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Villanova Basketball defeats La Salle 89-79 in a Big 5 Brawl

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Now that’s what an old school Big 5 game is all about.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova vs La Salle Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Villanova Wildcats found themselves in a knock-down, Philly street fight Tuesday night as they escaped the Palestra and the La Salle Explorers 89-79. Nova pulled away in the second half, with as much as 13 point lead. But La Salle battled back to bring the game within 4 points in the final minute. The Cats were able to put this one away at the line, but the game was much closer than the final score would indicate.

Jalen Brunson had his best game of the season, scoring 26 points and adding 3 assists. “Our veterans here, and I count Jalen as one cause he’s an old soul, did a great job down the stretch.” said Jay Wright on his starting guards clutch performance. Brunson was especially effective driving into the paint and shaking his defender to come up with 5-8 foot jumpers.

Josh Hart added 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists while Mikal Bridges would add 16 on an efficient 6-8 shooting, 2-3 from behind the arc. Kris Jenkins would also finish in double digits, scoring 12 points with 4 rebounds.

“They have really good players.” said La Salle’s coach Dr. John Giannini. “They run really good offense and defense. But the reason for their excellence on the national level is their intangibles. It’s their relentlessness... they don’t let up. And I don’t care if they’re playing us, they’re playing Kentucky, they’re playing anybody, that is the same team every single second of every game they play.”

Villanova’s defense was well below par, allowing 38 points in the paint to a La Salle team that seemed to drive the lane with ease. “Offensively, they were really tough to guard,” Jay Wright said after the game. “I was disappointed in our defense, but I’ve got to give them credit... They have so many good three point shooters and they share the ball well, that we had to choose to try to guard them one on one. And, you know, it worked out, but it almost didn’t”

Coming into the season, Wright knew his team would have a target on their backs as the reigning national champions. But now that they’re also the #1 ranked team in the country, they’re going to have to take every team’s best shot. That was the case tonight in a true old-school Big 5 match-up in the arena that made the Big 5 so special. In fact, when La Salle made their first basket, the student section brought back a Big 5 tradition and showered the court with streamers.

The first half was a back and forth affair, with 6 lead changes and 8 ties. Jalen Brunson led the Cats in scoring with 12 points at the half, and Josh Hart added 10 points and 4 rebounds. Nova’s defense was particularly porous early on, letting up 22 points in the paint, although they did force 8 turnovers.

Phil Booth sat out his 6th consecutive game tonight after being listed as “Possible” earlier in the week by head coach Jay Wright. Booth continues to recover from an inflammation in his left knee over two weeks ago, and his status remains questionable for Saturday’s game against undefeated Notre Dame.

“He played injured last year, and he worked his butt off to come back” said Wright. “Then he started getting twinges in a different area, which wasn’t serious, but he was frustrated. So the conversations are ‘Just be patient. Let’s get it right. It’s not serious, let’s strengthen your leg, you know, let’s strengthen your leg, let’s make sure you’ve got no pain.” Mikal Bridges continued to fill his spot in the starting lineup tonight.

Villanova will travel to New Jersey to take on Notre Dame Saturday as part of Never Forget Tribute Classic.

Game Rundown

In a nod to the old days of the Big 5, Villanova and La Salle took their yearly Big 5 game to the Palestra. This was Villanova’s second game at the “Cathedral” of college basketball, having defeated Penn on their home court exactly one week ago. The arena wasn’t nearly as full as last Tuesday for Penn’s home opener, but there were still plenty of Nova fans that made the short trip into the city.

Villanova started Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Mikal Bridges, and Darryl Reynolds in it’s first game as the nation’s #1 ranked team this season. This was going to be a chippy one from the get-go, as a batted opening tip ended in a foul on Kris Jenkins who almost tackled a La Salle player in an effort to get the ball.

La Salle’s fans were determined to keep the “old school” Big 5 feel going when they threw streamers onto the court following the Explorer’s opening basket. This resulted in a foul, but it seemed to energize the team who kept pace with Nova, trading the lead back and forth early on. At the 16 minute mark, the score was tied up at 9.

The teams continued to trade baskets with both teams spreading the scoring around as eight different players in total scored in the first six minutes. Neither team was especially effective defensively, as both teams seemed to be able to find open shots on the perimeter and in the paint.

Jalen Brunson became the 9th player to score with a pull up jumper in the paint that tied the game at 13 with 13:24 left in the half. The Explorers continued to get second chances as the Cats couldn’t seem to corral several rebounds that were up for grabs. Brunson finally gave Nova the lead back at with a 3 from the top of the key before the media timeout at with 11:26 left to play.

Neither team seemed to be able to separate themselves, as they were tied in field goals, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, fouls, assists, and steals more than 8 minutes into the game. However, Villanova still lead by one point mid-way through the first half.

Josh Hart was finally able to give the Cats some breathing room with a little runner in the lane, but La Salle’s Pookie Powell hit a step back three to tie the game up at 18 again. Jalen Brunson answered right back with a three of his own, and Josh Hart was able to draw an offensive foul to keep the Explorers from answering. But after a turnover and a fast break dunk that Donte DiVincenzo made a trailing foul on, La Salle was able to tie the game back up from the foul line 21-21 with 7:08 left in the half.

Kris Jenkins was able to draw a foul on the next possession and make both free throws to give Nova the lead back, but the La Salle student section was keeping their team in this game. Jordan Price beat three Nova players as he spinned and weaved his way to the hoop to tie the game up again. Bridges put Nova back up with a nifty lay-up of his own, but La Salle came back with a clutch three to give them the lead with just over 5 minutes to play in the half.

Nova’s short rotation was beginning to show, as the Exploerers just seemed to have more energy than the reigning champs. That’s when Nova’s seniors put the team on their backs. Kris Jenkins hit a quick three to get the lead back, and Josh Hart got to the line and added a free throw to give Nova back a three point lead. Even when La Salle answered with a quick runner on the other end, Hart again drove the lane and scored.

But La Salle would not let Nova pull away, continuing time and time again to answer shot for shot. Jalen Brunson made a great play to tip in his own missed shot, but the Cats held just a three point lead with 2:53 left in the first half as the game went to a media time out.

Out of the timeout, Brunson found Hart for a wide open corner three to give Nova it’s biggest lead of the game at six, but La Salle was able to find open players in the paint the entire first half, and again cut into the Nova lead. Jalen Brunson was able to capitalize on a LaSalle turnover for a quick transition two, and Hart drew another offensive foul to get the Cats the ball back with a minute left in the half.

Bridges drove the lane for a pull up jumper, but La Salle was able to answer to keep Nova’s lead at 6 with just 13 seconds remaining in the half. Brunson let the ball roll up court and finally picked it up to find Jenkins in the paint. However, Kris took too many steps and turned it over with 6 seconds left. Nova’s defense let Pookie Powell roll the ball up to mid court where he took it and drove to the lane and made a contested layup to send the Explorers into halftime with the momentum, down just 4 points to the #1 Wildcats.

Villanova started the second half with the ball and quickly looked to attack the paint. La Salle held their own and denied a Bridges drive, but Brunson was able to make the most of a broken play and hit a contested jumper. Both teams would exchange a couple missed baskets, but La Salle continued to find ways into the paint for easy layups. With 17:40 left to play, Nova’s lead would remain at 4.

After another La Salle basket down low and two missed open shots for Josh Hart, Nova found them self 0-5 over a 3 minute span. Hart was finally able to break the streak on a drive to the hoop, although he missed the free throw on the foul. The lead was back to four, but the longer La Salle stayed close, the louder their home crowd got. Another score in the paint for the Explorers brought the lead down to just two as the Cats continued to struggle with their shot with just over 15 minutes left in the game.

After both teams missed shots, Mikal Bridges was final able to drive the base line for a layup, but the Cats lead was still just four points. La Salle kept pressing the paint, finding multiple second chances through offensive rebounds and unnecessary fouls by the Wildcats. Donte DiVincenzo got the Nova faithful back in the game after slamming home an alley-oop from Brunson and then grabbing the rebound on the other end of the court. He then found Eric Paschall for a quick mid range jumper, and Nova finally had their eight point lead back. with just under 13 minutes to play.

Nova continued to pull away from the Explorers as Paschall grabbed his own rebound and found Jenkins outside for an open three, but La Salle came right back with another two points in the paint to keep Nova’s lead in single digits. The Cats led 53-44 with 11:39 left in the game.

La Salle continued to drive on Nova, using the size of their guards to muscle their way into the middle. The teams would continue to trade buckets and fouls, but poor foul shooting by La Salle allowed the Cats to maintain their comfortable lead. Mikal Bridges continued a very efficient night as he continued to find a paths to the basket and finish at the rim through contact. Nova was able to get their lead back to double digits on a three by DiVincenzo with just over 9 minutes left to play.

The Explorers finally hit a pair of free throws to bring the lead back to nine, but the Cats defense was finally starting to step up as they forced a jump ball off a trap in the corner. Josh Hart hit an open three on the ensuing possesion, forcing a La Salle timeout and finally quieting the La Salle crowd. Nova now had it’s biggest lead of the game, up 62-50 with 8 minutes left in the game.

After another easy basket down low for La Salle, Josh Hart was able to save a broken play and find Mikal Bridges for an open three, his second of the game. But La Salle again answered with back to back threes to cut Nova’s lead to 7 and bring the crowd roaring back. Wright called a quick timeout, but the momentum had clearly swung to the home team.

Jalen Brunson, who had been especially effective in the paint all game, hit another 8 foot shot to end the La Salle run, but he then committed an offensive foul on the next play to give the ball back to the Explorers. Luckily, La Salle did the same and gave it right back. Brunson popped off another quick shot just inside the foul line to give him 20 points for the game. La Salle continued to cut into the lead with another three, but Kris Jenkins was able to drive the lane for a contested layup. Nova led 71-61 with 3:22 left in the game.

This one was going to be an old school Big 5 battle to the end. Every time Nova tried to pull away, La Salle would come back with an answer. Pookie Powell hit his third three of the night to bring the Explorers back within single digits with just over 2 minutes to play. La Salle would then start a full court press to try to force Villanova into mistakes, but Donte DiVincenzo was able to break the pressure and get to the line, making both foul shots.

La Salle came back and made two free throws of their own, and then drew an offensive foul on Josh Hart to get the ball back with just over two minutes to go, down eight. Mikal Bridges would miss a steal attempt, and La Salle would drive to the basket again, bringing the game within 5 and just 1:25 left to play.

Jalen Brunson continued his great night, driving to the lane for another stop and pop, but a La Salle three on the other end made it a four point game with little more than a minute to play. The Cats tried a familiar full court pass from Jenkins to Bridges, who was fouled before he could slam it home. Bridges made both shots, but as they had done all game, La Salle converted on the other end.

Another long inbound, this time to Hart at mid court, led to an easy layup. La Salle finally missed on the other end, and Brunson was sent to the line where he hit two more to push the lead to eight. La Salle wouldn’t be able to recover, and Villanova would go on to escape with an 89-79 victory.