That’s right. The Wildcats, fourth-place finishers in the Big East regular-season standings, defeated Duke 77-54 at TD Banknorth Garden. They dominated the Blue Devils in unimaginable ways, reducing Mike Krzyzewski’s players to desperate jump shooters and leaving them behind in a cloud of athletic dust.
When the main event was over, coach Jay Wright entered the Villanova locker room and told his guys they can continue to get better.
“That’s the beauty of this team,” guard Scottie Reynolds said. “We’re not at our peak.”
Villanova (29-7) outscored Duke 23-10 in the first eight minutes of the second half and totaled 51 points after halftime. The Blue Devils, who shot 28 percent in the first half, were even worse (25.7 percent) in the second. The Wildcats owned the paint (44-18), the boards (49-34), second-chance points (25-7) and bench scoring (21-11).
Duke rarely exits the tournament like this. And the Wildcats made quite an impression.
“I love Villanova’s team and what Jay has done with his team,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They’ve got a chance to do something special, because they can really handle the ball, they play very good defense and they’re tough. They’re a very, very good basketball team.”
Once upon a time, Boston was a stronghold of the Big East Conference. That all changed when Boston College, an original member of the Big East, rode off to join the Atlantic Coast Conference after national realignment in 2003.
But Villanova and Pittsburgh may have reclaimed the territory — at least temporarily — with victories here Thursday night. Pitt, the No. 1 seed in the East, opened things with a rough 60-55 victory over Xavier. The Panthers (31-4) went ahead 55-54 on a 3-pointer by point guard Levance Fields. And with 23.9 seconds left, Fields showed his tremendous defensive anticipation, taking a pass away from B.J. Raymond and streaking to the other end for a layup and a three-point lead.
As a result, the Big East is guaranteed at least one team in the Final Four, and this is the first all-Big East regional final since Providence defeated Georgetown in 1987. The conference advanced four teams — Connecticut and Louisville are also still playing — to the Elite Eight.
For Big East followers, the icing on the cake had to be Villanova’s total domination of the ACC tournament champions.
“I think everybody in the Big East likes this, us being in the East and having two Big East teams playing,” Wright said. “I know the Big East takes a lot of pride in the conference. We all do.
“And you know what? If we’re not going to win in the final eight, and not go to the Final Four, I’ll be glad it’s Pitt.”
“But I hope it’s us,” Wright added.
Wright likes his team a little more with each passing game. Even he had to admit he was surprised by the final margin of victory.
“Definitely,” Wright said. “Now that we’ve played it, I think kind everything kind of fell into place for us. When we got a lead to start the second half, they had to press and we made plays. Then they had to shoot threes. It’s easier to guard someone when you know they have to shoot threes.
“What makes Duke so difficult to play is when they mix in the threes and the drives. You don’t know what they’re going to do. But it played into our hand. Coach K plays to win, not to keep it close. And when you do, it can turn out this way.”
“We played them so long ago, I was so happy that we would not have to see them again,” Wright said. “I just watched them today some and seeing that beast (Blair) — I don’t want to think about it yet. I want to enjoy this one.”
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.
Wright’s team has been functioning better in the tournament than Pitt. But Fields always has had a reputation for hitting dramatic shots and the heroics have continued at Pitt. Thursday’s clutch performance stirred memories of earlier this season at UConn when Fields hit two big threes to beat the Huskies.
“I never get tired of watching Levance take big shots,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “He’s made them year after year. Our guys believe in him. I believe in him. And that’s all that matters.”
Fields has a unique way of doing everything, and so it was with 2.6 seconds left, Pitt leading by four and going to the foul line. As teammate Brad Wanamaker prepared to shoot his free throws, Fields jumped up and down and then sprinted to the Pitt bench. Instead of giving Dixon a big bear hug, Fields got his hands around Dixon’s head and playfully messed with the coach’s perfectly combed hair.
A tender moment, it wasn’t.
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