No matter the rankings, no matter discrepancies in talent, no matter the time and place, a Philadelphia Big 5 game will always be a slugfest. That adage materialized once again as the Villanova Wildcats traveled downtown to take on the University of Pennsylvania Quakers. While it was antithesis of pretty basketball , Jay Wright and company were able to escape with a 62-47 victory.
Daniel Ochefu led the way with another monster performance for his team, posting a brilliant line of 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists. For the Quakers, freshman Antonio Woods came off the bench to provide a team high 18 points on an efficient 7-12 shooting
The story of the first half was one that Villanova fans have become too accustomed to the past games--missed free throws and an over-reliance on three point shooting. After an NBA range triple from Dylan Ennis and subsequent throw downs by Daniel Ochefu put the Wildcats ahead 7-2, the Penn Quakers metaphorically slapped the floor on defense. Over the last 17 minutes, Villanova would shoot only 25% (6-24) from the field.
And the shooting woes didn't just stop during live-ball. What appeared to be a one game hiccup against Seton Hall now feels more and more like a trend; Villanova has a free throw problem. In the first half, the Wildcats missed their first four attempts from the line with all coming on the front end of one-and-ones. At the sound of the halftime buzzer, the team in blue had only converted on one of six attempts.
For the Quakers, much of their offense is predicated around is getting lead guard Tony Hicks the ball. Creative weakside screens and backdoor cuts allowed Hicks and freshman forward Mike Auger to cash in on six points a piece around the rim. Penn shot 45% (9-20) at the half.
An Antonio Woods three pointer, one that tied the game at 19-19, brought the hometown crowd to their feet. For Villanova Coach Jay Wright, it's an experience he has become quite familiar with. "You could hear that roar when they tied it in the first half. It's a distinct noise. You don't want to hear that when you're a visitor."
Yet not all was bleak on the Philadelphia front. For when your team shot 30% from the floor, worse from behind the three point line, was out-rebounded 22 to 17 and still managed to squeak out a 23-21 lead, something must have gone right. For Villanova, it was their defense. Stifling on ball pressure and an active attentiveness to UPenn ball movement demonstrated why the Wildcats are rated as one of the top 20 defenses in the country. 'Nova forced 17 turnovers and limited the Quakers to only 11 free throw attempts for the game.
Villanova seemed to break the game open with 12 minutes remaining after a beautiful backdoor feed from Daniel Ochefu to Dylan Ennis. A 35 second defensive lock down on defense and subsequent Josh Hart three pointer seemed to be the boost the Wildcats needed to put their opponent away. But this Quaker team has a lot more fight than their now 4-9 record would suggest. A Mike Auger layup and Antonio Woods three pointer brought the game right back to a one point Villanova advantage, 38-37.
But the Wildcats, and more specifically Daniel Ochefu, would not be denied. For a program that has so often relied on elite guards to breakdown a defense and score a basket when the pressure is highest, it's certainly strange to see that role now occupied by a 6'11" behemoth. But Ochefu continues to grow into that role after each contest. During tonight's affair, there were a medley of moments where the junior left his mark: 21 points, 10 rebounds, clutch free throw shooting, and countless shot alterations. When the Wildcats couldn't buy a basket in the second half, Ochefu was called upon to man the high-post and calm the raucous Philadelphia crowd.
Ochefu credits his team's recent success from beyond the arc for his success down low. "We've been hitting shots the last couple of games. That really opens it up for me." Tonight's performance marks Daniel's fifth double-double of the season.
Eventually though, the shots began to fall for Villanova. UPenn coach Jerome Allen noted that "Villanova wanted to be themselves. It's difficult to maintain defensive intensity in this kind of environment for 40 minutes." Despite their best efforts, the Quakers were unable to contain 'Nova in the latter portion of the second half. Darrun Hilliard II and Daniel Ochefu combined for 14 consecutive points between the two of them to balloon the lead to 57-43.
Once again, the unselfishness of Villanova was on full display. The Wildcats converted a remarkable 20 assists into 23 made field goals. Ennis and Ochefu led the way with four dimes each.
The victory brings the Wildcats the Big 5 crown, and represents the second consecutive season it was done in an undefeated fashion. Despite their success, Coach Wright isn't ready to promote his team as the dominant force within Philadelphia. "We don't own the city." Well, with all due respect to Coach, that claim is getting harder and harder to defend.
Villanova will look to turn around quickly as they prepare for a road battle at the Georgetown Hoyas. The game will tip off at 9:00 ET.