The Villanova Wildcats may have brought 600 fans with them to the Bahamas, but early on it looked like they had left their shooting back on the main land. Nova rallied to come back and win their opening round match-up of the Battle for Atlantis, topping the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 66-58. Jalen Brunson led the team with 18 points, and seemed to be the only Wildcat who could score early on. Mikal Bridges didn’t stay silent long though, finishing with 17 points, 8 rebounds, 5 steals, 3 blocks, and 3 assists. Donte DiVincenzo also came on strong in the second half to finish with 14 points.
The Wildcats won this one with rebounding and defense. Nova dominated the glass to the tune of 12 offensive rebounds and a +8 on the boards. They also finished with 11 steals and 7 blocks as they simply shut down the Hilltoppers until they went on a quick flurry in the final 5 minutes.
Villanova struggled shooting early on in this one, and only led 27-24 at the half. The Cats shot just 33% in the first, including just 4-13 from deep. The refs noticeably were letting the teams play as attempted the only free throw of the half for either team. But despite the shots not falling, Villanova was still hustling in every aspect of the game. They had nine offensive rebounds, three blocks, forced 7 turnovers, and were +8 on the boards through the first half. In the second half, shots finally started to fall. Villanova finished the game shooting 62.5% from the floor in the second half, including 33% from deep.
The Wildcats move on to the semi-finals where they will face a Tennessee team who already has an upset of a ranked team under its belt. The Volunteers beat the 18th ranked Purdue Boilermakers in overtime 78-75. While Tennessee also struggled to shoot the ball, they out hustled and outplayed their opponents who may have been looking ahead to Villanova. The Wildcats need to be sure they’re not looking ahead to a possible matchup with #2 Arizona on Friday.
Some tight rims and poor shots kept Villanova quiet for the first few minutes of the game, but Jalen Brunson was finally able to give them a lead on and And-1 fade away jumper. But the lead didn’t last as Western Kentucky capitalized on Nova’s defensive miscues and poor shooting. Mid-way through the first half, Brunson was the only Wildcat finding success offensively going 3-4, while the rest of the team was 2-14.
Even when a Mikal Bridges three brought Villanova within one, the Hilltoppers came right back to extend their lead to six. Nova’s offense continued to sputter at the 7 minute mark, but they were still playing solid defense as they led in rebounds and steals, including six offense rebounds to zero for Western Kentucky.
Despite making a few shots here and there to keep the game from getting away from them, Nova couldn’t shake their cold shooting. Big men Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall were having particular trouble with Western Kentucky’s zone defense early on, combing to go 1-9 through the first 15 minutes. But Villanova’s defense is what kept them in this game in the first half. It seemed the more shots they missed, the more determined they became on defense, a staple of Villanova basketball.
With just under four minutes remaining, freshman Colin Gillespie hit a three to tie the game at 22-22. Then after two great defensive stops, Jalen Brunson hit his first three of the game to give Nova just its second lead of the game. This finally seemed to wake Villanova up a little bit on offense, but they still had just a three point lead as they headed into the half up 27-24.
As the second half started, the Cats remained solid on their interior defense, and even got a few transition buckets off defensive stops. But foul trouble started to become an issue as both Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall picked up their third fouls before the 17 minute mark. While some shots were starting to fall, Villanova still couldn’t seem to grow their lead to more than one or two scores.
But by the 15 minute mark, Villanova finally started to look like the #5 team in the country. Good interior passing and cuts through the lane led to two quick baskets, followed by a Jalen Brunson three. The Cats were now 6-8 to start the second half, including shooting 50% from three with 12 minutes left to play.
With just over ten minutes to play, Donte DiVincenzo hit a corner three to extend a 12-2 run and give the Wildcats their first double digit lead of the game. He followed that with an incredible juke move on a breakaway transition basket, and the Wildcats didn’t look back. Villanova kept throwing different defensive looks that led to multiple turnovers, and on offense they were finally heating up both inside and outside the arc. With 5:32 left in the game, Villanova was shooting 66% from the floor and 50% from deep in the second half.
The last five minutes looked a lot more like the team fans expected to see in this tournament. The defense was seemingly stealing the ball at will, and some impressive fast break passing showed that Villanova was simply playing at a different level than their opponent. Western Kentucky his some shots to cut into Nova’s lead down the stretch, but the game was never in question. The Wildcats closed out the game relatively easily, winning 66-58.