A three-pointer by Villanova’s Eric Paschall fell, and DePaul coach Dave Leitao fell back in his chair and inhaled. Two possessions later inside the Wells Fargo Center, Omari Spellman hit a three and Leitao and an assistant fell back in unison. Next possession, Mikal Bridges hit a three, ballooning Villanova’s lead to 26 points three minutes after halftime. The DePaul assistant sat back and leaned his legs full out.
Nothing they could do about any of this. Later, Jay Wright tried to nitpick, but his team had shot 59.6 percent (59.3 percent before halftime, 60 percent after) in taking out the Blue Demons, 93-62. Offensively, the Wildcats were back in sync.
No coincidence, Phil Booth was back.
Everyone knows Jalen Brunson is a front-runner for national player of the year and Bridges has a real NBA future and Villanova has a lot of other moving parts. Let’s also argue that Villanova’s chances for another NCAA title would fall off a cliff without Booth, an idea that goes far beyond the 20 points Booth scored the last time Villanova played for that title.
It was obvious right away Wednesday night how important Booth’s role is as a connector guard. That’s what so many good teams have alongside a strong point guard, a player who could be a point guard but is even more effective alongside a top point guard. (Best local example always: Delonte West at St. Joseph’s.) Having a do-everything player in that spot allows everyone else to be comfortable in his role, starter and bench.
Booth, who has had the greatest glory and the hardest luck in his Villanova career, was back from more than a four-week absence from a broken bone, a wrap covering his wrist. He’d practiced exactly once. You figured he’d get some token minutes, feel his way back in. So much for that. He didn’t start, but his 16 minutes turned out to be action-packed.
Afterward, the news conference began and somebody was missing.
“No Booth?’’ Inquirer colleague Joe Juliano wondered out loud.
Question answered when Booth walked in two minutes later with a big ice pack all around his right hand.
“As a 57-year-old person, I’m just amazed that you can have a cast on your wrist for five weeks and come out and practice like he did yesterday,’’ Wright said. “C’mon, take the cast off; he looked like he never had anything wrong yesterday in practice, and he looked pretty good tonight.”
Very early on, Villanova looked disjointed. The whole game did. Booth entered 173 seconds in. Things still looked disjointed. Asked about catching a quick rhythm, Booth said, “I didn’t feel like I had that much of a rhythm, to be honest. I was just trying to not be worried about what happened on offense. I was trying to be where I needed to be on defense … getting used to trusting the hand.”
The hand felt great, Booth added.
Wright talked about how DePaul was strongly hedging pick-and-rolls, taking away three-pointers, then Booth “started turning the corner, going downhill, getting to the rim. That kind of broke their perimeter defense. I thought that was important.”
The game changed right there, midway through the first half, score tied. Booth, above the top of the key, took a couple of dribbles right, then dribbled to his left, showing no great urgency. Suddenly, he went hard right and found a driving lane for a layup. Then he hit Brunson for a shot that didn’t fall, then hit Bridges for a layup. When Booth hit his own three-pointer from the wing on a feed from Brunson, Villanova’s lead went to 25-18. Booth ended up with 14 points in his 16 minutes.
Asked about Booth’s role, Bridges said, “He’s one of our leaders …”
But on the court …
“He leads us,’’ Bridges said. “Also, he knows how we play … the right spots, when to make the right pass.”
What had Booth’s own misery level been like while sitting out?
“All-time high,’’ Booth said, even though he’s had experience at it, a knee injury losing last season for him. “It’s a frustration level. But I look at it as bigger than myself. We’ve got a team going, a season going. … Anything I could do, getting in guys’ ears in practice, in huddles.”
If you think Booth earned the right to get through a game without added pain, it doesn’t work like that. Late in the night, there was a scrum underneath the hoop and Booth came out of it wincing, blinking his right eye. That was it for the night.
What about the shot to the eye?
“Just a regular elbow to the eye, that type of thing,’’ Booth said.
Can’t catch a break, he added later in the hallway, laughing.
“Happens all the time,’’ he said. “It wasn’t that bad.”
If that was the price of admission to get back out there, he gladly forked it over. Just get this right: It was his team that reaps the benefits.