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Villanova opens season with wire-to-wire win over Mount St. Mary’s, 91-51

The Wildcats have now won 19 straight season openers.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Winthrop at Villanova Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Villanova had won 18-straight season openers entering Tuesday night.

The Wildcats were able to extend that streak to 19 with a 91-51 win over visiting Mount St. Mary’s, but after an unorthodox and challenging season impacted by COVID-19, this victory felt unique from the others and ideally the start of a more normal college basketball season.

“It was definitely exciting,” Villanova guard Justin Moore said. “We were excited to finally have the fans out there, but really excited to be back playing with my guys and my teammates out there, together. That’s the most exciting.”

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With plenty of returners back, although there are a few gaps to fill from offseason departures, the ‘Cats were able to hit the ground running. Villanova’s hard-nosed defense, solid passing and strong three-point shooting were on full display.

Villanova opened on a 10-0 run, prompting an early Mountaineer time out, but the Wildcats kept the pressure up on both ends of the floor and went on to win in wire-to-wire fashion.

“I thought we started well defensively and we want to do that every game,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We do, it just doesn’t work that way and sometimes the other team has a lot to do with that. Sometimes we don’t start as aggressively as we like defensively, but I thought we did a good job of that tonight.”

On the other end of the court, Jermaine Samuels and Justin Moore got ‘Nova off to a strong start offensively. Moore had 17 of his career-high and game-high 27 points, while Samuels had 13 of his total 17 points in the first half. They were an efficient tandem as well, with Moore finding his three-point stroke early and Samuels getting the job inside.

Moore finished 9-of-15 overall and 6-of-8 from deep, while Samuels was 7-for-8 on the floor.

“Me and my teammates were just trusting each other,” Moore said. “We weren’t looking for me specifically, we were just trying to come out and play together and set the tone defensively. That helped us get into our offense.”

Defensively, the Wildcats’ high-pressure approach suffocated the Mountaineers, and Mount St. Mary’s was unable to get into a groove. As a result, the ‘Cats were able to pull away and take a 45-21 lead at the half.

The Wildcats hit their stride once again after the break and continued to dominate on both ends of the court, riding the momentum to the final buzzer.

On Monday, Jay Wright shared that he aimed to incorporate a nine-man rotation against the Mountaineers, if possible. He ended up rolling 10 deep, with all 10 checking in at least once by the eight-minute mark in the first half.

“I thought the ability to use our depth kept us strong,” Wright said of using a 10-man rotation. “In the second half, I thought it kept up our defensive intensity. That was something that has affected us in the past, where we didn’t have the depth. We played hard, but we would lose our defensive intensity because of fatigue. We were able to keep fresh bodies out there defensively, and it really helped.”

Aside from Moore and Samuels, Collin Gillespie had 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting, with five assists and no turnovers in his first game back since going down with a season-ending knee injury last year. Brandon Slater had a career-high 17 points, with four rebounds, five assists and a steal. After missing his first two three-point shots of the game, Slater made the next five straight. Eric Dixon chipped in seven points and two rebounds.

As a team, the Wildcats shot 16-of-30 (53.3%) from beyond the arc. They turned the ball over only six times. Defensively, they forced 18 turnovers and converted those into 27 points.

They outrebounded the Mountaineers, 27-26.

“That’s gonna be a challenge for us this year,” Wright said of rebounding. “Mount St. Mary’s is a better team than that score. They’ve got really good size, they’re a really good rebounding team. They control the ball well, so I’m going to be concerned all year about rebounding, but just winning by one against them doesn’t overly concern me.”

For Mount St. Mary’s, Malik Jefferson led the way with 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting, with five rebounds. Nana Opoku had 11 points and five rebounds. Mezie Offurum had nine points, while Jalen Benjamin had seven points.

The 1-0 Wildcats will return to action on Friday night, with their first road game of the season, a marquee matchup against UCLA. Tip-off is scheduled for 11:30 p.m. ET.

“I think we’re ready to play a team like that,” Wright said of UCLA. “They’re a great team. Doesn’t mean you’re ready to beat them. I think it’s a good test for us, with this older group, after beating each other up in the offseason for a while. ... It’s nice when you get to play together, so that’s going to be a good test for us.”