Even though his team has won Big Five games over the last five years by some enormous margins, Villanova coach Jay Wright always has prepared his players to give their best effort because one never knows what can happen against a city rival.
It almost happened Sunday. La Salle battled the fourth-ranked Wildcats for most of 40 exhausting minutes before the individual talents of Villanova prevailed down the stretch in a 77-68 victory at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Wildcats (10-0, 3-0 Big Five) won their 21st consecutive City Series game, but this was just the second of those 21 decided by fewer than 10 points.
With the Explorers (5-6, 2-1) coming off a disappointing loss at home to Drexel, and Villanova winning its last Big Five game by 41 points at St. Joseph’s, a competitive game was not anticipated. However, for all but the final minute, La Salle had an answer every time the Wildcats threatened to take control.
The outcome remained in doubt with 1 minute, 2 seconds left after Pookie Powell’s short jumper kept the Explorers close at 72-68, but Jalen Brunson’s three free throws and a pair by Donte DiVincenzo secured the victory for the Cats. DiVincenzo finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 4 steals.
Villanova coach Jay Wright called it “a great lesson for our guys.”
“The credit in this game goes to La Salle,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to admit someone outplayed you, they out-toughed you. We just had these guys make individual plays down the stretch to win the game for us. But I think they outplayed us as a team.”
Led by B.J. Johnson with 21 points and Amar Stukes with 16, the Explorers shot better from the field overall and from the three-point arc, but Villanova held an overwhelming edge at the free-throw line, making 27 of 35 attempts compared to 4 of 5 for the visitors.
Asked about the free throws, La Salle coach John Giannini quipped, “I’d like to shoot some. I wouldn’t know about that.
“It was a pretty evenly matched game,” he said. “They’re big and strong and they’re going to get to the line, but the difference was just too gigantic to overcome. That’s a 23-point differential. I’m not surprised they got to the line more than us because they’re really good. But I am surprised in that enormous of a differential.”
Until the final seconds, Villanova’s largest lead was seven points. The Wildcats were up 60-53 with 7 minutes, 11 seconds but the Explorers embarked on a 9-1 run and grabbed their last lead, 62-61, on a drive by Isiah Deas with 4:44 to play.
The Cats responded with six straight – three free throws by Phil Booth, who then set up DiVincenzo for a three-ball – and Mikal Bridges added two baskets as the lead again grew to seven, 71-64, with 2:42 remaining. But La Salle never stopped.
“They played us tough last year [a 10-point margin] at the Palestra,” said Booth, who scored 18 points. “They’re individually very talented and they can really score the ball. So it’s great to be in games like that and come out with a win.”