BOSTON — It was physical. It was defensive. It was just the way they like it in the Big East.
With bodies clogging the lane and 3-pointers clanging off the rim, Scottie Reynolds made a half-court dash for a last-second basket to give Villanova 78-76 victory over Pittsburgh and send the Wildcats to their first Final Four since the 1985 team made its stunning run to the NCAA championship.
“That was kind of the greatest year in the Big East history, and we’ve had discussions whether that year was better than this year,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose third-seeded Wildcats are the lowest remaining seed — just like they were in ‘85. “It’s all kind of happening the same. … If history repeats itself, I’ll take it.”
Reynolds scored with 0.5 seconds left to help the Wildcats (30-7) beat one conference rival and join another on its way to Detroit. Connecticut advanced to the national semifinals earlier; Louisville could make it three from the Big East with a victory over Michigan State on Sunday.
The only other time a single league sent three teams to the Final Four: 1985, when Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown beat St. John’s in the semis before losing to Villanova in an epic championship game. Rollie Massimino’s Wildcats were a No. 8 seed — the lowest ever to win it all.
“I’m really happy — for Villanova, for the players. It’s just tremendous,” the old coach said after the new one, Jay Wright, came to his courtside seat for a congratulatory hug. “I told him I’m so proud of him. He’s be on another level for a long time. I knew him when he was a baby. Now he’s a superstar.”
Pittsburgh (31-5) is the first No. 1 seed to leave the brackets this year despite 28 points from Sam Young and 20 points and 10 rebounds from DeJuan Blair. The Panthers led 67-63 with 3:24 left, and 69-68 with just over 2 minutes to play, but Villanova responded to the physical play by sinking 22 of 23 free throws, including 5-of-6 in the last 46 seconds.
“A moment where it felt like we had it done,” Blair said. “And then it was anybody’s ball game.”
Dwayne Anderson had 17 points and four steals, and Reynolds had 15 to earn the East Regional’s Most Outstanding Player honors. Villanova will play the winner of the South Regional championship between North Carolina and Oklahoma.
The teams pushed and shoved their way through the first 35 minutes before they started making baskets and making plays. The lead changed 15 times — six of them in the last six minutes, before Pittsburgh’s Levance Fields hit a pair of free throws with 5.5 seconds left to make it 76-all.
Reggie Redding, who threw the ball away trying a full-court pass on the previous inbounds play, got it to Dante Cunningham this time, and he dished it to Reynolds. The Villanova guard worked his way into the lane for a falling-down floater in traffic.
“In that situation, you have four dribbles and a shot. That’s five seconds. All that goes in your head. That’s why we practice that every day in practice so we can make an instinct play. We did that,” Reynolds said. “It worked tonight. Only has to work once.”
The clock expired, and the Wildcats celebrated. But the officials immediately moved to put a half-second back on the clock.
Fields took the inbounds pass and launched a 65-footer that hit the backboard but then bounced harmlessly to the floor.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of our team, the way they played all year and how they played in the last 30 seconds,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of them. It’s just a game that could have gone either way.”
Villanova, which beat Pitt back in January, got there in a way that would make the big, bruising Big East proud.
Pittsburgh guard Jermaine Dixon left for most of the second half after landing awkwardly — in the splits — before Villanova’s Shane Clark landed on his left leg.
Blair played the second half blood stains from an unknown victim streaking his shorts. Two Pitt players came over the first-row press table during the game, sending monitors and telephones and a pair of New York sports writers a-skitter.
The Panthers played Steelers-style basketball, but every time they sent Villanova to the line the Wildcats calmly sank them — until Redding missed with a chance to make it a five-point game with 20 seconds left. Blair scored on a layup with 13 seconds to go, and then Redding tried a full-court inbounds pass that Dixon gathered in.
Fields sank two free throws to tie it — the 10th tie of the game.
Villanova held Pitt to one basket in the first 4:59 and opened a 10-3 lead, making it 22-12 midway through the first half before the Panthers scored eight straight. Fields got it started with a 3-pointer, and Blair cut it to two points on a three-point play with just under eight minutes remaining.
Pitt trailed by three with several chances to tie it before Fields stepped back and hit a 3-pointer — the mirror-image of his game-winning shot from the regional semifinal over Xavier — to make it 30-all with 1:50 left in the half. After trading free throws, Young hit a pair with 4 seconds left to give Pittsburgh a 34-32 halftime lead.
The Panthers are 27-3 when leading at the half; two of the losses were to Villanova, which won the regular-season meeting between the cross-state rivals 67-57.