On a cold, snowy day in south Philadelphia, the La Salle Explorers breathed hot air down the back of the Villanova Wildcats’ necks. The third of the Big Five games this season, with both teams going in 2-0, the Explorers put their foot to the Wildcats’ throat forcing them to fight hard for 77-68 victory.
“We had to grind it out,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “It wasn’t a pretty sight.”
Regardless, Villanova now sits on top of 10-0, undefeated, leading Big 5 and Big East teams.
It a sluggish first half for Villanova as La Salle played a powerful perimeter-orientated game plan, forcing the Wildcats into one-on-one plays and unsettling Jay Wright’s strategies.
The Wildcats were restricted to shooting just 2-of-10 (20 percent) in the first half, and finished a subpar 6-of-20 (30 percent) for the game.
Another bump in the road for Wright’s plans was Collin Gillespie’s hand injury, which was acquired during practice before the game. Put in a splint, Wright expects him to be out for three to four weeks.
“We missed him today,” Wright said. “We really needed somebody else to shoot from the perimeter.”
Villanova led early in the game with Jalen Brunson scoring the first points of the game and establishing his place on the court early on, finishing with 17 points, two rebounds and seven assists, second only to Phil Booth and Donte DiVincenzo. Both players scored 18 points each, with DiVincenzo adding 10 rebounds for a double-double, while Booth had five. Dubbed “the Michael Jordan of Delaware” by many fans, DiVincenzo was critical to making today’s plays and grinding out the win.
“It was players like DiVincenzo, Booth and Brunson, who were key to making individual plays and grinding out the win in the end,” Wright said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Too close for comfort, La Salle led 38-37 at halftime, outshooting the ‘Cats with a 16-of-32 performance (50 percent) versus Villanova’s 11-of-26 first half shooting (42.3 percent). The Explorers’ early success from long range proved critical to La Salle’s threat and tipped the scales in their favor during the first half, knocking down 6-of-12 attempts in comparison with the cold-shooting ‘Cats.
“The stats show how tight the game was,” La Salle’s head coach John Giannini said. “We didn’t outplay them but it was pretty even. We played the next No. 1 team in the country and they didn’t beat us by nothing.”
Shaking off the slow first half-start, the Wildcats upped the aggression and intensity after the break, but the Explorers were hungry for revenge after last year’s close call and early scores from Powell and Johnson put them straight into the lead.
Sloppy turnovers and poor passing were a feature of the Cats’ game throughout the second-half with the Explorers interfering and making the most of the Villanova’s lack of rhythm.
“We couldn’t guard their guards,” Wright said. “We were outplayed because they had a good game plan.”
A foul by Powell on a three-point shot by Booth sent the veteran guard to the free throw line. From there, he would knock down three critical foul shots to give the Wildcats a 64-62 lead with 4:29 left in the game. Villanova would hold on from there and never relinquish the lead, but La Salle would not go away quietly.
Johnson’s game-high 21 points and a strong effort by Powell, who had 16 points, kept knocking on Villanova’s door, testing them.
However, with 14 fouls between Powell, Isiah Deas and Miles Brookins—with the first two fouling out—“It cost us in the end,” says Giannini.
“The Big Five know us and they’re out to win,” Wright said. “They take chances and play a risky game. It’s good for us and makes us learn, today was one of those days about learning from the risks.”
In the heart-clenching final minutes of the game, Villanova found its rhythm and confidence again, driving through La Salle’s defense. With Villanova’s foot back on the pedal, the Explorers were reminded who they were up against in the last minute. A couple of layups by Mikal Bridges and a series of free throws by DiVincenzo and Brunson, the ‘Cats put them away.
“Villanova don’t get knocked of the top,” Giannini said. “That’s why they’re there.”
Facing Temple University on Wednesday night, at 7 p.m., the Widlcats are hoping to learn from the hard lessons and close calls of today’s game and look to keep building on their current undefeated streak.