Villanova downs Penn
A lot of times, last night's game at the Pavilion could have posed one of those classic sandwich dilemmas for unbeaten Villanova.
The Wildcats were coming off wins over second-ranked Kansas and No. 23 Iowa in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas that got them back into the rankings (at No. 14) for the first time in 34 months, and face a bus ride on Saturday down City Avenue to Saint Joseph's for that heated get-together.
But when the Big 5 is involved, there's usually no looking either way. Even if the Wildcats hadn't beaten Penn 10 straight times, and the Quakers hadn't knocked off a Top 25 opponent in 15 years and if the biggest thing the teams appeared to have in common besides proximity was that both played Lafayette.
That's just the way it's always been. Nobody has to remind Villanova coach Jay Wright, who, like his Quakers counterpart, Jerome Allen, grew up on the City Series. They understand what can happen, because they've seen it too many times.
This time, though, Villanova did what it was supposed to do. At least for a half. In the end, that was enough to get the Wildcats to 8-0, with a 77-54 win over Penn.
Yet for a while, Penn was finally able to make a game of it. What else did you expect?
"We dug ourselves a hole," Allen said. "We tried to battle back and make it a couple-of-possession game. It was crazy. We had, like, four consecutive stops and couldn't [convert]. And on like two of those possessions, we had unforced turnovers."
The Wildcats scored the first 11 points, and were up by 22 after 12 minutes. At the break, their lead was 18. Then they went 10 minutes without making a basket (0-for-14). And Penn drew within eight with 7 minutes remaining.
That was as close as it got. Villanova went on a 12-zip run, and the rest was mostly to fill out the stat sheet.
The last time Penn played Villanova when the Wildcats were 14th, it won. That was 1971, when the Quakers were fourth.
Darrun Hilliard was the high scorer, with 19 points. Three other Wildcats reached double figures.
Penn (2-5), which hosts Wagner on Saturday, got 17 from Miles Jackson-Cartwright, 14 in the first half. Freshman guard Tony Bagtas played 36 minutes in his first start and had seven points, nine assists, six rebounds.
It wasn't always artistic. The Quakers had 24 turnovers (five by Bagtas). And Villanova, which had 15 TOs, does force mistakes with its three-quarter-court press.
Villanova shot 34.6 percent, Penn 33.9. The Wildcats had 25 more at the foul line, on 29 more attempts.
"We played with energy and effort," Allen said. "Whether we always played smart is a different story. They competed. My job is to get them to not only compete, but expect to win."
The Wildcats have their flaws. But they're also deep, and play hard. They never forget to act like a team, even when they're not playing that well.
"We were a little bit off, but [Penn] played well," Wright said. "It was a rough game, a Big 5 game. We just had players who made some plays [down the stretch]. There's no way we were looking past them.
"We have certain players who can turn it on, take it over when they have to. They have young guys. But we were lackadaisical, not consistent. That's not a good plan for success. I was confident we were going to come out aggressive and intense. There's no sandwich games for us. Anytime you get to play is a big game. But give Penn credit. We hadn't even seen Bagtas on film. It's not always just us.
"The attention to detail wasn't there. I like being ranked, I really do. There's nothing bad about it. That has nothing to do with a commitment to play every possession the same way."
Now they get the Hawks, where sandwich has never remotely entered the conversation.
"That's not [the kind of performance] we pride ourselves on," said Hilliard. "But I don't think the Bahamas gave us a big head. We can't look past anybody."