By Sam Bush
Villanova is taking its game to the March Madness level as it pursues the Big East title.
Kris Jenkins scored 21 points and Villanova smothered Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn on defense, advancing to the Big East conference final with a 76-68 victory last night.
Hobbled center Daniel Ochefu scored all eight of his points in the final 6:41, helping the top-seeded Wildcats (29-4) hold on down the stretch.
Ryan Arcidiacono (above) added 15 points and a headlong dive into the stands at Madison Square Garden as he chased a loose ball in vain.
The scrappy senior guard popped right back up, looked directly at his teammates and said “Let’s go,” as the initial gasps from the crowd morphed into a roar.
“If that was any other of my teammates they would do the same thing,” said Arcidiacono, who had seven rebounds and four assists.
But was he thinking about cracking his skull?
“No. I thank my parents; I have a hard head. I’ve done worse when I was younger,” he said. “I enjoy it. I like it and I embrace it. Anything I can do to affect the game on the defensive end and make the plays and get our team on top.”
Villanova will try to win its second consecutive Big East tournament title — and third overall — tonight against third-seeded Seton Hall, which beat fifth-ranked and second-seeded Xavier 87-83.
Established stars on both sides were shut down in a tightly called game that left both coaches seething at the officials.
Bentil, who scored 38 points Thursday in the quarterfinal win over Butler, was limited to a season-low three in 26 minutes and fouled out midway through the second half. He came in leading the Big East at 21.7 points per game.
“It was frustrating, but you can’t blame the refs. They made the calls and I respect that,” Bentil said in a very quiet locker room. “My teammates showed so much heart without me and that’s all they could do.”
Dunn, the back-to-back conference player of the year, had nine points on 1-of-8 shooting for the fourth-seeded Friars (23-10) in this matchup of the past two Big East champions.
“We never had one guy on either one of them. We just rotated bodies and tried to help,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “That was the best we’ve ever done defensively against two great players.”
With its dynamic duo completely off its game, Providence somehow managed to stay close despite trailing for all but a few early seconds. The supporting cast did what it could, but Villanova’s was better and the Friars got a bit exposed as a two-man team.
Rodney Bullock had 18 points and seven rebounds, and reserve guard Kyron Cartwright scored 14.
“Very emotional in our locker room right now. Guys are very disappointed,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “I think the difference between the two teams today was veteran composure, especially down the stretch. I thought we made a lot of critical mistakes that they capitalized on.”
Ochefu, slowed by a sprained right ankle, was a game-time decision. The 6-foot-11 senior went through warmups and checked in with 12:21 left in the first half but committed three fouls and played only five of his 15 minutes before the break.
He found his footing just in time for the Wildcats, converting a three-point play that extended the lead to 58-53 with 6:41 remaining after Providence had trailed by 14 with 12:01 to go. Jenkins added a three-point play of his own and then threw consecutive lob passes to Ochefu for easy layups as Villanova pushed its advantage to 65-56 with 3:25 left.
“His adrenaline got going there in the second half and I think the pain went away,” Wright said. “He was great. He was the difference down the stretch.”