For more than an hour Thursday night, the eyes of the sporting world were focused on KeyBank Center.
The upset everyone is waiting for was brewing. Defending national champion Villanova, the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, was having it taken to them by tiny Mount St. Mary’s, a 16th seed that had to win a First Four game just for the right to play the Wildcats.
“They were just great. They really outplayed us,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said of the Mountaineers.
Fans and media members alike were nudging the person next to them, whispering “could this really happen?”
In the end, the answer was an emphatic “no.”
Villanova’s Josh Hart made sure of that. The Big East Player of the Year sat out much of the first half with two fouls, but as soon as he came back on the floor, it’s like a calm came over his whole team. By the end, the only drama left was whether the Wildcats – aiming to be the first repeat champions since the Florida Gators of 2006-07, would cover the 25-point spread. They didn't quite get there, but still moved on with a 76-56 win.
After the Mount’s Mawdo Sallah opened the second half with a tough layup to give the Mountaineers a 31-30 lead, Hart calmly backed his defender down at the other end, making a turnaround jumper that put his team back up – this time for good.
It was Hart’s way of saying “I got this” without having to vocalize a thing. From that point, the Wildcats went on a 13-0 run, ending any hope for what would have been a monumental upset, and preserving millions of brackets in the process.
“It was a shaky decision,” Wright said of putting Hart back into the lineup at the end of the first half. “A smaller team like that, when a bigger body hits them, it can look like a charge.”
Hart got to the basket for a tough layup right before halftime, risking that third foul, but it went uncalled. It was after the break when he really looked like one of the best players in the country.
“We posted him up some,” Wright said. “He’s a huge part of what we do.”
The last points of that run came on a three-pointer from redshirt freshman Donte DiVincenzo, who had the game of his career with 21 points and 13 rebounds – his first career double-double.
DiVincenzo was the only Villanova player with a pulse in the early going. Mount St. Mary’s opened a 5-0 lead at the first media timeout, led by an inspired defensive effort that featured three blocked shots by the Mountaineers – two by junior forward Chris Wray and one by Sallah, redshirt sophomore forward.
That lead got to 7-0 when Miles Wilson hit a fadeaway jumper in the lane. Villanova’s first basket didn’t come until 13:53 remained in the first half – a jump hook in the lane by DiVincenzo.
“Donte came in off the bench and gave us a little bit of energy. It felt like he was getting every rebound,” Nova’s Jalen Brunson said.
Hart picked up his second foul with 11:23 left in the first half, sending him to the bench. Mount St. Mary’s held the lead most of the time he was out, but the advantage could have been even greater had the Mountaineers taken advantage of some cold shooting by the Wildcats. Villanova started 5 of 21 from the field.
“I wanted the 16th seed. My team will tell you that,” Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian said. “I was enthusiastic about it. … It’s going to happen. The distance between 1 and 16 is closing down.”
Kris Jenkins, the hero of Nova’s 2016 national championship, was fouled on a three-pointer and converted all three free throws to tie the game, 18-18, with 5:44 left in the first half.
“I didn’t think we were capable of that,” Wright said of his team’s poor start. “I’m in shock myself. I really don't have an answer for it.”
While it was far from their best, Villanova’s effort was good enough Thursday. Asked whether a similar performance Saturday in the round of 32 would lead to a similar result, he smiled and said simply, “no.”
A little bit of Hart – and a whole lot of DiVincenzo – proved to be enough Thursday, though.