its first road game against Harvard and turn it around two days later to upset No.11 Boston College after trailing 1-0. A week later, the ‘Cats find themselves in the same position and upset No. 22 Delaware after giving up an early goal in the first 2 minutes of the match. In conference play, yes they dropped their home opener against no. 10 Butler, but exactly a week later they beat Marquette 2-1 after a first half of trailing 1-0 and getting out shot 10-3
“We are going to make mistakes and I think we’ve learned our lessons,” McCullaugh said. “Giving up early goals suck but we know that we are able to come back. I have never felt this season that when we were down, the game was out of reach.”
While last year ‘Nova tended to come up short and would give up early leads, this year they seem to find a way to grind it out.
“I think our whole entire upperclassman have done a really good job in instilling the urgency to the younger kids,” Steiner said. “It is an understanding that every game we come out like it is a playoff game.”
The positive momentum and senior leadership is crucial. Steiner is arguably the best goalkeeper in the Big East, leading the league in saves and will be coming off of an impressive performance, after saving 3-of-4 penalty kicks in Sunday’s shootout. Time and time again, Steiner comes up huge in much-needed moments. He was named Big East Goalkeeper of the Week for back-to-back weeks during the regular season. Whether its saving penalty kicks against Delaware and DePaul during league play, or making two huge saves in the final 90 seconds of Marquette, Steiner keeps ‘Nova in games. And come tonight, his presence will be just as vital.
“I think a lot of where we are is because of the juniors and senior who were on last year’s team who had just as much talent,” Steiner said. “We are really focused and believe that we can win this conference tournament.”
For ‘Nova to come away with the win tonight will not only bring them one step closer to clinching the first Big East Championship in program history, but also set the Wildcats up in a position to host the championship game at home.
“We are pretty excited,” said McCullaugh. “Because the likelihood of having a home Big East Championship after us winning this game is pretty likely.”
If Villanova wins tonight and Creighton beats Providence, the Cats will host the Creighton Bluejays on Sunday.
Talk about a fairy tale ending.
However, it all depends on who shows up tonight that will determine how the story will be written.