TAMPA — The Villanova Wildcats had seen the lower-seeded team pull upset after upset after upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament here on Friday and must have figured, what the heck, let's play along.
So, after trailing by 18 points late in the first half, the No. 12-seeded Wildcats rallied to stun No. 5 seed Clemson 75-69 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
The Wildcats (21-12), one of the last teams to make the field, joins an improbable cast in Sunday's second round: Another No. 12 and two No. 13 seeds. They meet one of the 13s, Siena, for the chance to advance to the Midwest Region semifinals.
"We'd been in this position (down big) before," said Villanova sophomore guard Scottie Reynolds, who scored 14 of his game-high 21 in the second half. "We felt we did not want to let this time slip away."
Meanwhile, Clemson (24-10), back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade, can only wonder what the heck happened. It's not that the Tigers hadn't blown leads before this season. They had, including twice against North Carolina.
But Villanova, which had won seven of its previous 11, including against West Virginia and Connecticut, isn't UNC. And Clemson had been playing its best ball, beating Boston College and Duke in the ACC tournament.
"We play against teams that play hard in the Big East, but nobody plays harder than that team," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
The Tigers showed that, jumping to a 9-2 lead just 2:24 into the game.In the opening half, Clemson parlayed 10 turnovers into 16 points. The Wildcats averaged just 14 turnovers during the season.
Clemson led 36-18 when backup point guard Demontez Stitt hit a pullup 3-pointer with 5:04 left in the half, but Villanova cut it to 39-27 at the break.
Looking determined to prove they belonged in the NCAA, the Wildcats opened the half with a layin from freshman forward Antonio Pena and a 3-pointer from Reynolds that prompted coach Oliver Purnell to call a timeout at the 18:59 mark.
It didn't help.
The Wildcats inched closer and took their first lead, 50-49, when sophomore guard Scottie Reynolds swished a 3-pointer despite drawing a foul from senior guard Cliff Hammonds. Reynolds missed the free throw, but Villanova had everything else going.
Clemson, down seven in the waning moments, rallied thanks in part to a technical foul on Wright and tied it at 66 on two free throws by Stitt with 1:55 left. But the Wildcats scored seven straight, all from the free-throw line, to seal the improbable upset.
Improbable, except on this day, in this building.
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.