After starting in every game leading up to Sunday night, Justin Moore was relegated to a bench role, as No. 22-ranked Villanova Wildcats prepared to take on the La Salle Explorers in their first Big 5 game of the year.
The reasoning wasn’t fully explained pre-game, with the move being based on wanting “more experience in the starting lineup.” Sophomore Cole Swider took Moore’s spot in the starting five.
The freshman guard got the message, proving to be a catalyst, as ‘Nova climbed out of an early deficit and held the lead for the remainder of the game. He finished with a game-high (and career-high) 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting, with five steals, as the Wildcats downed La Salle, 83-72.
”I thought Cole did a good job of getting us off to a good start,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “He knows, he’s dialed in to the scouting report, and he’s more experienced. Everything’s new to Justin--attention to detail--he’s learning. I thought we got off to a decent start, not great, but [Moore] really sparked us off the bench. Gave us great energy.”
The Wildcats struggled to get themselves going, as they fell behind early. Moore first entered the game and hit back-to-back baskets. His aggression kept ‘Nova in close range of the Explorers, as he was the only one able to find a groove to start.
La Salle held a four-point lead with 13:09 remaining in the first half, when the ‘Cats rattled off a 14-0 run to get in front. They outplayed the Explorers for the remainder of the half, taking a 48-28 lead at the break.
It appeared that it would be a rough return trip for Ashley Howard, who was back at Villanova for the first time since becoming the La Salle head coach. Despite the large deficit, the former Wildcat assistant got his team to rally and fight until the final buzzer, capitalizing on cold stretches by the ‘Cats throughout the second half.
”He’s a great guy; he’s a big part of our success,” Wright said of Howard. “He’s a great friend. Love him, hate playing against them, but I’m very proud of him. I loved how his team played 40 minutes, they played ‘til the last second. I was very impressed and that made an impression on us too. I’m proud of him, and we learned a lot from that.”
The Explorers forced 15 of Villanova’s 20 turnovers in the second half alone. Even with a few scoring droughts, the Wildcats managed to hold off the Explorers, who had a couple of runs but couldn’t trim the lead down to single digits until a Ayinde Hikim three-pointer in the closing seconds of the game.
While Moore fueled ‘Nova with a strong start, Saddiq Bey had a solid second half performance to close things out. He finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Collin Gillespie chipped in 14 points.
”You have to come in mentally and physically prepared to be in a battle for all these Big 5 games,” Gillespie said. “They’re tough, they’re physical. You have to play hard and compete on every possession. That’s something we have to learn how to do for all 40 minutes.”
For La Salle, Ed Croswell paced the Explorers with 14 points and 10 boards. David Beatty had 12 points on 4-of-14 shooting.
With the victory, the Wildcats improve to 5-2 overall. They’ll return to action on Wednesday night, when they play the defending Big 5 champion Penn Quakers. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. ET.
”I think we’re gradually getting better,” Wright said. “I’d like to speed it up, but we’re gradually getting better. There’s so many firsts for this group--first big 5 game, you have a 20 point lead at halftime, God knows what they were thinking. I don’t know, but you have to play every minute. You have to do that every game, but especially in a Big 5 game. They learned that. We learned a lot. We play a great Penn team on Wednesday night, and they’ll learn a lot from that. I guarantee it.”