Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
Thanks to some clutch free-throw shooting, a healthy dose of resolve, and the benefit of a controversial call, Villanova is undefeated. The Wildcats (3-0) look to stay that way when they meet fellow unbeaten Alabama in the championship of the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden tonight (7:30 p.m., ESPN2).
Villanova advanced to the title game with an 89-81 victory over Purdue in an overtime thriller on Thursday night. The Wildcats trailed by six with less than a minute to play before staging a furious rally to send the game into an extra session, where James Bell knocked down a pair of crucial three-pointers to help Villanova pull away for good. Bell, who was 1-for-8 from beyond the arc in regulation, didn’t hesitate when called upon in the clutch, remembering the advice of head coach Jay Wright: “Shoot em’ up, sleep in the streets.”
“Keep shooting, and if you make them, everyone loves you,” Wright explained. “If you keep missing, they won’t let you in the house, so you sleep in the streets.”
“As a shooter you’re going to have good days and you’re going to have bad days,” Bell told reporters after the wild finish. “You have to keep shooting, and that’s what I tried to do here and we were able to come out with the win.”
Sophomore shooting guard Darrun Hilliard poured in a career-high 22 points for Villanova, including two free throws after Purdue’s D.J. Byrd was whistled for a questionable flagrant foul late in the game. The officials went to the monitor and ruled that Byrd, who fouled out on the play, threw an elbow into Hilliard’s face, giving the Wildcats two free throws and the ball. Freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono (18 points) knocked down a pair from the charity stripe on the extra possession to tie the game.
After an extra five minutes of physical basketball, the Wildcats go out of the frying pan and into the fire with a difficult matchup against a rugged Alabama team on tap. The Crimson Tide (3-0) reached the championship courtesy of a 65-62 victory over Oregon State. Alabama led by as many as 15 before the Beavers came all the way back to tie it in the final minute. Rodney Cooper, however, canned a three-pointer with 12 seconds remaining to lift the Crimson Tide to a hard-fought win.
“We were able to get them down in the second half but we were able to fight back,” Alabama head coach Anthony Grant told reporters after the game. “I thought our guys did a great job of making the plays we needed down the stretch…”
The Crimson Tide were led by 20 points from sophomore Trevor Lacey, who leads Alabama in scoring at 19.3 points per game. The 6-3 guard is on a tear to open the season, knocking down shots at a 61-percent clip and making 11 of 17 from behind the three-point line.
Alabama boasts two other explosive scorers in Cooper and junior guard Trevor Releford, a double-figure scorer since he set foot in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide’s floor general is shooting 50 percent from the field and has 10 assists to just two turnovers on the young season. Cooper, meanwhile, is averaging 15 points per game and, like Villanova’s Bell, has already displayed a knack for knocking down the big shot. At 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, Cooper is almost a mirror image of Bell.
The Crimson Tide are deep, with nine players averaging at least 12 minutes per game and no one seeing more than 29 minutes of court time. Despite its depth, Alabama struggles on the glass. Cooper is the leading rebounder, pulling down just four per contest, and the Crimson Tide have been out-rebounded 73-54 in their last two games, even losing the battle of the boards in a blowout victory over Division II West Alabama. Alabama ranks 316th in the nation in total rebounding, grabbing an average of just 29.7 caroms per game.
The Crimson Tide have a pair of seven-footers in Carl Engstrom and Moussa Gueye, but neither sees much action in Grant’s guard-oriented system. Otherwise, no Alabama player is taller than 6-foot-8. With JayVaughn Pinkston (10.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Mouphtaou Yarou (5.7, 5.3), and Maurice Sutton (7.7, 3.7) patrolling the paint, the Wildcats have a decided advantage on the block.
What Alabama lacks in size, it makes up for in ball control. The Crimson Tide average just 11 turnovers per game, compared to 17 for Wright’s Wildcats. Arcidiacono had seven turnovers to go along with six assists in Thursday’s victory over Purdue, and will need to take care of the ball against the Crimson Tide’s scrappy backcourt.
Averaging over 82 points per game, Villanova prefers to play at a faster pace than the more deliberate Crimson Tide, who rely on ball movement and efficient half-court offense to put points on the board. Which team manages to impose its will could go a long way toward deciding who walks out of the World’s Most Famous Arena with the tournament title. Alabama is the more rested squad, having played in the first semifinal on Thursday while Villanova didn’t wrap up its hard-earned victory until just after midnight. The Wildcats, however, are young and deep, and hungry for some hardware to put last year’s 13-19 debacle further behind them. Starting the season 4-0 with a 2K Sports Classic crown would certainly help.