It’s hard to say if the little gym — almost nine decades old, never used for a Big Five game before — was louder or hotter. Villanova players will tell you about using an “echo” system for play calls, with players on the court repeating the call, ensuring everyone hears it. Except inside Jake Nevin Field House on Wednesday night, nobody could hear much of anything.
“I asked Mikal [Bridges] the same question like 50 times, just trying to hear him,’’ Omari Spellman said later.
The place hit fever pitch in the first half when the first-year 6-foot-8 big man grabbed a loose ball at midcourt and started dribbling. After a brief hesitation, Spellman went hard through Penn Quakers traffic for a please-get-out-of-the-way slam dunk. Talk about waking up echoes.
Asked about that play, Spellman interrupted — “Oh, I double-dribbled. The ref didn’t call it. I definitely double-dribbled.”
So bonus point for honesty. Spellman had thought about a pass to Bridges, he said, decided against it, switched up and took it to the house. If Penn’s bench or Quakers fans thought he’d double-dribbled, who could hear them in the din?
“Wild atmosphere,’’ Jay Wright said later. “It’s a difficult place to play for anybody — including the home team. You can’t hear anything really. We legitimately had trouble communicating. … We just had to get into basic sets.”
It wasn’t just that driving dunk that made this night memorable for Spellman, who sat out last season. You heard about his shooting skills that supplement his inside play, but through six games, Spellman had made 3 of 13 three-pointers (23 percent). From inside the arc, he’d made 13 of 38 (34.2 percent). Villanova’s last game, he’d tried eight shots, missed them all.
Forget all that, he basically said. Less than two minutes in, Spellman hit a contested baseline jumper. Next possession, he swished a three-pointer up top. Just before the big dunk, there was another three-pointer up top, breaking an early tie. There were no more ties. Final score: Villanova 90, Penn 62. Spellman finished with 14 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks.
Wright talked about how if you don’t come to play against Penn you’re going to be in for a battle, adding his fourth-ranked team had come to play. “I was proud of them,’’ Villanova’s coach said. “We were ready to play.”
Specifically about Spellman, Wright said, “For Big O, it was just nice to see. He’s been doing a lot of good little things, defensively, rebounding, playing unselfish. It was good to see him get going offensively. He’s young. He’ll keep getting it.”
Spellman said there was no relief at making shots because he was all right before then.
“I wasn’t trying to do anything different,’’ Spellman said. “I try to make the right play. Good things happened today. … For me, I think Coach, my teammates, have helped me mature a lot. I can’t control whether the ball goes in the hoop or not; I can control how I play, how hard I try to defend, how well I talk to my teammates.”
Point guard Jalen Brunson made it clear Spellman has earned his shots.
“One thing that has surprised us all is how well he’s been able to pass out of the post,’’ Brunson said. “He’s very unselfish.”
Asked about playing at Nevin again some future year, Wright, whose team is off campus for the rest of this season’s home games while the Pavilion is refurbished, didn’t sign right up.
“I’ll tell you what, we’re in such a rhythm here — I can tell you this now since we won — we screwed up our pregame,’’ Wright said. “We didn’t have a pregame meal. We’re so used to doing it the way we do it, we missed out on setting it up at the difference places. We all walked to the cafeteria and ate in the cafeteria.”
Wright kind of laughed at that being an odd thing.
“That’s probably what everybody always did,’’ he said, telling about how team chaplain Father Rob Hagan did his usual pregame homily right there in the cafeteria with all sorts of students around.
“Thank God we won,’’ Wright said of the departure from prized routines. If it was a one-off, with mostly students inside, this was a memorable one. Wright called it a zoo. Brunson called it awesome, how he tried to read lips when sounds hit upper levels of loud.
“It was SO loud,’’ Spellman said after he had risen above the din.