PISCATAWAY, N.J. - Villanova summoned a sadly familiar scenario Thursday night at the Louis Brown Athletic Center as it desperately tried to find a few positives in a dismal season.
The Wildcats raced out to a 19-point lead in the first half against Rutgers, marking the fourth time since Jan. 28 they have accumulated an advantage of 18 points or more in the opening period. The problem was, they were 0-3 the previous three times they achieved it.
On Thursday night, the Wildcats gave up all but one point of the huge advantage. But this time they managed to hold on without losing the lead and defeated the Scarlet Knights, 77-71, in a Big East Conference game to break a four-game losing streak.
"At halftime, you hear guys say, 'We've been here,' but I don't want to hear that," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "You've got to play 20 more minutes of basketball. That's all it is. That's all it's ever been.
"An experienced group knows it's just another 20 minutes of basketball. This group is inexperienced and has to learn. But tonight's a step in the right direction. They're learning it."
Villanova (12-17 overall, 5-12 Big East) led 28-9 with 11 minutes, 18 seconds left in the first half and 50-32 in the opening minute of the second before the Scarlet Knights (13-17, 5-12) used a withering full-court press to fuel a 19-2 run that got the margin down to a single point.
The Wildcats also saw Maalik Wayns, their leading scorer, go to the bench when he picked up his fourth personal foul with 14:02 to play.
Jerome Seagears hit the three-point basket that drew Rutgers to within 52-51, and after Maurice Sutton hit a basket for Villanova, Seagears sank two free throws to make it 54-53. But the Scarlet Knights were never able to take the lead, despite the fact that the Wildcats kept giving them chances with turnovers (12 in the second half).
Villanova got its lead back up to six and later to seven, 67-59, on a three-point basket by Wayns with 4:13 left.
Rutgers got to within three points on three occasions. The Cats had an answer the first two times - two free throws by Mouphtaou Yarou, a three-point play by JayVaughn Pinkston.
But after the Scarlet Knights closed to within 72-69, Wayns was called for an offensive foul, his fifth. Rutgers squandered the chance, however.