PISCATAWAY, N.J. - For the first 6 minutes Thursday night, Villanova looked like the best team in America. The Wildcats arrived at the joint that began the program-wide meltdown that had lasted more than a calendar year and made their first nine shots, five of them threes. They scored 23 points in those 6 minutes. They eventually led by 19 points. None of their fans in the house or watching on television celebrated. They had seen leads like this disappear three times in recent weeks.
The Louis Brown Athletic Center crowd, such as it was, lightly booed the home team. Rutgers is very young, starting three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior. Villanova has young players, but really is not a young team. These Wildcats have just played young.
And they played that way to start the second half, looking nothing like the team that had started the game. Rutgers made a big run-back, kept threatening, got within a point twice, but never got all the way there in a game that threatened to last until tomorrow.
Villanova won it, 77-71. Or, if you prefer, did not lose it.
"The way our season has been going, any win is a good win," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
'Nova being 'Nova, began the second half as if it were trying to give something away. The Wildcats were as bad in the opening minutes as they were good in the first. They could not dribble or pass. Their shot selection was not out of a Clair Bee manual. Rutgers got it to 52-51 in the first 8 minutes, running off 12 consecutive points during one stretch as 'Nova reverted to its very bad self. Wright used two timeouts. He needed one for every turnover. It was really ugly. The 'Cats scored on only two of their first 16 possessions. Maalik Wayns got his fourth foul during the Rutgers run.
How could a team play so well for so long and so bad for a similar time period in the same game? It is the riddle that is Villanova basketball at the moment.
"I don't want to say we've been here before," Wright said he told his team at halftime. He told them: "We have to play 20 minutes of good basketball."
Still, they won.
"This was the first time we've had everybody together for like 3 weeks," Wright said. "It felt good . . . I feel good about what these guys can do. Maybe we can make some noise in the Big East Tournament."
Thankfully for 'Nova, Rutgers is not Notre Dame, Marquette or Connecticut, the teams that came from way back to catch and pass the Wildcats.
Rutgers is a team that had lost six straight before winning its prior game against Seton Hall in overtime.
Villanova started four juniors - Wayns, Mouph Yarou, Mo Sutton, Dom Cheek and one freshman, JayVaughn Pinkston. Everybody was finally somewhat healthy and, at least available.
The Wildcats (12-17, 5-12 Big East) had nine assists on those first nine baskets. Wayns, after missing time with a sprained knee, had his jump back. He toyed with Rutgers, getting 14 points and seven assists in the first half when Villanova scored more points (48) in 20 minutes than it had against Georgetown (46) on Saturday in 40 minutes. If the 'Cats did not have as many turnovers (eight) as misses at the break, the lead would have far bigger than 48-32.
The 'Cats, a 30.5 percent three-point shooting team in Big East play, were 8-for-10 from the arc at the break. Cheek, who had averaged 16.3 points in his previous seven games, had 14 at the half and was 4-for-5 from three. Pinkston, recovered from that rolled ankle suffered when he landed on a ball in layup lines before the Georgetown game, was scoring inside and outside, a matchup nightmare for Rutgers.
The 'Cats, nobody's idea of a good shooting team, were 18-for-26 (69.2 percent) at the break. They scored 23 points in those first 6 minutes and led, 28-9.
It was at Rutgers last year when a 19-4 'Nova team shot nearly 56 percent, led almost the entire game, still led by five points with 12 seconds left and managed to lose in regulation when Jonathan Mitchell converted a four-point play with less than a second left. 'Nova lost its next game to Pittsburgh, ending its 46-game homecourt winning streak. It barely beat DePaul and Seton Hall in the next two games before losing the last six.
The Wildcats needed to win Thursday night to avoid being the first 'Nova team to lose 20 games. Technically, that could still happen if the school gets and accepts an invite to the CBI or CIT.
Now, this win is not likely to begin a run of 13 straight on the road to the national title in New Orleans. But after losing 25 of 38 games since that last night at Rutgers, any win is a good win. Rutgers (13-17 5-12) is a few players away from being a few players away.
This was never pretty. The teams combined to commit 46 fouls and attempt 56 free throws. The 'Cats had 20 turnovers. It seemed like more. They shot 6-for-22 (27.3 percent) in the second half.
"That's the Big East," Wright said. "There was no rhythm."
Still, the coach pointed out Yarou had 10 points and 11 rebounds. Pinkston had 18. So did Wayns. Cheek finished with 15. The coach also noted the bottom line.
"We're 12-17," Wright said. "That doesn't feel good. We know what we've been through."
On one night, at least, they went through 40 minutes and got a win.