The holiday spirits were high, as fans and students alike were dressed in their holiday garb and gathered around to watch Santa Claus help perform the national anthem in front of a jam-packed Finneran Pavilion for an old-school Big 5 battle between Villanova and Penn on Wednesday night.
“Nova Nation brought it tonight, I was excited,” said Cam Whitmore.
Although the crowd’s energy was high to begin the game, the Wildcats energy was certainly lacking behind to start — that was until the 15:42 mark of the first half, when Whitmore finally made his Finneran Pavilion debut.
“I’m still shocked he can go out there and play at this level,” Villanova coach Kyle Neptune said. “He legitimately practiced what, four or five times before the first game?”
He provided an immediate spark, helping the ‘Cats to a 70-59 win over the Quakers.
Although Neptune is adamant that there may still be some rust on this diamond in the rough, it surely did not look like it.
Whitmore checked in immediately following the media timeout and made his presence known right away. It took Whitmore less than three minutes of game time to notch his first steal, which led to a transition three from Caleb Daniels.
He paced the Wildcats in scoring with 21 points, but his defense is what Neptune was most impressed with.
“We are really not worried about him offensively, if he can continue to give us that effort defensively we will be in a good spot”. said Neptune.
Whitmore finished the night as a +14, which was good enough for second-best on the team for the evening. Penn head coach Steve Donahue said Whitmore’s game reminded him of some older Big 5 guys in Kenny Durrett and Howard Porter and had quite the one liner on his way out.
“He’s a big body, and the stroke is perfect,” Donahue said. “Then, if you close out on him, he has the skills of a 6-foot-2 guard. He’s not gonna be here very long guys.”
The Quakers, much like the rest of the teams Villanova has faced in the early-season slate, started off the game hot. A Max Martz dunk gave Penn a 16-11 lead with 10:34 to go, the Quakers’ largest lead of the game.
Just when Penn was starting to settle in in the first half and build on their five-point lead, Brendan Hausen checked into the game, and hit a rally stopping three after a Mark Armstrong block. Hausen would go on to nail another transition three in the first half, but like Whitmore, Neptune was more impressed with Hausen’s defense than offense.
“We all know the type of shooter he is, I’m actually impressed defensively, especially as a freshman, being out there and being able to hold his own,” said Neptune.
Hausen hit two threes in under a minute to cut the Penn lead to just one. Villanova would eventually tie the game with six minutes and change remaining before finishing the half on a 16-6 run to take a 36-26 halftime lead.
Towards the end of the first half, the threes were falling for the Wildcats as freely as they have been all year. Once the second half began, the defensive game plan for the Quakers switched.
“They kind of packed it in in the first half, and in the second half they kind of got out to our shooters and make it tough for us to get threes,” said Neptune.
Penn would threaten coming out of the break, cutting the deficit down to as low as six, before this thunderous Cam Whitmore dunk brought the house down.
Penn got close toward the end, as Jordan Dingle came through after a quiet first half, but the Quakers never really threatened Villanova’s lead and the Wildcats were able to come out victorious.
Four Wildcats finished in double figures. Whitmore paced the Wildcats with 21 points on 7-of-13 (53.8%) shooting, while also grabbing six rebounds and two assists. Eric Dixon chipped in 12 points in only 13 minutes due to foul trouble, while Caleb Daniels finished with 12 points and a team high plus-minus rating of +21. Brandon Slater also finished with 10 points.
For Penn, Jordan Dingle had 23 of 25 points in the second half alone. He also finished with nine rebounds. Martz added 15 points of his own on 7-of-11 (63.6%) shooting.
Villanova improves to 4-5 overall. The Wildcats will now prepare for their return to the Never Forget Tribute Classic at the Prudential Center in Newark. They’ll face Boston College, who is coming in with a three-game losing streak.
Tip-off is scheduled for Saturday, at 5 p.m. ET.