By Finn Courtney (@finncourtney_)
It’s been a rough few weeks for the Villanova Wildcats - five straight losses and fans rabid as ever towards head coach Kyle Neptune, openly booing him in the team’s past two game intros. In a game Neptune himself called Villanova’s ‘Super Bowl’, the Wildcats put the boobirds and bad performances behind them in a dominant win over the Providence Friars.
In a good day on both ends, Villanova (12-10, 5-6) put the squeeze on Providence (14-8, 5-6) on the defensive end, holding them to just 29.4% from the floor (15-51), including a dismal 17% in the first half and were buoyed by above-average three-point shooting (10-28, 35.7%) to seal a 67-50 win. It’s their first victory since the first week of the new year.
“I was really proud of the way our guys came out defensively, just in terms of our effort as well, I thought we played really hard, we were really locked in, I thought it was a great defensive effort,” Neptune said. “That’s what we talk about every day, talk about going out and just putting it all in on the defensive end. I thought we were extremely locked into the scouting report, I thought they did an unbelievable job, I was really proud of them.”
While the first half was a defensive masterclass, the second half opened on an offensive outburst. Villanova went on a 13-0 run within the first five minutes, carrying the Wildcats to their 12th win of the season — a huge one if any hope is to remain on an NCAA Tournament run.
“We want to put together a full 40 minutes, so we did come out in the first half and try to execute what we were looking to do and did a pretty good job of it,” Neptune said. “But that’s only a half, so I was really proud of the way our guys came out in the second half and matched the energy we had in the first half and took it to a different level.”
T.J. Bamba and Villanova broke a five-game losing streak with a win over Providence on Sunday. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL File)
The 50 points allowed were the second-fewest given up by the Wildcats this season, a testament to a game Villanova who set the tone and controlled pace from end to end. For senior guard TJ Bamba, in what’s been a season with mixed results for the Washington State transfer, Sunday marked a dedication to defense both from him and his teammates.
“You come in, you just wanna make a difference in the game and the easiest way to do that is by controlling the controllables, and that’s your effort, making big-time plays on the defensive end, [getting] a rebound,” Bamba said,everybody’s bought into that because we understand that’s what sets the tone, that’s what’s gonna carry us [further] as a team and allow us to keep going, so the [more] we lock in there, the [more] we grow there, you’ll start seeing performances like this.”
It wasn’t pretty early for either side offensively earlier, as both teams were a combined 0-for-12 from beyond the arc before Bamba nailed one from deep for the Wildcats, followed by Maryland transfer Hakim Hart on the next possession.
Both enjoyed good performances, with Bamba leading the ship in the first half with nine points before seeing less-than-stellar results due to foul trouble after half, still finishing with four rebounds and three assists. Post-game, despite much being made about this game being a do or die game for Villanova, Bamba discussed an unchanging mentality coming into each outing.
“Every single game is the biggest game of our lives,” Bamba said. “That’s what we preach here, that’s what we preach in the locker room, so our approach today would have been the approach for the next game, [so] every single day, we go with one goal in mind, that’s to play as hard as we can and treat that game like it was the last.”
Hart meanwhile, back to a sixth man role with sophomore guard Mark Armstrong in the starting lineup, performed admirably off the bench finishing with nine points (4-7, 1-3 3PA), five assists and four rebounds. In an up-and-down year for the senior, he’s been at his best off the bench, with his two-game stint in the starting lineup resulting in two losses and below-average play.
In a day with many positives for Villanova, their three-point improvement may be the one shining brightest but another big takeaway was their fluidity and poise on the offensive end, ending up with 17 assists and just 5 turnovers, the second fewest given up on the campaign.
“Our guys really shared the ball,” Neptune said. “They blitzed us in the post [and] really tried to take away Eric Dixon. To his credit, I thought he just got rid of it [and] a lot of our baskets started with him getting rid of the ball and then when you get stops, you get out in transition as well, I thought we got some easy baskets. They’re a tough team to score on, but we were physical, driving the ball and just shared it when they went inside and out.”
It also was a welcome day for Kentucky transfer Lance Ware who’s been a frequent target of criticism from the Villanova faithful. In 15 minutes of action against Providence, the 6-foot-9 forward did his job and then some, with two points off a rousing dunk early in the second half, along with six rebounds, two assists and three blocks, including one that began a terrific finish to the first half.
“That was an exciting play in a crucial moment,” Bamba said of his teammate. “We feed off that in the huddle, after a big play, we clap for each other and we just preach, keep making plays, keep making plays so he inspired us to keep making plays.”
With the loss of junior forward Nnanna Njoku, the regular backup to Dixon after his stellar defensive work usurped the position from Ware, Ware’s play taking a step up down the stretch and building from this performance is paramount if the Wildcats are to have success come Big East and potentially NCAA tournament time.
“Eric Dixon, he does so many things for us and then when Lance comes in, they really complement each other really well,” Neptune said. “Just the way Lance can guard multiple positions, rebound the ball and then really get the ball moving offensively. He’s a great finisher at the rim as well, so it gives us a great change of pace.
Despite a Providence surge for a comeback with a 10-2 run, it was not enough to overcome a start-to-finish stout Villanova defense. Post-game, Neptune focused on the richness, the toughness of competition in the Big East, where Villanova holds a 5-6 record - tied for fifth place in the standings - and where the road gets no easier for them, facing Xavier (12-10, 6-5) away and then Seton Hall (14-8, 7-4) at Wells Fargo a week from Sunday.
“We have great guys, we have unbelievable guys in this program who are really committed and you go to games in the Big East, [I] think it’s the best league in the country top-to-bottom, so the margin for error is not that great,” Neptune said. “You can go out and play pretty good basketball and the other team can come out with the result they want, and for us, we keep talking about going back and getting better and to our guys’ credit, I thought our focus in practice, it’s been great this season and our guys have focused on just ‘keep getting better’, no matter what the results are in the game, we just try come back and try to get better for the next game.”