A surge emotions filled the Pavilion on Saturday afternoon, a basketball game was about to occur, but it wasn’t just any other game.
The cozy on-campus arena had seen many clashes over the years but for the players, they were about to put on their jerseys for the last time there for a while. Not just because it was the final home game of the season, but because it was the last game before the facility undergoes major renovation.
The No. 2-ranked, defending national champions battled No. 23 Creighton and after a rough start, won 79-63.
The first half wasn’t easy – poor shooting and sloppy defense led to setbacks throughout those opening 20 minutes. Just when it seemed they were pulling away, Creighton went on a 13-5 run in the final minutes, to tie the game up at 33 for the half.
“We haven’t been pretty,” said head coach Jay Wright. “Today wasn’t pretty. I think it speaks to the leadership of these seniors. I think it speaks to the character of these seniors.”
The final home game of the season meant that it was also Senior Night, a celebration of the three members of the team whose remaining games at the collegiate level are numbered. Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds each received much fanfare before, during, and after the game.
“Yeah, it’s definitely emotional,” Hart said. “The beginning is more for the parents and celebrating them. We give them all the credit for raising us. After that, the game is all business and we have to play 40 minutes of Villanova basketball. This game isn’t about the seniors, it’s about the next step in our journey. We fought and we battled. I’m proud of us for that. It was great to do all of that.”
There was a pregame ceremony that celebrated the players, their families, and brought tears to the eyes–and cheeks–of many members of the Nova Nation.
The elephant in the Pavilion the entire night was that Reynolds was not able to play in the final game for the building, and missed his last chance to be cheered on by the student section, and his real home crowd.
Per tradition at the Pavilion, after the game the team walked over and recognized the student section during the fight song, throwing up their V’s and usually big smiles as well. Jenkins and Hart immediately climbed up onto the baseline desk to a roar of applause from the students. In a heart-wrenching moment, the two reached down and pulled Reynolds up with them. Shortly after, chants of “thank you seniors” rang out throughout the building. Walking out of the Pavilion wasn’t with a sense of dread or sadness, however. A feeling of excited nervousness was in the air–a promise for an exciting end to the season, and a hint at what is to come in the next years.
“Just like Josh said,” Jenkins said. “It’s more for our families and the student body, because we have a lot we want to accomplish this season. We’re moving forward to our next game.”
The second half of the game was hard-fought, but this time one that the Wildcats came out on top, thanks to those three seniors. Once they finetuned their defensive efforts, the offense made its way through and the success was no longer in question. Sophomore Eric Paschall led the ‘Cats in scoring with a new season-high 19 points. Hart had 16, Jenkins chipped in 15, and Mikal Bridges added 11.
It quickly became obvious that whatever was said at halftime resulted in a revitalized fire for the second half–the effort and the hunger for victory were increasingly apparent. Sophomore Donte Divincenzo at one point dove into press row to save a ball from going out.
“Honestly, it’s really talented players and having guys that help each other win and get better,” Wright commented. “Nobody wins anything without really talented players. Our guys are really good and so talented. When you win championships, the players are talented. They’re really good.”
Villanova has an amazing group right now–and even playing with a shortened roster isn’t slowing them down. The team played without Reynolds for the fifth straight game. The senior forward been sidelined because of a rib injury. The center is expected to return for the Big East Tournament in a couple of weeks. Since then, Dylan Painter has had more playing time and is slowly becoming a reliable option later in the season.
Overall, the Wildcats have what it takes, full roster or not. The performance put on shows how dedicated the players are not only to each other, but to their families, to their fans, and to Villanova University.
“Just a great way to finish,” Wright said of the game. “I know you guys ask a lot about if you think we are getting worn down with playing six or seven guys. I don’t think so, I think we can do it. I have to answer your questions, but it doesn’t do us any good saying ‘We are worn out.’ It’s not an excuse. Other teams have things to deal with.”
It’s been a brilliant year for the Wildcats. Not only are they defending National Champions, but the historic game brought them another monumental victory. The Wildcats were crowned Big East Regular Season Champions–for the fourth year in a row.
For the first time in the history of the Big East conference, a team has four consecutive regular season titles under their belt.
Villanova is rewarded for this feat with a guaranteed top seed in the Big East Tournament, as well as a probable number one seed in the NCAA tournament at the end of the season. Jay Wright credited this victory–no surprises here–to the seniors on his team.
“Over the years, these guys have played with some great players that have taught them, and these guys became great players and they (Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins) are teaching him (Eric Paschall),” said Wright. “He’s going to be a great one. That’s really what Villanova basketball is all about.”
When asked about the ‘key to his play,’ Paschall even gave their leadership and lessons the most credit.
“Just listening to these guys (Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins) and making sure I have my head clear every game,” said Paschall. “They do a great job of telling me what to during games.”
The end of the game was made even more special for the seniors when Hart sank the final basket ever made at the Pavilion.
When asked about it, he was quick to brush it off, reminiscent of Jenkins with his championship-winning three-pointer last spring.
“I can trash-talk about that in 20 or 30 years,” Hart replied.
It’ll be interesting to see where Villanova’s basketball program is at in 20 years, or even two. The Pavilion is undergoing extensive renovations (no more leaky roofs or wooden benches in the stands!). Next season the majority of games will be at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and then the season following that will be in the newly renovated and renamed, Finneran Pavilion.
Next up, the ‘Cats will have an entire week off until they head down to play Georgetown–the final stop before turning their attention to Madison Square Garden and the Big East Tournament. Get ready for March, folks. It’s coming much sooner than we thought it would.
Tipoff on Saturday is set for 12 p.m.