SAN ANTONIO — On Saturday night during Villanova’s Final Four matchup with Kansas, Eric Paschall lit up the Jayhawk defense.
The 6-foot, 9-inch redshirt junior, a transfer from Fordham University, didn’t go off like a firecracker or a roman candle. More like the aerial repeaters which end each town’s fireworks show on the Fourth of July and light up the night sky in a spectacular fashion.
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Paschall finished the game with 24 points on 10-of-11 field goals, including 4-of-5 from behind the 3-point line. He joined a rare group of players who have shot 10-of-11 or better from the field in a Final Four game: Jerry Lucas of Ohio State in 1961, Bill Walton of UCLA in 1973, Billy Thompson of Louisville in 1986, and Sean May of North Carolina in 2005.
Paschall averaged 10.7 points – fifth-best among the Wildcats — and 5.2 rebounds in 29.9 minutes in his second season. After the semifinal victory over Kansas, Paschall did not agree with the premise of a question that suggested he could benefit from being considered a third or fourth option by Villanova’s opponents. “No, not really,” he said. “I mean, my teammates do a great job of finding me. We play together as a team. And that’s what we did tonight.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright said Paschall had the character to welcome an adjustment from being the featured scorer at Fordham to a contributor with the Wildcats. “He never said, ‘I want to be the leading scorer. I want to get a certain number of shots,’” Wright said. “The other thing that’s really amazing is he’s become our best defensive player and one of our best rebounders also, from being a scorer.
“And I know he didn’t agree with the question,” Wright went on, “but he is the third or fourth option sometimes. And it’s helping him in games like this.
“But he’s going to be really good when he’s the go-to guy, too. And there are times when we know people are taking away the other guys and he’s a go-to guy for us.”
Villanova freshman forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree knew to expect big things from his teammate on Saturday night. “He was excited to play, so I knew he was going to come out strong,” Cosby-Roundtree said. “I believed in him and I knew he was going to do something.”
The total of 24 points broke Paschall’s previous career high as a member of the Wildcats. It was his 23rd double-figure scoring game of the season, including four out of five NCAA Tournament games.
Paschall hit Villanova’s first 3-pointer of the game, one that would start a Final Four record-setting 18 for the Wildcats. Minutes later, the Wildcat big man threw down a thunderous put-back dunk that had the Villanova faithful in the Alamodome in a state of euphoria, putting the Wildcat lead at 16-4.
“He set the tone with that put-back dunk,” said redshirt junior guard Phil Booth. “He got it going early for us. He was just taking the right shots and playing unselfish.”
Paschall also scored seven straight points early in the second half to give the Wildcats a 59-36 lead, their largest lead of the game.
“He’s a great player, we were really motivated off of him,” says junior forward Mikal Bridges. “Him getting a couple steals got us going.”
Paschall’s breakout in the Final Four was an unlikely one. His career began in the relative obscurity of Fordham University, averaging 16.9 points per game during his freshman season for the Rams and coach Tom Pecora, who had been an assistant on Wright’s staff at Hofstra.
Wright remembered his friendship with Pecora contributing to what he called a weird situation. “We started recruiting Eric when he was in high school,” Wright said. “…We were kind of looking at him trying to evaluate him. And Tom got really in hard with him and got a commitment.”
But when Pecora was abruptly fired by Fordham in March 2015, Paschall decided to continue his career elsewhere. He asked Pecora to give Wright a call.
“I watched him play for Tom and I talked to Tom about him and he told me how great he was,” Wright remembered. “Then we got the release and we recruited him and he visited Florida and he visited us….He’s got a great mom and dad, sisters, they still have family Sunday dinner. He still goes back up there. So after the Florida visit he’s like I don’t want to be that far any way. So I want to come to Villanova and be part of a family.”
Paschall is finishing his third season at Villanova. He had to sit out the 2016 season, including the national championship game against North Carolina, during his redshirt year. He is looking forward to having a hand in capturing a second Villanova national title in three seasons.
Michigan head coach John Beilein had high praise for Paschall and teammate Omari Spellman leading up to their meeting in Monday night’s national championship game, “Anytime you have this – this Golden State Warriors here,” Beilein said. “This Draymond Green type of thing where your guys can shoot it, they can pass it, they can do everything.”
No matter what happens Monday night, Paschall just feels lucky to be a part of this team. “I would just say I’m blessed,” he said. “It’s just always good to be here. We have a great group of guys that want to play together, keep playing together. We know tomorrow is our last game, but we wish we could play more and get better. We’re a close-knit group.”