It was physical. It was defensive. It was just the way they like it in the Big East.
With bodies clogging the lane and 3-pointers clanging off the rim, Scottie Reynolds made a half-court dash for a last-second basket to give Villanova 78-76 victory over Pittsburgh and send the Wildcats to their first Final Four since the 1985 team made its stunning run to the NCAA championship.
"That was kind of the greatest year in the Big East history, and we've had discussions whether that year was better than this year," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose third-seeded Wildcats are the lowest remaining seed — just like they were in '85. "It's all kind of happening the same. ... If history repeats itself, I'll take it."
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Reynolds scored with 0.5 seconds left to help the Wildcats (30-7) beat one conference rival and join another on its way to Detroit. Connecticut advanced to the national semifinals earlier; Louisville could make it three from the Big East with a victory over Michigan State on Sunday.
The only other time a single league sent three teams to the Final Four: 1985, when Patrick Ewing's Georgetown beat St. John's in the semis before losing to Villanova in an epic championship game. Rollie Massimino's Wildcats were a No. 8 seed — the lowest ever to win it all.
"I'm really happy — for Villanova, for the players. It's just tremendous," the old coach said after the new one, Jay Wright, came to his courtside seat for a congratulatory hug. "I told him I'm so proud of him. He's be on another level for a long time. I knew him when he was a baby. Now he's a superstar."
Pittsburgh (31-5) is the first No. 1 seed to leave the brackets this year despite 28 points from Sam Young and 20 points and 10 rebounds from DeJuan Blair. The Panthers led 67-63 with 3:24 left, and 69-68 with just over 2 minutes to play, but Villanova responded to the physical play by sinking 22 of 23 free throws, including 5-of-6 in the last 46 seconds.
"A moment where it felt like we had it done," Blair said. "And then it was anybody's ball game."
Dwayne Anderson had 17 points and four steals, and Reynolds had 15 to earn the East Regional's Most Outstanding Player honors. Villanova will play the winner of the South Regional championship between North Carolina and Oklahoma.
The teams pushed and shoved their way through the first 35 minutes before they started making baskets and making plays. The lead changed 15 times — six of them in the last six minutes, before Pittsburgh's Levance Fields hit a pair of free throws with 5.5 seconds left to make it 76-all.
Reggie Redding, who threw the ball away trying a full-court pass on the previous inbounds play, got it to Dante Cunningham this time, and he dished it to Reynolds. The Villanova guard worked his way into the lane for a falling-down floater in traffic.
"In that situation, you have four dribbles and a shot. That's five seconds. All that goes in your head. That's why we practice that every day in practice so we can make an instinct play. We did that," Reynolds said. "It worked tonight. Only has to work once."
The clock expired, and the Wildcats celebrated. But the officials immediately moved to put a half-second back on the clock.
Fields took the inbounds pass and launched a 65-footer that hit the backboard but then bounced harmlessly to the floor.
"I can't tell you how proud I am of our team, the way they played all year and how they played in the last 30 seconds," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "I can't tell you how proud I am of them. It's just a game that could have gone either way."
Villanova, which beat Pitt back in January, got there in a way that would make the big, bruising Big East proud.
Pittsburgh guard Jermaine Dixon left for most of the second half after landing awkwardly — in the splits — before Villanova's Shane Clark landed on his left leg.
Blair played the second half blood stains from an unknown victim streaking his shorts. Two Pitt players came over the first-row press table during the game, sending monitors and telephones and a pair of New York sports writers a-skitter.
The Panthers played Steelers-style basketball, but every time they sent Villanova to the line the Wildcats calmly sank them — until Redding missed with a chance to make it a five-point game with 20 seconds left. Blair scored on a layup with 13 seconds to go, and then Redding tried a full-court inbounds pass that Dixon gathered in.
Fields sank two free throws to tie it — the 10th tie of the game.
Villanova held Pitt to one basket in the first 4:59 and opened a 10-3 lead, making it 22-12 midway through the first half before the Panthers scored eight straight. Fields got it started with a 3-pointer, and Blair cut it to two points on a three-point play with just under eight minutes remaining.
Pitt trailed by three with several chances to tie it before Fields stepped back and hit a 3-pointer — the mirror-image of his game-winning shot from the regional semifinal over Xavier — to make it 30-all with 1:50 left in the half. After trading free throws, Young hit a pair with 4 seconds left to give Pittsburgh a 34-32 halftime lead.
The Panthers are 27-3 when leading at the half; two of the losses were to Villanova, which won the regular-season meeting between the cross-state rivals 67-57.
Connecticut Tops Missouri
Connecticut is making another trip from the desert to the Final Four.
The wait goes on for Missouri.
Freshman Kemba Walker scored 23 points as the top-seeded Uconn Huskies held off the Missouri Tigers 82-75 today to earn a trip to Detroit and extend the Big East's dominance of the NCAA tournament.
The Huskies blew an early 11-point lead but survived against the frenetic third-seeded Tigers, who were denied their first Final Four berth.
UConn clinched the victory by going 10-for-10 from the line in the final 1:02. The Huskies are still in the hunt for their third national title — the first two went through regionals in Phoenix in 1999 and 2004.
When it ended, UConn coach Jim Calhoun made an exaggerated fist pump and the Huskies mobbed each other at center court.
"It's an amazing feeling," said A.J. Price, who added 18 points for the Huskies (31-4). "It was a total team effort."
Leo Lyons and Matt Lawrence each had 13 points for Missouri (31-7), which overcame an early 13-2 deficit but couldn't match the muscular Huskies on the boards. UConn outrebounded Mizzou 47-32.
Down 67-59 with 4:15 to play, the Tigers edged within 68-65 on Justin Stafford's tip-in with 2:42 to go.
Walker answered with an off-balance bank shot, and then Price hit a jumper from the lane to push the Huskies' lead to 72-67. The Tigers never recovered.
Dogged by reports alleging that they violated NCAA recruiting rules, the Huskies had vowed to keep their focus on the task of earning a trip to Detroit.
The first meeting between the schools featured a clash of styles. The Tigers, who had scored 102 points on Memphis on Thursday night, wanted to run. The Huskies tried to force a halfcourt game and take advantage of their superior size and strength.
Early on, it was all UConn. The Huskies easily broke Missouri's pressure defense and built a 13-2 lead before Mizzou coach Mike Anderson called timeout three minutes into the game.
The Tigers regrouped, and on the next possession they drew the first foul on 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet, who went to the bench. Thabeet returned six minutes later but soon returned to the bench with his second foul.
It was clear the Tigers weren't going to go away.
A bucket off a nifty spin move by Price at the buzzer gave UConn a 44-38 halftime lead.
But Missouri kept coming. Keith Ramsey's layup off a dish from J.T. Tiller gave Missouri its first lead, 50-49, with 13:30 to play. That capped a 9-0 Tigers run.
Sensing the upset, the University of Phoenix Stadium crowd of 18,886 began to roar.
But the Huskies, toughened by a winter in the rugged Big East, began to reassert themselves inside. They went on a 6-0 run to take a 67-59 lead with 4:15 to play and never trailed again.