Jay Wright (above) and Villanova moved to 10-0 on Sunday, but La Salle didn't make it easy. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Through nine games, no team had played Villanova neck-and-neck for 40 minutes.
The Wildcats, one of eight undefeated teams in the nation, won their first nine games by an average of 23.8 points, and held a double-digit lead at some point in each of the nine.
St. Joe’s hung with them for almost a full half last Saturday night, but Villanova made 10 straight threes to take that one by 41 points. Coming into Sunday afternoon’s Big 5 battle with La Salle, the Wildcats had just manhandled No. 12 Gonzaga, 88-72.
There was no such breakaway from the Explorers at the Wells Fargo Center.
La Salle hung with Villanova for the entire game, even leading by a point with less than five minutes remaining. ‘Nova came away with a 77-68 victory in the end, but the deficit at the buzzer was the game’s largest lead, and perhaps not a fair assessment of how the game was played.
“The credit in this game goes to La Salle,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “Sometimes you just have to admit that somebody outplayed you, they out toughed you and then, we just had these guys make individual plays down the stretch to win the game for us.”
La Salle coach John Giannini echoed Wright’s claim after the game.
The Explorers shot better than Villanova (10-0, 3-0 Big 5) from the field and 3-point range, but couldn’t pull off the upset against the No. 4 team in the country due largely to a 35-5 advantage in free throws attempted.
“We played the next No. 1 team in the country, we played one of my best friends in coaching, but they didn’t beat us by nine,” Giannini said. “They didn’t beat us by nine. I don’t know how we lost by nine, because we outshot them from the field, we outshot them from three. They didn’t beat us by nine.”
La Salle (5-6, 2-1 Big 5) led 62-61 with 4:47 to play, thanks to a 9-1 burst sparked by B.J. Johnson and Pookie Powell. That advantage quickly flipped right back to Villanova, who put up six straight points with a trio of Phil Booth free throws followed by a Donte DiVincenzo 3-ball.
With the game at 69-64, Villanova needed their key players to step up and close out the game, and Booth, Mikal Bridges, and DiVincenzo were up to the task.
Bridges, who led the Wildcats in scoring coming in, had just six points entering the final four minutes, but Jalen Brunson found him streaking to the lane with 3:15 remaining to take a 69-64 lead.
On the other end, Booth pulled off a massive block on Powell and DiVincenzo took it away from Powell on the rebound, sending ‘Nova on the break. Booth misfired a 3-pointer from the corner, but Bridges grabbed the offensive rebound, then put back his own miss to send the lead to seven points.
“That’s what great players do,” Wright said. “He really struggled to shoot the ball tonight, but he did so many other things defensively, steals, rebounds…It’s an advantage for us if a bad night for him is 10 points, eight rebounds, two assists.”
La Salle got it back within four points, 72-68, with 1:02 left, but the Wildcats kept their composure and didn’t allow the Explorers to inch any closer, scoring the final five points of the contest from the foul line to close out a nine-point win.
On the game, Villanova shot 27-of-35 (77.1 percent) from the line, and Brunson, Booth, and DiVincenzo combined for 19 of the makes.
DiVincenzo finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Booth also scored 18. Brunson finished 17 points, seven assists, and just one turnover.
“We had to gut it out, we had to grind it out,” DiVincenzo said. “They took away what we were trying to do and made us play one-on-one, so we had to just grind it out at the end.”
For La Salle, Johnson had a game-high 21 points along with seven rebounds, while Amar Stukes had 16 points on 4-of-5 shooting from long range. Powell added 12 points but shot 5-of-16 from the field and 0-of-7 from 3.
After shooting 50 percent from the field in the first half, La Salle was a mere 37.5 percent in the second frame.
The Explorers made just one of their final nine field goal attempts and made two costly turnovers in the game’s final minutes.
“I think it was evenly played, but they definitely had guys make some big plays down the stretch, some big shots,” Giannini said. “We had some open looks, we had three wide open threes, I mean wide open, no one around us, that didn’t go in, and theirs went in. That was another way to look at the game.”
“You have to play almost perfectly to beat these guys,” he added. “They just aren’t going to get knocked off very easily. It’s going to take a lot to beat them. But again, you look at the stat sheet, and there’s a lot of ways we could have won this game.”
Sunday’s loss was La Salle’s first Big 5 loss of the season after wins over Penn and Temple in their first two matchups in the city’s round robin tournament.
After a 28-point win in their first Big 5 victory against Penn and last weekend’s 41-point win against St. Joe’s, Villanova was tested as it moved to 3-0 in Big 5 play.
“There’s nothing better than getting your butt kicked like that,” Wright said. “It was a great lesson for our guys. The score isn’t always what the game’s always about. The Big 5 teams play us to win. They come out with an aggressive style to win. They’re taking chances. If it doesn’t work than they can lose big, but they want to win.”
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