Philadelphia,Pa - The winngest senior class in Villanova history was about 10 minutes away from an early exit.
Then they started to play Villanova basketball. It's basic definition, attack the boards, drive to the basket, get to the foul line. With Dwayne Anderson and Dante Cunningham perfecting that strategy, American's upset threat was thwarted.
The seniors each scored 25 points, and Villanova rallied back from a 14-point hole to beat the Eagles 80-67 in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday night.
The third-seeded Wildcats (27-7), playing at one of their homes away from campus, needed a late 19-2 run in the East Regional to fend off the Patriot League champions.
``It wasn't that we took them lightly at all,'' Villanova coach Jay Wright said. ``We expected that. I think we just in the end had bigger, stronger, athletes. But they were probably better prepared and executed a little better.''
The 14th-seeded Eagles (24-8) sizzled from 3-point range early and pushed Villanova to the brink of a monumental upset. They just didn't have enough left in their tired legs down the stretch, something the Wildcats exploited in their game-changing spurt that brought the faithful fans alive.
The loss ended the Eagles' 13-game winning streak, the second-longest in the country.
``It's disappointing to lose a game in which our guys played so hard,'' coach Jeff Jones said. ``Villanova wore us down. We weren't able down the stretch to keep pace.''
Garrison Carr scored 22 points, Derrick Mercer had 17 and Brian Gilmore 16 for American, whose senior starters not only wanted to leave it all on the floor, they rarely left the floor. Mercer played 40 minutes and Carr (37) and Gilmore (36) were right behind.
The Wildcats will play the UCLA-Virginia Commonwealth winner on Saturday.
``On selection Sunday we said we were going take a road-attitude approach,'' Anderson said. ``Of course it's great to have your fans here cheering for you, but when you step on the floor, it's just us. We took pride in that.''
For 30 minutes, American was poised to escape with the win in only the program's second NCAA tournament game. But Anderson and Cunningham, part of a class that's won 99 games, refused to let that happen. The duo shot a combined 18-for-26 from the floor, and Anderson went 4-for-5 from 3-point range.
Anderson hit a 3-pointer for a 58-55 lead with 6:21 left that brought the Wildcats all the way back from their big deficit. Cunningham followed with a layup and Villanova was shifting into another gear while the Eagles were tiring.
American built its lead on 3-pointers, going 8-for-15 in the first half, before fizzling the rest of the way.
They only went to the free-throw line five times, while Villanova made 26 of 29 attempts and chipped into the lead. Corey Fisher made four during Villanova's big run to trim the gap to four, and Scottie Reynolds, a non-factor for most of the game, finally tied it for Villanova on a driving layup that made it 55-all.
``I don't think we took them lightly,'' Reynolds said. ``It was really just a matter of us playing better. Once we started playing better, we got it going in the second half.''
The 3-point shot can be the great equalizer in tournament play and American came prepared.
Carr nailed one in transition for a 24-22 lead and followed with another the next time down, the first of his four in the opening half.
Gilmore capped the half with a 3 from the top of the arc, sending American into the locker room with a 41-31 lead, with the sound of the school band's rendition of ``American Woman'' following them.
``That first half was amazing,'' Cunningham said. ``Every shot that went up was good.''
The scene had to look painfully familiar for Wright and the Wildcats.
They were a No. 1 seed and in a similar situation three years in their first round game against No. 16 Monmouth. Monmouth hung around all game and trailed by seven with 6:22 left before the Wildcats pulled away in a 13-point victory at the Wachovia Center.
They did the same thing again not even 20 miles away from the suburban campus.
American wasn't all about the long ball, though. Gilmore put it on the court for a driving layup and the first basket of the second half. Mercer - think of New York Knicks dynamo Nate Robinson - split defenders in the lane for a bucket and a 45-31 lead.
Carr struggled with his shot in the second half, and was only 2-for-7 on 3s.
``I was getting open shots in the flow of the game,'' he said. ``In the second half, they were making such a run, the opportunities were less.''
The neutral fans, especially the ones wearing UCLA blue, joined the American supporters and made it sound like the entire Wachovia Center was pulling for the 17-point underdog.
So much for Villanova's home-court advantage.
``It did turn for a little bit, but I don't think it's anything our players noticed,'' Cunningham said. ``We're out there scrapping and playing hard.''
Posted: 3/20/09 12:36AM ET