Villanova’s big first half propels Wildcats to first Sweet 16 since 2009

Villanova’s big first half propels Wildcats to first Sweet 16 since 2009

You could see it from the outset. The way the Villanova players kept turning deflections into fast breaks. The way …

Villanova Wildcats guard Josh Hart reacts after he sinks a shot against the Iowa Hawkeyes during a second-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament at Barclays Center on Sunday, March 20, 2016.
Villanova Wildcats guard Josh Hart reacts after he sinks a shot against the Iowa Hawkeyes during a second-round men’s college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament at Barclays Center on Sunday, March 20, 2016. Photo Credit: AMNH

You could see it from the outset. The way the Villanova players kept turning deflections into fast breaks. The way they seemed to make Iowa star Jarrod Uthoff vanish. The way they elicited panicked looks from the smothered Hawkeye ballhandlers.

After five straight NCAA Tournament appearances without a trip to the Sweet 16 — each time falling to a team seeded eighth or worse — the Wildcats weren’t going to let it happen again on Sunday.

Second-seeded Villanova turned in a first half to behold for a 25-point lead and cruised to an 87-68 victory over Iowa in an NCAA Tournament South Regional second-round game before 17,401 at Barclays Center.

“They were so determined to win this game and give their best effort in this game that it just superseded everything,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “The will of a really determined athlete is much greater than any of the pressure.”

The Wildcats (31-5) will meet third-seeded Miami in a regional semifinal on Thursday in Louisville, their first trip to the Sweet 16 since they reached the 2009 Final Four.

“It was definitely a big-time sigh of relief,” said senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who has been part of 103 wins in four seasons but never has played in the Sweet 16.

“Everyone’s been talking about this game and us not getting past this first weekend,” senior big man Daniel Ochefu said. “We’re all extremely glad to get that monkey off our back.”

Josh Hart finished with 19 points and shot 7-for-11 for Villanova. Arcidiacono added 16 points, Kris Jenkins 15 and Jalen Brunson 12. The Wildcats shot 59 percent from the floor and 53 percent on three-pointers. They were a true ensemble, with four players registering at least four assists. Villanova finished with 23 on 32 baskets.

Uthoff had 16 points, only five before halftime. Freshman walk-on Nicholas Baer added 15 points and Peter Jok had 11 for Iowa (22-11).

It’s hard to envision Villanova playing a better half than the first 20 minutes, when it built a 54-29 lead. The Wildcats shot 61 percent and made seven three-pointers. They forced the usually sure-handed Hawkeyes into eight turnovers and converted them into a dozen points.

Villanova broke away from a 13-13 tie with a 26-8 run that included 10 points from Jenkins and six from Brunson.

“They were clicking: tough to stop on offense and got into us on defense,” Uthoff said. “Both ends of the court, they controlled it from the get-go.”

“I just thought the first half was the key to the game. We were just hitting on all cylinders,” Wright said. “When I shook hands with Fran [McCaffery, the Iowa coach], I just said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry. We haven’t played a first half like that in a long time.’ ”

After the break, Villanova took its biggest lead at 65-31 on Hart’s basket with 16:04 to play. Iowa never got closer than 16 the rest of the way.

Villanova cracked its jinx but could be bound for even greater glory than the Round of 16. After winning its first two tournament games by an average of 24.5 points, Arcidiacono said “we definitely can go all the way as long as we stick to what we do,” and Wright seemed to agree.

“The way we’ve played makes me more confident,” he said. “We’re playing better than we played during the season.”

Roger Rubin