PITTSBURGH – Villanova opened what it hopes will be a long run in the NCAA tournament with another dazzling offensive performance Thursday night, but Jay Wright knows it’s what the Wildcats do on the defensive end that will tell how long a postseason it will be.
The top-seeded Cats used a hot start in the first half to establish control of the game, and a hot start in the second half to keep No. 16 seed Radford from thinking an upset was even remotely possible. They ended up shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor in an 87-61 victory at PPG Paints Arena that propelled them into the second round.
Villanova (31-4) advanced to a matchup on Saturday at 12:10 p.m. on CBS against No. 9 seed Alabama, an 86-83 winner over No. 8 Virginia Tech.
For as well as they shot – 13 of 17 to start the game, 10 of 12 in the first 8:15 of the second half – it was the defense that made Wright smile. The Highlanders (23-13) made just 3 of their first 19 attempts, including a 7:45 stretch without a basket, and finished the game at 33.9 percent.
“We feel that we’re defending really well,” said forward Mikal Bridges, “and once we feel like we’re playing really tough defensively, you can tell by everybody’s reaction on the bench, when you’re out there all fired up.
“We love playing defense. That’s what we focus on the most. And it’s just a great feeling when we are defending and playing hard together.”
Radford, playing in its third NCAA tournament, was held to just 27.3 percent shooting in the first half, although it pulled down 11 of its own misses, and trailed 44-23 at the half. The ‘Nova lead in the second half grew to as many as 33 points, 70-37, after Eric Paschall’s four-point play with 11:45 to play.
Paschall’s basket enabled the Wildcats to be the sixth Division I team in NCAA history to knock down 400 threes in a season.
Wright called the Highlanders “scrappy, tough, and [they] made it an ugly game.” He said his team will need to adjust to different styles to keep going in the tournament.
“We’re getting better every time we get to play,” he said. “You play different teams, different styles. We’ll get a totally different style on Saturday, and we’re going to have to be ready. I feel good about where we’re going defensively. Rebounding, we gave up a lot of offensive rebounds in the first half. We’ve still got to get better, but they know it.”
Villanova made 59.6 percent of its field-goal attempts, the 21st time this season it made more than half. The Wildcats went 14 of 27 from three-point range, their sixth time at 50 percent or above. Bridges hit three shots from deep, and six other players had two each.
Jalen Brunson scored 16 points, Bridges added 13, and Paschall 11. Three players had 10, including freshmen Omari Spellman and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree in their NCAA tournament debuts.
“We were just really trying to focus on defending and rebounding,” Brunson said. “Offense, it comes natural to us. We love sharing the ball with each other. We all are really confident with each other, making shots and sharing the ball.”