Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
In the span of 11 days, Villanova went from having not played in a Big 5 game to being just one win away from capturing its first city title in three years.
Darrun Hilliard led the way with 21 points while a balanced scoring effort behind him powered Villanova to a 73-52 win over La Salle.
“Sometimes, our guys not being familiar with all this history is a good thing,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said about a still fairly young group of Wildcats that certainly hasn’t played that way thus far.
For the second game in a row, Villanova (10-0, 3-0 Big 5) found itself in a close game at halftime, leading La Salle by just four points thanks to a dominant opening 20 minutes by Explorer junior forward Jerrell Wright. And just like they did against Saint Joseph’s, the Wildcats came out of the locker rooms strong, opening up double-digit lead within the first four minutes that would never shrink below 10 the rest of the way.
“I thought starting the second half with good stops, playing bigger, created the separation and then once we had some pretty good separation I thought then our depth was the factor,” Wright said.
The Explorers (5-5, 0-1 Big 5) were hoping to show that they’re capable of playing with anybody after a somewhat rough start to the season, but instead it was the Wildcats who reminded everybody in the city just why they’re ranked No. 10 in the country.
And according to La Salle coach John Giannini, a lot of that had to do with what has happened since last season ended.
“They didn’t win this game today, or even this last week–we practiced very well this week. They won that game over the last eight months,” he said. “They did not get like this quickly, those guys put in the work.”
It was the third convincing Big 5 win a row for the Wildcats, who had dispatched Penn (77-54) and Saint Joseph’s (98-68) by a combined 54 points.
Unlike those prior two games, however, neither James Bell (39 points in previous two games) nor JayVaughn Pinkston (40) was needed to be a dominant offensive force. Bell was limited to just three points, while Pinkston had seven, but Villanova certainly didn’t need their offensive production in this one.
After Hilliard, freshman Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins each had 11 points, while Ryan Arcidiacono had nine. Dylan Ennis had five points but more importantly seven assists against zero turnovers off the bench.
“These guys–Josh, Kris Jenkins, Dylan–are really starting to give us good minutes,” Wright said. “If you do it one game or two it’s one thing, but when you do it consistently you really start to develop some depth and I think we’re most excited about that with this team.
“It’s productive depth, too,” he added a little later. “It’s really nice to have.”
Now, all that stands in the way of Villanova finishing undefeated in the Big 5 for the sixth time this century is a Feb. 1 matchup with Temple, who has already beaten both Temple and Saint Joseph’s.
“I think that it would be a great accomplishment for our team,” Hilliard said.
After that first half, Wright was held in check with just two points in the second, giving him 20 for the game to go along with seven rebounds. That followed up a 21-point outing in La Salle’s previous game, a win over Stony Brook; more importantly, Wright was once again able to avoid the foul trouble that has plagued him in his career.
However, his strong effort masked another disappointing outing by what was supposed to be La Salle’s strong unit–its guards. Starters Tyreek Duren, Tyrone Garland and Sam Mills combined to go 6-for-23 (26.1 percent) from the floor with a total of 15 points scored.
The team that went to the Sweet 16 last year has barely reared its head through the Explorers’ first ten games, and it comes from more than just the graduation of Ramon Galloway.
“We’ve regressed, but it hasn’t been in the last week,” Giannini said. “We actually got better this week, we had a great week of practice, but we’re not the same players [as last year] and there’s no one reason.”
Three-point shooting continues to be a concern for La Salle as well. The Explorers, who came into the game 299th in the country in 3-point shooting (29.5 percent), went just 1-of-13 (7.7 percent) from beyond the arc. Garland, Duren and Mills combined to go 0-for-9.
La Salle is back in action on Thursday, when they host Wagner at Tom Gola Arena at 7 PM. Villanova has a slightly longer layoff before hosting Rider at the Pavilion at 4 PM on Dec. 21.