With Butler raining in baskets from all over the floor and Villanova straining to keep pace, Jay Wright reached into his playbook and pulled out a zone defense that the Wildcats seem to show about as often as the Eagles win Super Bowl titles.
The zone worked, with four freshmen in the seven-man rotation finding the right spots on the court and cooling off the Bulldogs. That, combined with exceptional offensive performances by Donte DiVincenzo and Jalen Brunson, contributed to an 86-75 victory in a Big East game Saturday before a sellout crowd of 20,603 at Wells Fargo Center.
DiVincenzo established a career high with 30 points and Brunson added 27 as the Wildcats (23-2, 10-2 Big East), with their first win over Butler since Feb. 20, 2016, broke a three-game losing streak against the Bulldogs (17-9, 7-6).
Villanova also extended its stretch of not losing back-to-back to 171 games, best in the nation, a run that dates back to the end of the 2012-13 season.
That mark appeared to be in jeopardy. Playing without injured starters Eric Paschall and Phil Booth, the Cats trailed the entire first half, going behind by 13 points during the period while Butler shot 55.6 percent from the field. But they switched to the zone in the second half and limited the visitors to 1-for-10 shooting in the first 5 ½ minutes to open up a lead they would never relinquish.
Wright was especially proud of the performances of freshmen Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, both of whom missed significant practice time this season after suffering broken bones in their wrist (Gillespie) and hand (Samuels).
“We’re a little bit in survival mode right here,” Wright said. “It’s not fair to expect Jermaine and Collin and Dhamir [Cosby-Roundtree] to be able to execute like the older guys, so you’ve got to keep things simple. They were hurt and didn’t practice, so we just had to survive for a little bit. I thought that’s what we did today. It wasn’t pretty, but we survived.”
Gillespie and Samuels, who has had just two practices since being cleared to play after missing 10 games, combined for 40 minutes and nine rebounds. Spellman, who played 39 minutes and had 10 points and 11 boards, impressed his coach with his defense.
“For a freshman to run the middle of a zone like that is really impressive,” Wright said.
The Bulldogs shot just 34.3 percent in the second half. Kelan Martin, who scored 30 points and had more three-point baskets (eight) than Villanova had as a team (six), cooled off to 4-of-12 shooting.
“It’s not much different,” DiVincenzo said of going to the zone. “We practice it a lot, so we’re used to playing it at practice every day. Like Coach said, we had a couple of young guys out there that haven’t played it that much, but they did a great job with it.”
With Butler tightly guarding the three-point line, DiVincenzo and Brunson, the Cats’ two best one-on-one players, carried the Wildcats offensively in the second half. They scored their team’s first 16 points of the period to give ‘Nova a nine-point lead.
The margin grew to 11, 66-55, on Cosby-Roundtree’s follow-up basket with 7 minutes, 36 seconds to play. Butler kept pushing and still was within two possessions, at 79-73, with 1 minute, 20 seconds remaining, but Brunson hit four free throws from that point to ice it.
Villanova shot 55.6 percent in the second half and 50.8 percent for the game.