Highlanders' brave heart isn't enough to beat Wildcats

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Villanova never led by more than 10 points in the game as the NJIT Highlanders continually threatened, but the Wildcats kept their composure to claw out a win.

With 25.5 seconds on the clock, Villanova guard Tony Chennault dove to the floor to grab a loose ball and seal his team's victory. The Wildcats lead by 7 points, and after the timeout he called to maintain possession, the NJIT Highlanders were forced to foul and stop the clock. They grabbed Daniel Ochefu twice before time ran out and after making 3-of-4 free-throws, the Wildcats found themselves 70-60 victors over at the buzzer.

"We did enough to win, I actually was a little disappointed in our defense," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said after the game.

NJIT, even at 6-6, is hardly a doormat this season. They had a 12 point lead at one point at St. John's, earlier this month, before falling to the Red Storm by eight. They also played within one point of Providence at the start of the season and were involved in another close game against Seton Hall. The Highlanders have hung around with the Catholic 7 early this season and it showed again tonight.

Villanova never lead by more than 10, a mark they didn't hit until there was 16:07 left in the second half. NJIT tied the score eight times in the contest, but only lead briefly, 10-9, with 13:38 to go in the first half.

"Our defense was okay. It's got to get a lot better. Every time we got it to eight [points] we relaxed defensively, a stupid foul, get beat on a backdoor cut, and our consistency is not where I'd like it to be, but you move on. You learn from it and you move on."

The Wildcats struggled to make shots, finishing just 30.8% from the field in the game, and that was helped by a 37.8% performance in the second-half. From outside, the 'Cats were a terrible 18.5%, with Ryan Arcidiacono hitting 4-of-11 and Ash Yacoubou hitting 1-of-4 from beyond the arc to be the only Wildcats to connect on a triple.

"I thought we played outstanding offense in the first half," Wright offered. "We only had three turnovers, we had wide-open shots, and we just didn't hit them, and good teams still find a way to win. We were still up five, if we had hit a few shots, we might have been up 12 or 15 [at the half]. We're trying to get our guys to learn that when we're not making shots, it can't affect us defensively. I thought we lost a little bit of our aggressiveness defensively because we weren't making shots — they got frustrated."

The offense had just 3 turnovers in the first half, but added 5 more in the second half. Overall, however, Wright was pleased with that his team — which has averaged 16 turnovers per game — had only 8 in the contest. They had 19 in their prior game at Monmouth, and coughed it up 15 times against Columbia.

"This was very similar to the Columbia game, except for the fact we didn't turn the ball over," Wright explained.

"I thought, for us, early in the season for us, we would've turned the ball over more and that would have cost us the game. I thought we took care of the ball real well. They were changing defenses, they played some zone, they played a little match-up, a little man-to-man, and I thought we handled that pretty well."

When the game was tied at 51 points, with just-under eight minutes left in the game, JayVaughn Pinkston had just four points and no assists. Over a three minute stretch following that point, he added six more points and an assist to help the Wildcats fight for a lead down the stretch. He finished with 10 points and 6 rebounds.

"I think we learned that we can come into a game and not make shots and find a way to win and find a way to grind it out," Wright said. "I thought we did a good job of that, especially down the stretch, we had some good defensive possessions and actually got some stops that got us some transition-baskets."

Arcidiacono led the Wildcats with 17 points and 3 assists and didn't turn the ball over. Darrun Hilliard added 12 more points, despite going 0-6 from deep, and contributed big on defense, adding two of the team's 10 steals (NJIT turned the ball over 19 times). Maurice Sutton added 10 points as well, along with 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 steals and and assist.

Daniel Ochefu scored only 5 points, going 1-of-5 from the field, but added 11 rebounds (7 offensive) to lead the Wildcats' efforts on the boards.

This was the last non-conference game for Villanova, who will next face a Big East foe in St. John's on January 2nd.

"I think we're ready for the Big East, I do," Wright said.

"I think the Big East is going to be the same way for us in terms of, we're going to have to keep getting better every game," he claimed. "I do think we've gotten a lot better offensively in terms of taking care of the basketball. Even though we had 19 turnovers against Monmouth, that was a high-volume game, a lot of possessions — we had 17 assists in that game.

"So I'm feeling better about that, and one of the things, as a coach, I always feel better about Big East games because I know you don't have to convince these guys to be ready to play. When you have an older team, you don't have to worry about that, but when you have a younger team they don't always understand how important every game is — I think our Columbia game we learned that."

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