ALLENTOWN – The last time Villanova traveled to PPL Center it was to give senior Darrun Hilliard, a native of nearby Bethlehem, the opportunity to play in front of his hometown fans. The opponent was Lehigh, in the 2014-15 opener. Hilliard struggled, as did the Wildcats. They still won by 11 points.
That team would finish 33-3, losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to North Carolina State.
Speaking of which …
The game before that they’d beaten 16th seeded Lafayette, which is coached by former Wildcat standout guard Fran O’Hanlon, by 41.
Friday night they were back at PPL to take on O’Hanlon’s Leopards for the second straight year, in the last leg of their three-game preseason.
On Wednesday the nation’s sixth-ranked team will be in the Bahamas for the Battle for Atlantis tournament, where they’ll face Western Kentucky (1-1) first. On Thanksgiving they get either Tennessee (2-0) or No. 19 Purdue (3-0), a team they beat on the road last November.
And they could end up seeing No. 3 Arizona (3-0) on Friday, maybe for the title.
But while some games obviously matter more than others, they all count. Right?
“My alma mater’s been too good to me,” joked O’Hanlon, well before tipoff. “We were supposed to play them here last season, but the Pavilion renovation got pushed back a year. So we got to play them last year at our place too.”
It became an 88-48 Villanova victory.
“As an alum, I’m so proud of what they’ve done,” he went on. “They’re a team. They never take a possession off. It’s fun to watch. Unless of course you have to deal with it.”
We’ll start to find out about that, on a higher level, soon enough.
The final this time was 104-57. By the second media timeout it was 28-12. The Wildcats made 11 of their first 13 shots, including 9 of 11 from the arc. They can do that, even when the opponent isn’t a Lafayette. And when they do they can be a real tough out, because they do all the other stuff. By halftime the lead was 33. It was 46 with 10 minutes left.
Mikal Bridges, coming off a career-high 23-point effort in South Philly against Nicholls State, scored 16 in the first 15 minutes. He finished with 26 (9-10, 6-6). Jalen Brunson had 22 (9-11, 4-6). Both were on the bench for the last 10 minutes.
This group has plenty of room to grow before March. It won’t always be pretty. Yet there’s no denying the promise. So try to appreciate the entire journey.
For now, the Caribbean awaits.
In the first part of the doubleheader, Villanova’s women (2-0) beat Lehigh (1-2), 62-42.