Will Slover (@WillSlover31)
With just over seven minutes to play in the first half in Tuesday’s matchup at the Pavilion between No. 3 Villanova and No. 15 Xavier, it looked like the Wildcats might be on the verge of taking their second loss of the 2016-17 season.
Trailing by eight points and shooting just 5-of-17 (.294) from the field to that point, Villanova was in the process of turning in what could’ve been its worst overall performance of the season.
“We did not start the game with energy and they did,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “They're a tough team, they’ve won a lot of tough road games and they were ready and we were not.”
From that point on, things turned around completely for the Wildcats from that point on as a huge run to close out the first half would allow Villanova to take the lead and ultimately conquer the visiting Musketeers by a score of 79-54 in front of a sold out crowd.
After the Xavier (13-3, 3-1 Big East) lead reached its peak of eight points, Villanova began to piece everything together and ultimately ran Xavier out of the gym for the remaining 33 minutes of gameplay.
Back-to-back buckets from Kris Jenkins cut the Xavier lead to just one with 4:41 to go in the first half and just minutes later Villanova (15-1, 4-1 Big East) would take its first lead of the game, 26-24, on two Jalen Brunson free throws, and it was all Villanova from that point on.
“About halfway through the first half we got our defense together. I think Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall coming off the bench, defensively sparked us and that's what teams do,” Wright said. “One night, some of the guys are down and someone picks you up and I thought these two guys did a great job in the first half getting our defense going.”
DiVincenzo and Paschall, both redshirt sophomores, anchored a defensive stand for the Wildcats that allowed their squad to go on an 18-4 run to close out the first half and take the lead for good.
Bigger than their presence in Villanova’s game changing run, where both DiVincenzo and Paschall recorded steals, was their ability to continue causing havoc on the defensive end for the remainder of the game as the two played a key effort in holding Xavier to just 1-of-22 (.045) shooting from beyond the arc over the closing 29 minutes after going 5-for-10 (.500) in the early going.
Taking a 34-28 lead into halftime, Villanova’s offense joined soundly with the defense out of the intermission, as the Wildcats shot 17-of-25 (.680) from the field in the second half, and that spelled the end for Xavier.
Just as the second half started, Jenkins drilled a three-pointer and connected on two free-throws just minutes later to give Villanova its first double-digit lead, 49-38, with 16:09 to go and it would only grow from there.
“We made shots in the second half,” Wright said. “Kris just hit some big shots early in the second half and that just loosened it up.”
Just as his timely baskets did for his Wildcats in the win over Xavier, Jenkins has been providing an extra spark for Villanova since the beginning of Big East play as the senior forward has scored 20 or more points in three of Villanova’s five conference contests after hitting that threshold just twice in the twelve games prior.
“I just have to give the credit to my teammates,” Jenkins said. “They do a great job of finding me in the right spots. Most of my shots come from them, I thank them all the time.”
Jenkins finished Tuesday’s game with 20 points on 5-of-10 shooting, including going 4-of-8 from beyond the arc, and he was also a perfect 6-of-6 from the free throw line. More notable than his scoring though, was his ability to contribute in other ways as the senior forward also grabbed six rebounds in the win.
“He’s doing a lot more things than just scoring. We've all seen him make shots,” Wright said. “He's rebounding, he's passing the ball well. We needed him to be a better Kris Jenkins than he’s been in the past and he’s doing it.”
Also coming up big for Villanova was senior guard Josh Hart.
Hart, who is one of the top candidates for National Player of the Year, finished with 20 points, six rebounds, and five assists.
For Xavier, its two-headed guard monster of Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner was held in check for the majority of the due to Villanova’s swarming defense.
Bluiett and Sumner, who combine to average over 32 points per contest for the Musketeers, were held to just 11 and 10, respectively, by the Wildcats and combined to shoot just 5-of-25 from the field.
Although a blowout win over a ranked opponent would usually call for a feeling of relaxation following the game, Villanova knows that the Big East is a battle day-in and day-out so they will not be taking anything lightly as they prepare to head to New York and take on St. John’s on Saturday.
“Anybody in this league can beat us. I do know that,” Wright said. “Our guys know that anybody in this league can beat us and we know we’ve got a tough battle every night.”