Fifth-ranked Villanova walked into the locker room at halftime facing a double-digit deficit against Tennessee and several players battling foul trouble.
The way coach Jay Wright figured, there was at least one positive note: His Wildcats should be fresh and ready to roll out of the break.
Jalen Brunson scored 25 points to help Villanova rally from 15 down and beat Tennessee 85-76 on Thursday in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals.
The Wildcats (5-0) trailed 44-29 with 1:39 left before roaring out of the break with a dominating run. Villanova scored the first 11 points as part of that 23-2 burst, with the Wildcats playing far more aggressively and getting out in transition.
“I would love to tell you I came up with some great strategy,” Wright said. “It was just we made it through the first half with everybody in foul trouble. … We just said, ‘All right, we’ve got everybody back, let’s go play, let’s do what we were supposed to do.’”
Villanova shot 52 percent after halftime, fueled by Tennessee’s 12 second-half turnovers that helped the Wildcats get loose on the break. The Wildcats also had an aggressive edge that got them to the line 24 times after halftime.
“That’s how we should play, and throughout the whole game,” said Mikal Bridges, who had 21 points. “You just saw parts of that today, in the beginning of the first half and the beginning of the second half. We practice every day trying to play like that for 40 minutes.”
Villanova built a 15-point lead with 4:40 left before having to hold off a late rally by the Volunteers (3-1).
Grant Williams scored 20 points for Tennessee, which clawed to 79-76 on Admiral Schofield’s 3-pointer with 51.6 seconds left. But that was as close as the Volunteers got, with Villanova hitting four free throws and getting a breakaway dunk from Donte DiVincenzo with 13.2 seconds left.
“When they get points easily off turnovers, and out in transition, and also they get more possessions on offense, it’s hard when you don’t have those shot opportunities,” Williams said. “I think their pressure really took us out of our offense.
“In the first half we did a good job of getting to what we wanted. In the second half, they just ran us out of what we wanted.”
Tennessee: The Volunteers were coming off an overtime win against No. 18 Purdue in the first round and they were poised to add an even bigger upset. But that flat second-half start wiped out a strong half’s worth of work and squandered the momentum that came through their board work and converting turnovers.
“We went in and they were feeling pretty good obviously and they were saying all the right things,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “But we didn’t come out and do the right things.”
Villanova: That’s two straight days the Wildcats put together a second-half spurt to take control in the Bahamas. They did it in Round 1 against Western Kentucky to finally break the game open, but this one — full of active hands, deflected passes and guys diving on the floor — brought them back in a game that was once getting away from them.
Villanova had five players with at least two fouls by halftime, including starting forward Omari Spellman (three), Bridges (two) and Brunson (two). The game had a total of 52 fouls.
Brunson scored 18 of his 25 points after halftime, finishing the game 8 of 16 from the field and 9 for 9 from the line to go with six assists.
“(Teammates) give me confidence,” Brunson said. “Coach gives me confidence. I put the work in, I should have confidence in myself.”
Villanova scored 14 of its 21 points off turnovers and 10 of its 12 fast-break points after halftime. The Wildcats also made 20 of 24 free throws after halftime and 33 of 37 for the game.
Tennessee: The Volunteers will play North Carolina State on Friday in the third-place game.
Villanova: The Wildcats will play Northern Iowa on Friday in the championship game.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap
Source: Associated Press