Villanova awakens and cruises in NCAA opener

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Villanova guard Donte DiVincenzo drives to the basket against Mount St. Mary's forward Chris Wray.

BUFFALO - Jay Wright had no explanation for why Villanova came out so flat and listless in its opening NCAA game Thursday night, looking more like a shaky newcomer to the dance instead of the defending national champion and overall No. 1 seed.

After missing their first eight shots and going scoreless for more than six minutes against Mount St. Mary's, the Wildcats started finding their stride late in the first half, then used a 21-4 run in the second half to gain control and cruise to a 76-56 victory over the Mountaineers at the KeyBank Center.

Villanova (32-3) moved on to a second-round matchup at 2:40 p.m. Saturday against No. 8 seed Wisconsin, which beat No. 9 Virginia Tech, 84-74.

The final score and the accompanying final numbers - 51.7 percent shooting for the game, 43-27 rebounding edge, five players in double figures - looked fine, but Wright himself said they were the result of "more size and some more talented players that just made plays."

But he readily credited coach Jamion Christian and the Mountaineers (20-16) - the 68th and last team on the NCAA seeding list - for being better prepared, and admitted that they outplayed his Wildcats.

"This is our 35th game; I didn't think we were capable of that," Wright said of the Cats' lack of energy. "I thought we were capable of coming out and missing some shots . . . making some mistakes. But the level of energy we started the game with, I just didn't think we were capable of that. I'm in a little bit of shock myself."

Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson gave the credit to the Mountaineers.

"They came out shooting the ball, sharing the ball, and just playing with great energy," he said. "You've got to give them credit. We've just got to come out and play harder."

If it wasn't for Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo, the Wildcats might have trailed by more than the eight points that was the Mount's largest margin in the first half. Brunson scored 10 of his 14 points in the half, including a layup that gave the Cats a 30-29 lead at the break.

DiVincenzo, a redshirt freshman, took over in the second, scoring 15 of his 21 points. He also contributed a career-high 13 rebounds, posting his first double-double.

"My job off the bench is just to bring energy, focus on defending and rebounding," he said. "The offense came tonight after just pushing it on offense, after getting a rebound. So if I just focus on that, all of the offense will come."

DiVincenzo scored the Wildcats' first points after a 7-0 start for the Mount, which answered with Elijah Long's three-ball by Elijah Long for 10-2. But the Cats hit 12 of their last 22 shots, took their first lead with 1 minute, 22 seconds left in the half, and turned it on in the second.

After the Mountaineers opened the scoring, the Wildcats ran off 13 straight and held their opponent scoreless for more than 51/2 minutes. DiVincenzo's three-pointer ended the run and made it 43-31, and Josh Hart's layup increased the margin to 16, 51-35, with 12:25 to play.

The Mount got as close as 11, 56-45, on Chris Wray's dunk with 7:12 left but DiVincenzo scored the next five points to again make it a 16-point lead, and the Wildcats pulled away, leading by as many as 26.

So it goes in the books as a win but Villanova has some concerns. Kris Jenkins, who made the historic last shot of the previous NCAA tournament, missed his first 10 shots and scored just seven points. The Cats turned the ball over 13 times and forced only nine.

With a lack of energy against the caliber of their second-round opponent, could they survive?

"No," Wright replied. "And I think they know that. We're lucky to advance . . . and I think we'll put it behind us and we'll get ready" for the next game.

jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq