Abrams knocks out Villanova
A.J. Abrams provided the basket that put away Villanova
Texas guards frustrated Villanova's backcourt all night
Villanova's Dante Cunningham showed a much-improved game
NEW YORK -- Out of the burnt-orange corner and weighing in at 161 pounds, A.J. Abrams stepped into the Madison Square Garden ring and waited patiently for his shot Tuesday night. Quiet in the opening minutes, he bided his time, running off screens and ducking Villanova defenders. Up to nine points by halftime, his knockout opportunity came with 5:26 left in the second half. Feet set and shoulders squared, he seized the moment, nailing a three-pointer from the right corner to extend the Longhorns' lead to 10 points.
Abrams, a 5-foot-11 Allen Iverson mimic from the right-arm shooting sleeve to the blow-absorbing fearlessness, watched his backcourt mates outclass Villanova's vaunted guards. Relentless in defending All-Big East selection Scottie Reynolds, Texas stopper Justin Mason irritated him into ill-advised passes and quickened the pace of his offensive pushes. When Mason stepped off, in came reserve guard Dogus Balbay, whose sole responsibility on the court was to further frustrate Reynolds. Nearing the end of the first half, Reynolds was whistled for two offensive fouls: one for hooking a Horns defender and the other for an aggressive elbow while trying to set a low-post screen.
"They got in our guards the way few teams ever do," said Villanova coach Jay Wright.
It wasn't just the waterbugs that got to the Wildcats. The Longhorns' attack came super-sized as well. Steering 6-foot-10 centers Dexter Pittman, Connor Atchley and Clint Chapman into the low post, Texas coach Rick Barnes pounded the ball early and got two powerful dunks from Pittman. The size advantage also frustrated Villanova's guards looking for passing lanes. Towering over Wildcat guard Reggie Redding on an inbounds pass, Pittman first forced him to call a timeout to avoid a five-second call, and then caused an actual turnover. On the next trip down the court, Reynolds had similar problems.
"We knew we could come in and cause problems for them underneath," Abrams said.
Out on the wing, Damion James, a 6-7, 222-pound junior who says Barnes mandates that he play as a "big guard," guarded the perimeter and found enough openings of his own on offense to score 16 points. "We feel we can stop a team at every position," James said.
The one force available to Nova underneath was senior Dante Cunningham. Typically nimble over his career, he was previously a little-things guy, but now has added finesse to his repertoire and a deadly mid-range, face-up shot. "He's made the biggest jump from one year to the next for us," Wright said.
Feeding off the fight-night buzz stirred by Stephen Curry's earlier undercard performance, Abrams proved his growing game could overshadow the similarly undersized Reynolds. On a night when Curry went for 27 points on 9 of 27 shots in a 68-65 win over West Virginia, Abrams was surprised to hear his fellow shooting star struggled with his shot.
"That's the thing about shooters, though," Abrams said. "We always find a way to score."