Villanova passes Syracuse's overtime test

PHILADELPHIA -- They used to call this "Monday" in the old Big East.

OK, maybe "Big Monday," but the combo white knuckler/brass knuckles battle Villanova and Syracuse staged on Saturday afternoon wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

What once happened when two teams met in a rivalry built on the organic foundation of time and experience -- instead of the manufactured base of conference realignment -- might have produced extraordinary basketball. But it wasn’t unexpected.

Which is why the early theme heading into this particular version of Cuse-Nova really didn’t make much sense. In both theory and logic Villanova, ranked seventh, should have had its way with the Orange, unranked and so out of sorts its own coach spoke in reverse hyperbole about it.

In reality, Syracuse led by 12 at the half and already had 41 points on the board.

In theory and logic, the Orange, up five with 10 seconds to play, should have won.

In reality, the Wildcats hit a 3, stole an inbounds pass, scored on a layup to tie it and then won in overtime 82-77.

“I really didn’t understand why going into this game, everyone said we should be able to handle them," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “This is Syracuse-Villanova, and it’s never been anything other than what you just saw."

Forget the people who merely watched the game, those who actually played in it still couldn’t process how it all happened.

Here’s the description, if not the explanation: After Trevor Cooney hit two free throws to put the Orange up 69-64, Villanova's Josh Hart drained a baseline 3-pointer with 10.8 seconds to play. Still all the Orange had to do was inbound the ball to the right guy, hit a few free throws and get out with a confidence-boosting win. Instead Rakeem Christmas got the ball, got trapped and turned it over into the hands of Ryan Arcidiacono, the Wildcats’ sure-handed point guard. He found JayVaughn Pinkston under the basket. The senior scored the layup to tie the game and force OT.

Fifty seconds into overtime, Villanova took its first lead of the entire game. The Wildcats would never trail again.

“I’m not really sure what happened," Pinkston said. “I’m not sure I can even explain it."

Really it was Syracuse that agreed to keep this thing alive, opting to honor its traditional Big East games against the likes of St. John's, Villanova and Georgetown even after it moved south to the ACC.

It was done for the sake of tradition, for nostalgia and history, all important and worthy intentions.

But putting aside all of those warm fuzzies, in pure basketball this particular game was big, too.

Big for the Orange, a team that just a few days ago Jim Boeheim referred to as "not anywhere near a good basketball team." Villanova’s lack of defense may have offered an assist, but Syracuse’s offense was more fluid in this game than it had been all season. The Orange shot 63 percent from the field in the first half.

More, point guard Kaleb Joseph, derided by plenty in Central New York as the primary root of Syracuse’s evil, dished out 10 assists one game after coughing up eight turnovers.

“I thought we played the best we’ve played all year," Boeheim said. “It was a great effort, but the end of the game we couldn’t get the ball inbounds. They made a great play, and that’s the game."

The real beneficiary here was Villanova.

The Cats have big plans; they’ll even tell you about them.

Asked if he enjoyed playing in such a tight game Hart said, “Yes and no. I wish we could win every game by 15 or 20, but you know that’s not going to happen. We need this to prepare us for the conference and for April."

A team can play only two games that month -- in the national semifinals and the national championship game -- and if the Wildcats intend to play then, they needed this game.

To date, Villanova’s big wins are against VCU and Michigan. The first is OK, the second not so much.

The Cats have just one more non-league game left, against NJIT (insert Michigan joke here), before the Big East season begins. And while the league will offer some challenges -- St. John’s looks much improved, Georgetown is always a worthy adversary -- Villanova really ought to have its way.

The conference, which blazed out to a 37-2 start, has come back to Earth a little bit, 43-23 since that beginning heading into Saturday’s games.

But the Cats didn’t need this to build their resume. If Villanova keeps winning, that will take care of itself.

The Wildcats needed to get, as coaches love to say, punched in the mouth because quite frankly they might not get many more jabs the rest of the way.

A year ago, remember, Villanova brought a gaudy 28-4 record into the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats shuffled out of their regional in Buffalo, New York, at 29-5 and done for the year.

“We needed this for a lot of reasons," Wright said. “We didn’t come into this game with the focus we should have. Over the course of a season, that’s going to happen. It’s not about playing perfect every night. You’re not doing it. But if you don’t play perfect, it’s about how you react."

Games like this, that tend to be as much about what happened in the last decade as the last 10 seconds, don’t allow much for perfection.

But they do allow for extraordinary.