For over 39 minutes, it appeared that Christmas would come early for The Syracuse Orange in their match up with the #7 ranked Villanova Wildcats.
The Wildcats entered their home match-up at the Wells-Fargo Center (Saturday, December 20th) against the visiting Orange with a perfect 10-0 record. The last time the two teams met on this court two seasons ago, Villanova was outside the top 25 and Syracuse who was ranked in the top 10. Thanks to some last second heroics from (then freshman) Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova was able to secure the upset victory, 75-71.
The Wildcats came into the match-up having not played in almost a week. Their last win coming last weekend when they handily defeated Big 5 opponent Temple. In that game, Villanova had its first (and second) 20 point individual efforts (Darrun Hilliard and Josh Hart) of the year, a testament to the balanced scoring, unselfishness, and team-first approach of the 2014-15 Wildcats team.
Syracuse entered the game having a very rare down year. The Orange have had 43 straight winning seasons (the top active streak in Division 1), including 17 straight 20 win seasons. The last time they missed out on March Madness was back in 2007. As evidenced by their previous match-up with Villanova, you can throw out the rankings once the opening tip-off occurs; anything can happen when these two long-time rivals get together.
After winning the opening tip-off, Syracuse scored on their first possession of the game. Following a Villanova turnover, The Orange had a 4-0 lead. Villanova broke into the scoring on a sweet inbound play to Daniel Ochefu and after another Syracuse bucket, both teams converted old fashioned three-point plays to give Syracuse a 9-5 lead at the 16:00 mark.
Rakeem Christmas picked up his 2nd personal foul with over 15 minutes left to play in the first half, forcing him to the bench. However, it did not appear to affect Syracuse as they continued to exchange buckets with Villanova and held a 17-10 lead at the 12:41 mark. Both teams also looked sloppy, committing several unforced turnovers.
Christmas re-entered the game 5 minutes later after Villanova cut the lead to 17-14 and made an immediate impact, scoring on The Orange’s first possession. Both he and Michael Gbinije continued to play for Syracuse with two personal fouls in the first half. Following a 10-0 run by The Orange, the lead grew to 27-14 at the 7:00 mark. Villanova finally scored on a bucket by JayVaughn Pinkston, breaking an almost 4 minute scoring drought in which The Wildcats missed 9 straight FG attempts. After the two teams exchanged buckets, Villanova went on a 6-0 run (in 39 seconds), firing up the home crowd of 18,369, and shrinking Syracuse’s lead to 29-22. Coming out of the time-out, Christmas and Pinkston converted back-to-back old-fashioned three-point plays to keep The Orange lead at 7 with 4:44 to play.
Syracuse was the stronger team down the stretch in the first half. Their lead ballooned to 15 points at the 1:41 mark and stood at 12 points, 43-31, at the break. Josh Hart led the way for Villanova in the first half with 11 points, with Pinkston and Hilliard each chipping in 9. Villanova’s starting backcourt duo of Arcidiacono and Dylan Ennis combined for zero points in the first 20 minutes of play. Ochefu paced the Wildcats with 5 first half boards. For Syracuse, Christmas and Gbinije each had 11 points, with Trevor Cooney adding 9. Gbinije also led the team in rebounds with 6. Kaleb Joseph had 7 assists for The Orange. Villanova shot just 35.3% from the field in the first half (12-34) compared to 63% for Syracuse (17-27).
Hilliard’s three-pointer at the 16:40 mark of the second half cut the Syracuse lead under 10 points, 47-38, and after a Syracuse turnover, Hilliard hit another three-pointer in front of the Villanova bench to bring The Wildcats to within 6, 47-41, with 16:11 to play. Moments later a Hilliard steal and outlet pass to Arcidiacono cut the lead to 4.
Gbinije picked up his 4th personal foul for Syracuse at the 14:58 mark but remained in the game. At the 12:03 mark Villanova was down 6, in the midst of a 3:42 scoring drought in which they committed 3 turnovers. Both teams exchanged buckets to keep the lead at 6. Villanova trimmed the lead to as few as two points but were only able to convert 1-2 from the line on three straight trips to the charity stripe. At the 4:31 mark, Villanova entered the double bonus, with Ennis hitting 1-2 to cut the lead to 4 points, 61-57. Villanova only had 2 team fouls to 10 for Syracuse at this point.
Villanova cut the lead to 2, 61-59, at the 3:20 mark following a steal and outlet pass to Hilliard for a dunk, putting him at 20+ points for the second consecutive game. After a miss by Christmas and a rebound by Pinkston, Villanova committed another unforced turnover (their 15th turnover of the game). Moments later they had another shot to tie or take the lead but could not convert. Syracuse went up 63-59 at the 1:20 mark following a goal-tending call.
Pinkston converted an old-fashioned three-point play seconds later to draw Villanova within 1 point, 63-62. Almost immediately following that, Christmas had his own old-fashioned three-point play to bring the lead back to 4, 66-62 with just over a minute to play. On The Wildcats next possession, Pinkston was called for an obvious travel in the lane. The Orange wore down the shot-clock before drawing a foul with 24.3 seconds to play. Gbinije hit 1-2 to bring the lead to 5. An easy Pinkston lay-up (to bring him to 21 points for the game) cut the lead to 3, 67-64 with 20 seconds to play. Unable to inbound the ball, Syracuse was forced to call its final timeout of the afternoon.
The Wildcats fouled Cooney with 17.2 to play, giving him a one-and-one. Cooney hit both free-throws to make it a five-point lead. Hart hit a three-pointer, Villanova stole the inbounds pass and Pinkston hit another lay-up to tie the game with mere seconds to play. Syracuse had a final shot but couldn’t convert and the game, amazingly, went to overtime tied 69-69!
Hilliard scored the first points of overtime with a pair of free-throws at the 4:03 mark, giving Villanova its first lead of the game 71-69. Syracuse tied the game on their next possession, and a Syracuse foul (the 5th on McCullough) sent Hart to the line for The Wildcats at the 3:03 mark. Hart hit 1-2 but Villanova got the rebound up 72-71. An Ennis missed three-pointer and a Ochefu offensive board, led to the 5th personal foul on Christmas and two free-throws for Villanova. Ochefu converted both to give Nova its largest lead of the day, 74-71, with just over 2 minutes to play.
On the next play, Ennis was called for his 5th foul, leading to a bucket and foul shot for Gbinije who missed the chance to tie the game. Pinkston scored on a sweet assist from Arcidiacono to put Villanova back up 3. The Wildcats were able to force another turnover on the defensive end to get the ball back with a minute to play, but turned the ball over without attempting a shot. Cooney was fouled with 37.6 to play and hit on both of his one-and-one attempts. Hart was fouled with 29.2 seconds to play, giving him two shots. The foul was the 5th on Gbinije, the third Syracuse player to foul out of the game. Hart hit both to push Villanova’s lead back to 3, 78-75.
Pinkston blocked a drive by Joseph in the lane, and Cooney fouled Hart who collected the rebound with 15.2 to play. Hart again hit both attempts to make it a two possession lead, 80-75. Pinkston was called for a foul on Cooney, stopping the clock with 9.3 to play, and Cooney hit them both. Kris Jenkins was fouled with 7 seconds to play, and hit both attempts to again make it a 5 point lead, 82-77. Villanova completed the stunning comeback victory to win by the same score, moving to 11-0 on the season in what can only be called yet another classic match-up in the all-time series between the two schools.
Pinkston led the way for The Wildcats in both scoring and rebounds with a double-double, 25 points and 10 rebounds (he also had 3 steals, 2 blocks, and hit 7-8 FT), Hilliard added 23 points, and Hart scored 21 points. Despite scoring only 3 points, Arcidiacono had 9 assists to zero turnovers. Villanova greatly improved its scoring in the second half, hitting 13 of 24 shots for 54.2%. The Wildcats also converted on 11-12 free-throws in OT to help ice their victory.
Syracuse was led by Christmas and Gbinije who each scored 18 points, Cooney added 17, Tyler Roberson had 11, and Joseph had a double-double with 10 points and 10 assists. Gbinije led the team in rebounds with 8. Both teams had one more turnover than assists.
Up next for Villanova is a home match-up at the Pavilion on Tuesday, December 23 when they host NJIT (who has already upset one ranked opponent this season). The grit and determination of this Villanova Wildcat’s squad is undeniable and if they win their next game they will enter the Big East season at a perfect 12-0 with several key out of conference wins already under their belt.
[Photo credit: D. Jacob Miller Photography]
[Article by David Miller]