La Salle was sticking like glue to the Wildcats in the first half, but Villanova found the right solvent at half-time to pull away, scoring eight of the first nine points of the second half to start pulling away. The 'Cats would win the game 73 to 52, but the halftime score was much closer, with the 'Cats ahead by just four points, 38-34. It took a halftime change for the 'Cats offense to solve the Explorers' defensive puzzle, but once they did, things started to click.
La Salle's Jerrell Wright looked like a dominating force early on, getting into double-digits on the scoreboard early in the game, but his pace slowed in the second-half as Villanova adjusted on defense. By the under-16 timeout in the second half, Wright had scored 19 points, just one shy of his game-total of 20.
"Their guards really gave us trouble in the first half," Villanova's Jay Wright said, explaining that while the guards didn't score much, their quickness got the 'Cats caught in rotations and opened up Jerrell Wright. "I know Wright scored all the points, but it was because we were just getting beat off the dribble by their guards, and we knew that their guards are good. So, we couldn't press them."
The 'Cats not only locked in on defense, but their offensive flow improved as well, with turnovers turning into fast-breaks and improved passing leading to open shots.
"In the second half, we just had to back it off and kind of use our size. I thought starting the second half with good stops, playing bigger, you know, created the separation, and then once we had pretty good separation, then our depth was a factor."
They also adjusted to the La Salle guard play as well. While the Wildcats had a rare advantage in size against their Big 5 rivals, they were not evenly matched in quickness, causing mismatches that kept Jerrell Wright's scoring touch well-fed early.
"What happened in the first half was, we haven't been used to playing someone who is smaller and quicker than us, we were struggling with that," Wright explained. "
I thought in the second half, we kind of got used to -almost like going against a pitcher that's throwing 100-miles an hour, your second, third at-bat you kind of get used to it - I think that's what happened. The second half we kind of just got used to their speed and quickness."
Thirteen Wildcats checked into the game and eight of them scored — all more than once — with Darrun Hilliard going 6-11 from the field and 8-9 from the charity stripe, to log a team-leading 21 points.
"We know what James, JayVaughn, Darrun, Arch . . . we know what they can do. These guys, Josh, Jenkins, Dylan, are really starting to give us good minutes and if you do it one game or two, it's one thing, but if you do it consistently, you really start to develop some depth. I think we're most excited about that with this team."
Even with just four points, however, Daniel Ochefu seemed to have a tremendous game. Halfway through the second-half, the Villanova big man was actually leading the Wildcats in assists, finishing the game with four assists and one turnover. He also was credited with a team-high (and game-high) 7 rebounds, 2 blocked shots and 2 steals.
The starting center, who was celebrating his birthday today, also led a highlight-reel fast-break, ending with a crisp pass to JayVaughn Pinkston for a dunk.
Eventually, however, Ochefu lost the assists lead in the game to sophomore Dylan Ennis, who came off the bench to deliver 7 dimes. Ennis only scored five points, but also hustled to add 5 boards to the Cat's total.
For a while, however, it looked like freshman Josh Hart was having the best game, and the Sidley graduate contributed 13 points off the bench to go along with 5 rebounds, an assist and a block. Fellow DMV-area freshman Kris Jenkins added 11 points, connecting on 3-of-3 from beyond the arc.
"These three [freshmen] come in so mature, high basketball IQ," their coach glowed. "I think they have really allowed us to move quickly as a team in terms of everything they do, because they pick things up so quick.
"I think it speaks to the maturity of these guys. You have a guy like Tony Chennault who's a senior and plays 13 minutes and just a couple nights ago he started. They handle it great, it's maturity it's not easy to do man."
Building a mature team, however, is something that requires leadership, especially when young players are involved.
"It's not something that's really exciting to talk about, but when you have that maturity, then the freshmen come in and watch, ‘well, he's a senior, he's playing 13 minutes, busts his butt every day and he's ready to go every time coach asks him, I guess thats what we do here.' They don't know anything else. It's great for our coaching staff; our staff loves coaching these guys."
Highlighting the second-half effort, perhaps, was the work Villanova did on the glass after the break. La Salle was tied up with the 'Cats at halftime, with 18 boards each (4 offensive), but when the second-half started, the home team went to work to win every carrom — by the end of the game the rebounding margin was in Nova's favor, 35-29.
The 'Cats also started to heat up from deep, connecting on 37.5% after the break despite just 3-of-16 shooting in the early period. Arcidiacono did not shoot any from deep in the second half, while Jenkins connected on two to raise his total to a perfect 3-for-3 on the afternoon.
La Salle, meanwhile, went from 1-of-7 in the first half to 0-for-6 after the break as the Villanova defense stopped their attack.
Villanova moves to 10-0 with the win, four wins shy of their best start to a season ever (at 13-0). It is a surprising start for a team that was never expected to go undefeated this long.
"You don't expect this," Wright said. "Sometimes our guys not being familiar with all of this history is a good thing. Sometimes. Usually it bites us in the butt, but I just think our guys just look at La Salle as a team that went to the Sweet 16 last year and a real good team, and that's their next game. Thank God.
"You can start this way and if you don't keep getting better, you can slip; and when you slip, you can't necessarily get it back. And you can start this way, and keep getting better-and-better, and you can do some great things."
If there was any concern that the Wildcats would look past an opponent with all of the top-10 hype and excitement on campus, today's game calmed the coach's nerves.
"You definitely worry," Wright responded when asked how his team would handle the spotlight. "I was really concerned about this game, just because I thought La Salle's game against Stony Brook in the Garden, I thought they were really starting to get it. They're starting to come together. You could see it in the first half, and then we were all over, coming off of top-10, a week off, finals, all of this. So I was really concerned, but they just handled it. That's what I was really impressed about."
- Villanova vs. La Salle Recap: Villanova pulls away in the second half for big win over La Salle
- La Salle vs. Villanova: Preview, Game Time, TV Schedule, and more
- Malachi Richardson commits to Syracuse
- NCAA Men's Lacrosse Championship Returns to Philly for 2015-2016
- Catching Up with the 'Cats: Week 6