PHILADELPHIA - Villanova had the No. 1 seed, the home-court advantage, and a resume that has them unquestionably among the nation’s elite.
None of that seemed to faze unheralded Monmouth.
Pushed by a pesky Monmouth team aiming to pull off an unprecedented upset, the top-seeded Wildcats prevailed and beat the Hawks 58-45 Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“We knew about Monmouth, we knew they were a very good team,” Wildcats guard Allan Ray said. “We definitely didn’t underestimate them.”
With a crowd that seemed to abandon the Wildcats (26-4), along with their accurate shooting and smart decision making, Villanova looked nothing like the team that shared the Big East title with Connecticut.
Still, Ray returned from a scary eye injury to score 19 points, Randy Foye added 17 points and the Wildcats advanced to play eighth-seeded Arizona on Sunday in the Minneapolis Regional.
The 16th-seeded Hawks (19-15) hardly looked intimidated playing on Villanova’s home turf. Monmouth never let Villanova make a serious run and benefited from the Wildcats constantly jacking up quick shots down the stretch.
The arena was packed, though it seemed more fans came in their Irish green than Villanova blue. Without that decided home-court advantage, the neutral fans started pulling for the underdog Hawks. Monmouth kept the game competitive and gave their newfound fans a reason to cheer.
“It was a nice atmosphere,” Hawks coach Dave Calloway said. “It was nice we had a chance.”
The Hawks, who beat Hampton in the play-in game for their first NCAA tourney win, gave everything they could trying to pull off the first 16-over-1 upset. Dejan Delic led the way for Monmouth, the Northeast Conference champions, in the second half.
He scored nine straight points, including a 3-pointer from the right corner with 6:22 left that made it 47-40.
“We thought we had a chance,” said Tyler Azzarelli, who had 11 points. “At that moment, we all kind of looked at each other in unspoken words and said we could do this.”
Then the crowd really rallied behind Monmouth, wishing, perhaps, to say they were there for that historic upset.
“What happened?” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I thought this was a home game for us and all of a sudden when they cut it to seven, that shocked me. Where did all those people come from?”
By the end, Villanova was wondering where those Hawks came from.
“We knew they weren’t done,” Foye said. “Coach told us to get a great attitude, keep on them with defense and the offense will come.”
The Hawks, weren’t finished, yet. Delic, who scored 17 points, calmly made two free throws with 3:52 to go that kept the deficit at 10. Only then did they start to fade, scoring only three more points.
“We did hang around, but we didn’t make plays down the stretch,” Azzarelli said. “We needed a stop, a couple of scores. We didn’t get them and the game kind of rolled away from that.”
Kyle Lowry sank six free throws in the final minutes and Foye hit a runner in the lane to keep the Wildcats unbeaten at their off-campus home, the Wachovia Center. They improved to 4-0 there this season, but will need to shoot better than 31 percent if they want to make it 5-0 against Arizona on Sunday.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
“You have to be prepared to have an off-shooting night and still win,” Wright said. “We could have hit two or three more 3s and everyone would have said we blew them out.”
Villanova, the 1985 national champions, tied the program’s record with its 26th win.
Ray returned and played well after he suffered a soft tissue injury in the Big East tournament that sent him to the hospital. His right eye was slightly reddened, but he played without goggles and didn’t appear to experience any discomfort.
“I came into the game feeling regular, like it didn’t even happen,” Ray said.
Taking advantage of one of Villanova’s worst shooting efforts of the season, the Hawks trailed by only eight early in the second half after Marques Alston sank a 3-pointer.
They were able to keep it close because Villanova could never deliver an explosive, decisive blow.
For a team that’s delivered 20-point bursts in several minutes, Villanova was simply awful for most of the first half. The Wildcats missed 12 of 16 shots to start and the 3-point shooting that has carried them most of the season began only 1-for-7.
The good news for the Wildcats was Monmouth wasn’t any better. The Hawks missed their first 12 shots, in nearly every variety. There were airballs, in-and-outs, and plenty off the front of the rim.
Finally, Villanova mustered two 3-pointers from Ray and one from Foye to lead 27-16 at halftime.
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