Kern: Youngsters Donte DiVincenzo, Jalen Brunson help carry the Wildcats to victory

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Villanova guard Jalen Brunson passes the basketball from the floor with teammate Donte DiVincenzo close by against Mount St. Mary's guard Elijah Long during the second half in the first round of the NCAA Tournament .

BUFFALO, N.Y. - Yo, it's not as if Villanova hasn't had moments in NCAA openers before that left us and them scratching heads.

There was the Monmouth game in 2006, when the fans at the Wells Fargo turned against the top-seeded Wildcats in the second half. Or the 2009 game against American, also in South Philly, in which they trailed by double digits early in the second half before winning going away. Or the game the following year against Robert Morris, when they should have lost, but somehow won in overtime.

So maybe we shouldn't have been all that surprised when the top seed in the tournament came out Thursday night against Mount St. Mary's playing as if it had left its game back at Madison Square Garden.

The biggest upset so far in the Madness is that the defending national champions ended up leading (by one) at halftime after trailing almost the entire way.

Fortunately for coach Jay Wright, he has more than just three seniors who've now won 129 times for him. And in one sense, he has four, since sophomore lead guard Jalen Brunson, like Ryan Arcidiacono before him, is wise beyond his years. And it's becoming increasingly apparent that second-year freshman Donte DiVincenzo might be cut from much the same cloth. Or at least something tantalizingly close.

Brunson is as smart as they come, and talented, too, despite the two first-half offensive fouls he was whistled for. And DiVincenzo, the Michael Jordan of Delaware at Wilmington's Salesianum High School, oozes athleticism. Thanks largely to those two, the Wildcats survived an opening 20 minutes in which Kris Jenkins didn't make a shot and Josh Hart played only 11 minutes because of foul trouble.

Brunson had 10 points on 5-for-8 shooting, all the makes coming within 10 feet of the basket. At that juncture, the rest of the team was 7-for-22. And DiVincenzo was the second-leading scorer, with six, on as many shots, to go with eight rebounds, which already equaled his career high.

Villanova might very well have found its way into Saturday's second-round anyhow, especially since a 1 seed had never lost to a 16. But did you really want to have to find out?

This just in: Wright doesn't mind playing small ball, early and often. This is why.

The Wildcats took the second half by 19. So the box score will be deceiving to those who didn't watch. It happens. They probably couldn't get away with a start like this against a better opponent. Hopefully, they won't have to find out.

"Donte's really like having a fifth starter," Wright said. "We had that last year with Mikal (Bridges). We've been lucky that way."

OK, so DiVincenzo did miss two dunks in the second half. When you have your first career double-double, you're more than allowed.

"The first one, I took off too far (from the basket)," he sheepishly explained. "The second, I didn't get enough lift. Maybe it's something that goes through your head."

One week after scoring a career-high 25 in the Big East quarterfinals against St. John's, he finished this game with 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting (3-for-4 from the arc) and 13 boards in a career-best 37 minutes off the bench. It is indeed a nice luxury to have.

"He did a great job sparking us," said Brunson, who went 7-for-11 for 14 points, and had five rebounds and three assists in 29 minutes.

The start was turbulent mostly because the Wildcats, for whatever reason, seemed to have little energy. But when the offense isn't there, they understand it's about other things. It doesn't have to be pretty. Sometimes it simply has to be enough to get you to another game.

Especially on a night when Jenkins goes 2-for-13 overall and 0-for-6 from three. Chances are, he might not do that again.

That's why it's called a team. Whether you look like you're the best in the field or not.

"My job off the bench is just bring energy," DiVincenzo said. "If you focus on defense and rebounding, the offense will come.

"All of us can rebound the ball. Tonight, my guy was going back (the other way), so I was free to go to the rim and chase down the ball. I just had a knack for the ball tonight."

There's a whole bunch to be said for timing.

"There's going to be nights when you don't make shots," Brunson said. "I was just trying to make the right play at the right time. When I got in the lane, I just felt I could just shore up my defenders, and when I got that close, I just ended up shooting it."

And making it, which is even better. On to the second round, where, before last March, they'd also had some issues.

"It's a big stage, my first time in an NCAA Tournament," DiVincenzo said. "My energy went towards my teammates. It was our biggest game, because it was our next game."

See you Saturday. Can you say full 40?

kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn