Kern: 'Nova stars Hart, Jenkins save best work for crunch time

Virginia Villanova Basketball
Villanova's Kris Jenkins takes aim in first half against Virginia on Sunday.

THERE WAS a point Sunday afternoon when Villanova's Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins were shooting a combined 0-for-14. And hardly coincidentally, the soon-to-be-not-top-ranked-anymore Wildcats were losing by double digits in the second half to No. 12 Virginia in South Philly, in a matchup that sure felt like it was the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight come early.

This was the same Jenkins who had gone 0-for-7 in Tuesday's two-point loss at Marquette, when the Wildcats were outscored by 19-4 at the end. And the same Jenkins who had won the national-title game nearly 10 months ago with a buzzer-beating three-pointer for the ages.

Shooters launch. It's in their genes. But there was Jenkins, passing up a relatively decent look from the right wing with his guys down 10 and 81/2 minutes to go, only to get called for walking when he instead drove into the lane and encountered heavy traffic. It seemed out of character.

"He's earned the right to shoot," said Hart, a fellow senior whose relationship with Jenkins goes back to their high-school days in suburban Washington, following what turned into a rousing, 61-59 victory. "I knew he was a little frustrated from the Marquette game. But he does so many (other) things. I tell him all the time, 'Let it slide. If you're open, you'd better not shot fake.' He cares about everyone else's success, more than (his own).

"I don't think he lost his confidence. He's smart. He felt like, 'OK, I don't have it today, let me try to get these guys going.' And he made a couple of great defensive plays, which translated into offense. Then . . . "

BOOM!

First, Hart hit a trey from the left wing off a feed from Jalen Brunson at 7:54 to get Villanova within seven. A steal by eventual hero Donte DiVincenzo led to a triple by Jenkins from the same spot 31 seconds later that made it a four-point game. Finally, following a block by Mikal Bridges and a Jenkins rebound, the hero of Houston hit another, this time from just right of straightaway, off an inbounds pass from Bridges. And Virginia was forced to take a timeout, after Ty Jerome was nearly tied up from pressure at midcourt.

The place was going slightly bonkers, and the Wildcats had life. They soon took their first lead since 2-0. The rest of the way was about trading punches until DiVincenzo's closing tip-in of a missed Hart layup, the redshirt freshman's lone shot in 19 minutes.

Jenkins didn't take another shot. He didn't have to. He'd already changed everything, opening up the floor so that down the stretch the Wildcats could get penetration. As Hart was able to do on what became the decisive putback. And Brunson had done on their previous possession.

Sometimes, it's about the little stuff. But those back-to-back daggers might have been the difference.

It's what Jenkins mostly does.

There were moments when some of the body language didn't look right. Hart appeared to be especially affected, as if he was trying to do too much on such a stage. Jenkins just kept clapping his hands, often vigorously so. Outsiders don't have to believe. It only matters that the Wildcats do. We should have learned that by now.

"When guys like that don't get their points, sometimes they slip defensively, or their leadership slips," said coach Jay Wright. "They brought their leadership to another level. That's what our program's been about.

"Shooters have to do other things to remain in the game. If he's just a shooter but not defending or not rebounding or not passing, you can't keep him in. The beauty of Kris is you know he's eventually going to get one. And if he gets one, it's going to come again. It really shows how committed he is.

"They know, 'OK, here's our guy, and he's playing his butt off, and he finally got one.' Now we're all fired up, the building explodes, everyone's on all cylinders. We never worry if Josh and Kris aren't making shots. Everyone else is kind of doing their thing. Then they they get it going, it's kind of like the calvary came in, you know, and you say, 'OK, we've got reinforcements.' That's the way it worked."

Hart, a Player of the Year candidate, went 2-for-9. Jenkins finished 2-for-10, 2-for-8 from the arc. Hart did go 6-for-8 from the foul line. Jenkins had five rebounds, which tied for team high. They played a combined 72 minutes, which Wright realizes is too much. He also knows his options are limited.

Their numbers didn't look like much. But 20-2 does. Ditto 117-15. And the fact that Villanova still hasn't lost back-to-back since this senior class, which includes center Darryl Reynolds, arrived on campus.

Of course, in the Madness all it takes is one in a row to call it a season. That storyline is still six weeks away. In the meantime, don't expect this group to digress from its identity, even if there's another Marquette or two in its pre-NCAA future. While it might sound a bit contrived and/or redundant, Wildcats basketball is what got them where they are. And that's a very good place. Which dictates that if they need a long-range bucket in a pivotal spot, they'll be more than willing to take their chances with the guy who slayed North Carolina.

"You can only keep shooters like that at bay for so long," Virginia coach Tony Bennett noted.

And sometimes, all it takes is one or two to turn a precarious moment completely around. It's a reality you can live with.

kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn

Continue Reading