Since Villanova arrived in Brooklyn last week, the Wildcats have been shadowed by questions about their recent inability to advance past the round of 32 at the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament.
The albatross became tiresome. Over the past four days, players opened news media sessions attempting to give courteous answers, acknowledging their recent stumbles. But as the hours wore on and different variations of the same questions were repeated, their heads hung low, the smiles disappeared and they grumbled through replies on how they did not want to be defined as underachievers.
The second-seeded Wildcats’ most potent retort came Sunday afternoon with a dominating 87-68 win over seventh-seeded Iowa in a South Region game. Josh Hart led the way with a game-high 19 points.
“It’s definitely a sigh of relief,” the senior Ryan Arcidiacono said. “I just think the biggest thing is I’m honestly just done answering the questions about getting past the second weekend.”
Villanova was more aggressive from the start, diving for loose balls and clogging passing lanes, eventually holding a 12-0 advantage off turnovers in the first half. The Wildcats executed with so much aplomb, that after the game Villanova Coach Jay Wright apologized to his friend, Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery, who is a Philadelphia native.
“We’re thrilled that we came out and played a first half like that,” Wright said. “When I shook hands with Fran, I just said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry.’ We haven’t played a first half like that in a long time.”
After the teams tied, 13-13, the Wildcats outscored Iowa 41-16 before halftime for a 54-29 lead, which also set a Villanova program record for points in a half in an N.C.A.A. tournament game.
During the extended run, Villanova received contributions from almost every player on the floor. Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth hit multiple 3-pointers. On defense, Iowa stood motionless through numerous possessions, with players fumbling routine passes.
The 7-foot-1 center Adam Woodbury, who put back the winning shot in Iowa’s 72-70 overtime win over Temple in the first round on Friday, could not connect near the basket and was held scoreless.
The only flicker of energy emerged from Nicholas Baer, a redshirt freshman walk-on, who scored 8 points in the first half.
“They’re a tough group to close out to because they’ll rip a drive on you,” McCaffery said. “So we closed out a little bit short, and they were making threes. We had a couple uncharacteristic turnovers that led to easy transition layups, and that was a big part of it as well.”
During the first 20 minutes, Villanova shot 7 for 12 on 3-pointers and over 60 percent over all from the field. The Wildcats also remained disciplined on defense — they had six steals and Iowa did not make a first half free throw, with their only two attempts coming with 4.7 seconds left before the break.
Kris Jenkins led Villanova with 12 points by halftime. Hart and Brunson added 10 each.
“I think we didn’t come out with the intensity defensively that we needed against a team like that,” Iowa guard Mike Gesell said.
Villanova’s lead grew to 34 points early in the second half, when a layup by Hart gave the Wildcats a 65-31 lead. At that point, it became clear that the questions about another Villanova collapse would cease.
Jarrod Uthoff paced the Hawkeyes with 16 points, also making their first free throw with 8 minutes, 45 seconds remaining. Baer added 15 for Iowa.
Villanova will play No. 3-seeded Miami in the round of 16 Thursday in Louisville, Ky.
“We wanted it badly for this senior class,” Wright said. “I really didn’t want them to go down as the winningest class in Villanova history but they never got past the first weekend.”
Before Sunday’s win, the Wildcats had not advanced to the second week of the tournament in their last five appearances. On three of those occasions they were a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
As the East Region’s top seed last year, Villanova was stunned in their second game against No. 8-seeded North Carolina State, 71-68. That upset lingered throughout the summer for Wright and his team.
“It’s like if you have a cold and everybody keeps asking you, ‘How’s your cold? How’s your cold? How are you doing?’ ” Wright said. “After a while, you’re like, ‘I’m fine,’ you know. You know you’ve got to answer the question.”
Perhaps wanting to leave nothing to chance, Wright left in a majority of his starters late into the game. When Arcidiacono finally exited the court with under a minute to go, he hugged Wright tightly.
A few moments later, when the final buzzer sounded, the public address announcer congratulated Villanova on reaching the round of 16. Arcidiacono smiled, Villanova fans stood and players held their fists in the air, looking somewhat relieved that they had shook off an unwanted label, resoundingly.