No matter the opponent, no matter the venue, holding a 25-7 lead nine minutes into a college basketball game should be a major step along a path toward ultimate victory. For the Villanova Wildcats, however, that wasn’t to be on Saturday afternoon, as the Syracuse Orange rallied to beat their former Big East Conference nemesis 78-62.
In one game, the Wildcats showed all the reasons why they should be considered among the favorites to win the Big East this season. However, Villanova also showed a stunning other side, one that hasn’t been seen previously and one that wasn’t ready for prime time and had little answer once Syracuse woke up and began clawing their way back into the game.
Syracuse guards Trevor Cooley (21 points) and Tyler Ennis (20) led the Orange, who improved to 12-0 with the victory. Syracuse sewed up the game late with free-throw shooting, and finished 29-for-35 from the line in the win. James Bell led Villanova with 25 points, including six three-pointers. Three of Bell’s outside buckets came during the 25-7 Wildcats run that opened the game. But Villanova (11-1) finished just 10-for-31 from three-point range, after hitting five of their first eight. Of the Wildcats’ 50 field-goal attempts, only 19 were two-point attempts.
In a flash, Villanova’s 18-point lead disappeared faster than you can say “Pearl Washington,” with the Orange scoring 20 straight points to take the lead on an Ennis layup with 4:57 to play in the half. Think about that — the eighth-ranked team in the country blew a nearly 20-point lead in six minutes, three seconds. By halftime, Syracuse had a 38-34 lead, and while Villanova stayed in the game until the Orange pulled away with a myriad of free throws late, the Wildcats never really looked like winners in the second half.
Granted, Villanova won’t find themselves in many situations like the one they were in Saturday, playing in the home dome of the second-ranked team in the country (an opponent who would still know all of Villanova’s tendencies from recent years since they were in the same conference until this season). But if Villanova can’t hold leads in tough situations, especially on the road, Big East teams like Marquette, Xavier and Creighton will be more than willing to inflict more misery on the Wildcats. From the time Villanova led 25-7, the Wildcats surrendered 42 of the game’s next 56 points.
As good as Syracuse is, and while the Orange were playing with their crowd behind them, Villanova head coach Jay Wright has to ask his team and his coaching staff serious questions about how such a collapse can occur. While basketball is a game of runs, and it wouldn’t be fair to say Villanova gave up based on how close they kept the game until very late, a team that is expected to perhaps make the Elite Eight or Final Four must be better than what the Wildcats showed over the final 11 minutes of the first half today.
Full credit to Syracuse. The Orange didn’t panic, stuck to what they do best, and pinned a painful loss on an old rival and a team thought of as one of the best in the country, and who was undefeated entering the game. There’s no reason to think Syracuse can’t win the national championship this season.
Villanova, however, now have legitimate questions to answer if they are going to be considered a Big East and NCAA title contender. Teams that are in consideration for the Elite Eight and the Final Four simply can’t lose leads in such quick, stunning fashion as Villanova did Saturday.