The fans of the Villanova Wildcats might have some shorter nails after the season opener. Despite a close game until midway through the second half, the ‘Cats were able to pull away and seal up the victory with a final score of 75-59 against the Lafayette Leapords.
Fans of the 'Nova Nation had reason to cheer at the onset, as James Bell hit his first two threes and scored the first thirteen points for the Wildcats. Despite this strong start, Villanova found itself in a battle with their foe from the Patriot League. The lead never grew to larger than 5 in the first half, as deadly shooting from deep and crisp ball movement proved Lafayette wasn't going to just roll over and let the 'Cats take an easy win.
Lafayette Coach Fran O'Hanlon noted that his defensive game plan was to "key in on Darrun Hilliard and Arch. Pinkston is a load down low so you've just got to pick one." Part of that strategy, it seemed, was to pack the paint and dare the Wildcats to beat them from deep. When the dust settled, Villanova shot a putrid 16.7% from distance, going 5 of 30.
The 'Cats held a 29-27 lead at halftime.
Ryan Arcidiacono was ice cold from the floor; he shot 1-7 from the field, including an 0-6 performance from downtown. Coach Wright made no excuses for his prized point guard.
"I don't think his ribs were the reason why he wasn't shooting well tonight. His shot just wasn't falling."
It's a night to forget for the young guard.
Lafayette led by as much as six points during the second half. Their performance was highlighted by 15 points from Seth Hinrichs and 13 points from guard Joey Ptasinski. Overall, the Leapords shot a solid 46% from distance, 11-24 for the game.
Lafayette was able to execute their offense against the, at times, flimsy 'Nova defense. Coach O'Hanlon accredited part of this success to his freshman point guard, Nick Lindner.
"I thought he played pretty well. He played with poise."
Lindner was able to drive past the larger Villanova defenders and find his open shooters. He finished with seven assists for the night.
Eventually, though, Villanova's size and athleticism proved too much for the reigning Patriot League champs. Said O'Hanlon, "I just thought we got worn down. They hurt us on the boards. We were in foul trouble early on and this prevented us from playing aggressive defense in the second half."
Jayvaughn Pinkston asserted himself in the second half. The junior forward emerged from the halftime locker room with a renewed sense of urgency and determination, manifesting itself in aggression down low and some key offensive rebounds. Villanova fans would love to see him receive more than ten shots for the game though, especially on a night like tonight when the three point shot just isn't falling. In the end, he finished with 22 points and 4 rebounds.
While James Bell led the way with 24 points, the MVP of the game might have been Darrun Hilliard. Coach Wright seemed to agree.
"Hilliard had one of the best floor games of his career. He had 3 steals and 7 assists, those were huge. I was really proud of him tonight."
When his shot wasn't falling in the second half, Hilliard took it upon himself to take the ball to the hoop. While not the best athlete on the floor, he demonstrates an innate ability to wiggle his way past defenders with crafty jump-steps. Expect more great games in the future.
Freshman Josh Hart provided a spark off the bench for the 'Cats. Utilizing his length and athleticism, he pestered opposing ball handlers and played the passing lanes very well. Coach Wright noted that "Hart was able to switch on screens," one of the benefits for being so versatile defensively. He also added a key three-point shot.
I think we're going to hear a lot of complaining tonight from the Villanova faithful; undoubtedly, there is a lot of merit to these criticisms. There is absolutely no excuse to see a team go 5-30 from distance when they hold such a visible advantage in both size and athleticism. Ochefu seemed complacent on offense, the offense as a whole was stagnant with little ball penetration, and once again we got burned by the three.
I look back at this game in a positive light, however. This was about as worst case of a scenario as we could have seen tonight. We saw some awful shooting by our guys coupled with ridiculous shot making from Lafayette. But, as the final buzzer sounded, I looked up at the scoreboard and saw a 16 point margin of victory over a team that should be in the hunt for a NCAA Tournament this year. While Wildcat teams past might have choked away the close game in the second half, we saw our guys go out, slap the floor on defense and take home the win for themselves.
James Bell painted the picture beautifully. "We know what to do. We're not always looking to Coach. We're going to play our hardest."
Ultimately, that should prove to be the biggest asset of this team. There will be games where we simply can't buy a bucket. But no matter what, the 'Cats are going to battle.
Coach Wright echoed the thoughts I had the whole game; this was a good game to start with. At the press conference he said, "After a game like that and it's over with and you win, it's a great way to start your season. You get tested."
The Villanova Wildcats, however ugly it might have been, passed their first test of the season. They wake up tomorrow 1-0.