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NCAA Tournament: Second-half run propels Villanova into Elite Eight

Omari Spellman of the Villanova Wildcats celebrates with

Omari Spellman of the Villanova Wildcats celebrates with Collin Gillespie during the second half against the West Virginia Mountaineers in the 2018 NCAA Tournament East Regional at TD Garden on March 23, 2018, in Boston. Credit: Getty Images / Maddie Meyer

BOSTON—It was physical, exhaustive and intense because, for the most part, it was a typical West Virginia game. That it turned out the way it did meant something else, though. The ending meant it was a typical Villanova game.

The Wildcats, the No. 1 seed in the East Region, endured and advanced in that order because they finished the way they did in the Big East Tournament final and in their second-round game and in most of their key moments this year. They were big when they absolutely had to be, rolling through a big second half to a 90-78 victory in the East Region semifinal at TD Garden.

“Most importantly for us, nothing changes,” said Jalen Brunson, who scored a game-high 27 points and made numerous huge plays down the stretch, especially after his team had fallen behind by six points with 11:04 remaining. “Nothing changes no matter who we play, no matter where we play, what time, what day. We just have to play 40 minutes of Villanova basketball. That’s all we can pray for and all we want to do.”

It seemed like it would take a wing and a prayer to overcome everything that West Virginia was throwing at the Wildcats. The No. 5 seeded Mountaineers are known as “Press Virginia” for their relentlessness and they way they cause havoc on everything the opposition tries to do. It worked for three-fourths of the game. But a byproduct of such physical play is foul trouble and West Virginia had to go long stretches without its sharpshooting guard Daxter Miles and short bursts without his backcourt-mate Jevon Carter (Brunson’s former AAU teammate).

Then again, Villanova also can wear down an opponent with its depth, speed, shooting and defense. All of those qualities were on display in the key 11-0 burst that erased a 60-54 deficit and turned the tide.

After Brunson, a junior, made an old-fashioned three-point play and passed to Mikal Bridges for a three-point shot, redshirt freshman Omari Spellman performed the signature sequence. He blocked a shot by James Bolden, grabbed the rebound, raced downcourt and dunked.

“I just saw the opportunity for the block, I got the rebound and I just tried to outlet it. I just saw Phil (Booth) going to the hoop and I was thinking to myself, ‘If he misses this, I’ve got to get it. So, it just happened to come off the right way, and I just tried to finish it,” Spellman said after a coming-of-age game with 18 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.

Spellman’s play in the clutch was eye-opening, except from the Villanova perspective. “We’re used to that,” Brunson said. “Omari can shoot. He can make plays. He can do all of that.”

This time, it took everything Villanova (33-4) had. That was a reflection on West Virginia (26-10), which has a bunch of players who were not considered blue-chippers coming out of high school. “I told my athletic director that really he had two choices, either fire me for recruiting the guys I recruited or give me a raise for being able to win with them,” coach Bob Huggins said.

The Mountaineers coach acknowledged that the foul trouble did cut down on his team’s trademark aggressiveness. But Carter said at least it was a heck of a show. “I felt like we gave it everything we had,” he said after his 12-point, eight-assist game. “We just didn’t make the shots tonight and Villanova did. Good luck to them in the future.”

The Wildcats’ near future means an Elite Eight game here Sunday, after a moment to exhale. “That was the most physically demanding, mentally demanding 40 minutes we’ve played in a long time,” winning coach Jay Wright said. “Great win for us because West Virginia is so good.”

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