Despite thousands without power in the greater Philadelphia area, the show must always go on. Tonight, the Villanova WIldcats shook off some icicles early as they beat the Seton Hall Pirates to the tune of 70-53.
The Wildcats struggled out of the gate, indicative of the hectic schedule the stormy weather brought them this past week. After a nice backdoor feed from Ryan Arcidiacono to James Bell for an easy layup, turnovers and poor rotations led to a 7-2 deficit and an earful from Coach Wright during an early timeout; Josh Hart and Tony Chennalt subsequently came in to spark the team to life.
But Seton Hall wasn't throwing in the towel early. Back from an ankle injury that kept him out of the previous contest with the Wildcats, Fuquan Edwin brought the Pirates an early lead with two connections from distance. The star senior scored eight of his team's first 10 points.
After that, however, Edwin was held scoreless for the duration of the game. Coach Wright praised his team's tenacity in getting the rangy forward out of rhythm after his hot start, crediting "James Bell, Darrun Hilliard, and Dylan Ennis. We couldn't press as much because they were getting the ball in the open floor, so we pulled back. We tried to keep fresh bodies on him."
Gene Teague also chipped in early, showing soft hands and a nice touch around the basket. Teague is a classic back to the basket big man, one that normally gives Villanova's help defense fits. Tonight, however, the Wildcats did an excellent job of swarming the senior after he gathered the ball in the paint. Teague was held to a manageable 10 points and 6 rebounds.
The Wildcats struggled early to figure out the Seton Hall defense. James Bell finally broke the seal on the rim, making the team's first three pointer after the rest of his teammates had gone 0-7 to start the game. Coach Wright acknowledged that "Seton Hall is one of the best perimeter defensive teams in the league. I thought they did a good job taking away our threes. The only answer is if you have forwards that can make plays inside."
Well, tonight Villanova had that answer. Daniel Ochefu turned in one of the best performances of his young career in multiple facets of the game, finishing with a stellar 10 point, 10 rebound, 6 assist stat line. It marked his first double-double of the season. He opened up a 21-8 run for Villanova, starting at the 8 minute mark in the first half, with some monstrous throw downs. His second, a two handed rim rocker, helped the Pavillion shake off the last of its icicles as the capacity student section roared to life.
With eight minutes left in the half, Villanova had only recorded a singular assist. Then, something clicked. Ryan Arcidiacono set the tone in the latter portion of the first half, driving past his defender and dishing to the open post player on multiple occasions. He finished the game tied for a team high of six assists. Beautiful interior passing from Arch, Pinkston, and Ochefu in particular slowly dissected the Pirates defensive scheme. By the end of the half, Villanova held a 34-26 advantage.
Villanova came out of the locker room with the same energy they had finished the second half. The defensive intensity was on full display as quick rotations and active hands troubled the Pirates ball handlers the moment they crossed half court. Sophomore guard Sterling Gibbs did his best to keep Seton Hall in the contest. The transfer from Texas scored 13 of his total 14 points in the second half. For the most part, Villanova's guards did an excellent job keeping him out of the lane.
The two Big East foes exchanged punches for the opening ten minutes of the second half. Each time Villanova seemed ready to put the Pirates away, a timely three or defensive breakdown would keep Seton Hall within striking distance. But, with seven minutes left to play, James Bell leaned into a three pointer as the shot clock expired. Swish. Dagger. It marked the second shot clock beating three pointer in as many games for Bell. He finished the game with another excellent performance, pacing his team with 20 points on 4-7 shooting from deep. Tahj is now shooting a hair under 40% from distance on the season.
Once again, the Wildcats owned the second half. Coach Wright attributes the success to his depth. "I don't think our starters opened the game very well. Ennis and Chennault came in and brought us energy, and then the starters get fresh. It really works out great."
At the end of the game, Villanova had worked its lead to 70-53. Another complete performance for the surging Wildcats.
Jayvaughn Pinkston and Ochefu worked together beautifully during the stretches of the game they were in together. As Ochefu develops his balls skills, the two of them have become interchangeable when the two run high-low sets. Ochefu in particular has begun to demonstrate a great ability to step in to the paint from the post and find the right teammate for the open shot. Coach Wright marveled at his forward's distribution after the game. "I don't know if we've ever had interior passing like that. JVP and Ochefu can score, but they can really pass."
While the two are clearly deadly when they are on the floor together, Villanova's current roster construction limits the chances for them to work their magic together. Foul trouble and rest often inhibit the utilization of their high low game. If Darryl Reynolds can develop into a serviceable rotation player that can contribute 10-15 minutes a game next year, watch out.
The game marked Coach Wright's 400th win. "It's very humbling. I feel very fortunate to coach at Villanova. Whoever coaches at 'Nova is going to get a lot of wins." The landmark game clearly has had no effect on Wright's humility.
Looking forward, Villanova faces a tough three games on the road. Wright knows what that means in the Big East. "We'll be tested. We'll take it one game at a time. The only way you can approach that is get the first one."
Well, the way they're playing right now, I wouldn't be surprised if the Wildcats get the first one and more.