Villanova bounces back with milestone-filled night

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Villanova bounces back with milestone-filled night

BOX SCORE

No. 3 Villanova had a week to stew over its first loss of the season, a 101-93 loss to Butler last Saturday in Indianapolis, and figure out a way to wash the bitter taste of defeat out of its mouth.

“We had a long week after getting our butts kicked,” Wildcats head coach Jay Wright said.

“No one was in a good mood.”

A trip home to South Philly, career nights from two less-heralded Wildcats and a typically steady night from the always-heralded Jalen Brunson was just what Wright ordered on a milestone night.

Eric Paschall tied a career-high with 19 points, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree added a career-high 10 of his own and Brunson added a team-high 27 (and eight assists) as Villanova held off a late Marquette surge to down the Golden Eagles, 100-90, at Wells Fargo Center Saturday night.

The win pushed the ‘Cats record to 14-1 on the season and 2-1 in Big East play. The Golden Eagles’ fell to 11-5 overall and 2-2 in the conference.

With victory No. 400, Wright inched closer to becoming Villanova’s all-time wins leader. Alexander Severance, who coached on the Main Line from 1936-61, is currently atop the list with 413 victories. If Villanova goes on another long tear, Wright could tie Severance as early as Feb. 21 vs. DePaul and vault past him as early Feb. 24 at Creighton.

Ever the spotlight-shunning coach, Wright, knee-deep in his 17th season at Villanova, predictably was coy when asked after the game about his achievement.

“I’m just happy we took a step defensively tonight,” Wright said. “I promise you, one day when I’m finished that I will look back on it with great pride. I promise you that. And I will feel really good about it. I’m happy to have been here that long. That’s really nice.”

Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski took a much different route when asked about the achievement of his Saturday evening counterpart. He went the effusive-praise route.

“Jay’s as good a coach as there is in the United States,” Wojciechowski said. “In my mind, he’s a future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer. The league right now goes through Villanova. I think he handles the mantle of being the marquee coach in our conference as much class and dignity as you can handle it. He’s created an incredible program at Villanova.”

On the court, the redshirt junior Paschall got the ‘Cats off to a burning-hot start with three early treys to help put overmatched Marquette into a hole the Golden Eagles never could claw their way out of. Villanova’s first-half lead reached as many as 14 points. For the game, it went as high as 17 early in the second half.

“The only thing I thought about was just to shoot it,” said Paschall, who entered the contest shooting just 25 percent from three-point land on the year. He hit all three attempts Saturday. “I don’t really think about that. I just have to play defense.”

Cosby-Roundtree, the 6-foot-8 true freshman forward out of South Philly’s Neumann-Goretti High, filled his line on the stat sheet on a perfect 5 for 5 from the field. All 10 of his points, including a huge dunk on a fast break, came in the first half when the ‘Cats built up their insurmountable advantage.

Cosby-Roundtree is set to have an expanded role in the coming weeks with fellow big Jermaine Samuels both on the shelf with a hand injury. If Saturday was a taste of what’s to come, Wright surely liked what he saw.

“Dhamir was awesome. I’m so happy for him,” Wright said. “It’s hard to come into this program as a freshman, especially as a freshman big. We need him. And he did a great job.”

It’s almost easy to take Brunson’s smoothness on the court for granted. Coming off a showing at Butler when he scored 31 points to match a career-high, he controlled the floor with his 27 points on 8 for 15 shooting 9 for 11 from the free-throw line and and steadied Villanova when Marquette pushed back in the second half and cut the lead down to as little as five as late as 43 seconds left.

“They’re a great team and they have a great point guard,” Wojciechowski said. “Any team with a double-figure lead with a point guard like Jalen Brunson, who’s as good a guard there is in the country, catch-up is not the ideal place to be.”

You want balance? Try this on for size: six Wildcats finished in double figures. That’ll get the job done.

The Wildcats knew they’d be in for a stiff test against Marquette junior guard Markus Howard, who made national headlines earlier in the week, and rightfully so, for his spectacular 52-point performance in a 95-90 OT victory at Providence Wednesday night. And Howard got his. He poured in a game-high 37 and led the late, ultimately unsuccessful Marquette scare.

“Markus just got it going,” Wright said of Howard, who went 13 of 27 from the field, including 5 for 13 from downtown, and 6 for 6 from the line. “It was almost just like the Providence game. Once he got it going, there’s just not much you can do. When you trap him, the other guys are good enough that they can make plays. You play him one-on-one and he jumps into you and creates contact and gets fouls. … We tried to take away his threes, but we gave up traditional threes.”

But, still, that wasn’t enough to topple the mighty Wildcats, who have now not lost two straight games since March 2013. The last time the ‘Cats lost two straight was when they dropped a 74-55 decision to Louisville in the second round of the Big East tournament and then absorbed a 78-71 defeat at the hands of North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament a week later. That was so long ago that Louisville as a Big East member is like ancient history.

“I never think about that and then every time it happens and someone says it to me, I think that’s really cool,” Wright said of his program’s incredible streak. “I like that. I like it a lot. I think it says a lot about our guys. I think it says a lot about the character of our guys.

“Every time you guys say it, I think, wow, that’s really cool. I like to say I take pride in it. But I don’t think about it. When you say it, I’m proud of it. But I’ll forget about it tomorrow.”

“I think the most important thing I’ve learned here is that win or lose a game, we’re coming back the next day to get better,” Brunson said. “Obviously, if we lose a game it’s going to refocus us a little bit. But we want to get better every time we step on the court.”

And the next time they step on the court, all the baby blue Villanova eyes turn to the game of the season this coming Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center when No. 5 Xavier comes to town for a titanic nationally televised showdown.

The Musketeers will likely not be as high as No. 5 after an 81-72 loss at Providence earlier Saturday. But still, Big East supremacy and bragging rights are on the line.

To the victor goes the jump-start to the No. 1 seed in the conference tourney. To the loser goes perhaps a season-long game of catch-up, as Wojciechowski said, is not the ideal place to be.

Fitting final week of 2017 for Flyers

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Fitting final week of 2017 for Flyers

The Flyers closed out the 2017 calendar year in style.

Well, in the style we’ve all become accustomed to the past 52 weeks, and even beyond.

The Flyers closed 2017 in a fittingly inconsistent and frustrating matter. How? First, an uglier-than-it-looks 3-2 loss Thursday to the host Florida Panthers. But then that was followed up 24 hours later with an impressive 5-3 win over the NHL-best Tampa Bay Lightning that snapped the Bolts’ eight-game home win streak.

Just because there were only two games this week doesn’t mean we don’t have plenty to dissect as 2017 reaches the brink of existence.

Let’s dive right in.

• This week was just so incredibly apropos of what we’ve seen from these Flyers, wasn’t it? We’ve seen this club come out of the gate strong, fall into the dark abyss of a 10-game losing streak, power out of that hole by reeling off six straight and then have its pulse even out with a win here and a loss there.

It’s this Jekyll and Hyde show that seems to have no end for this group. This week was the latest example with the uninspiring loss in South Florida and then the total 180 for an earmarked win over the powerhouse Bolts in their own barn, where they hadn’t lost in almost a month.

This inconsistency with these Flyers isn’t anywhere close to breaking news, but when you look back at these two games this past week, it’s the overwhelming theme. And that overwhelming theme of this week is a microcosm of why the Flyers are where they are, four points behind the New York Islanders for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference as of Sunday morning.

Atop the list of 2018 resolutions, well, you fill in the blank. It’s the same one that’s been near the top of that list each year for a while now.

• The Flyers’ return from the Christmas break in South Florida was almost doomed from the beginning.

They kicked things off with a bang (not really) by taking three penalties in the first period, taxing their penalty killers and forcing lines to be jumbled. They wound up outshot by a 13-5 margin in that period. Then Brian Elliott wasn’t his sharpest, giving up three goals, including an early softie to Jared McCann, on 27 shots.

Then it was the power play. And, oh, was it ever the power play, and not in a good way. The man advantage was a dismal 0 for 4 with just six shots on net and it continually shot itself in the foot, including allowing a shorthanded goal to Derek McKenzie.

Almost everything that could have gone wrong for the Flyers did, before they turned it on late with two goals turn the heat up a bit, but not nearly enough. The Flyers aren’t good enough right now to continually play catch-up like that against any team in the NHL, no matter if it’s the worst or the best. They can’t just play 10 minutes and expect to win. And that was another hard reality Thursday.

• Lesson learned Friday in Tampa, where the Flyers put forth a complete, sound effort in topping the league-best Bolts, snapping their long home win streak and making a statement in the process.

Yes, the Flyers caught a break as the Lightning started backup goalie Peter Budaj over Andrei Vasilevskiy and yes, the Flyers found themselves in a hole again courtesy of an unstoppable Steven Stamkos power-play laser beam. But from that point on, they controlled the flow of the game and had the Lightning on their heels for the rest of the evening.

A major difference, you ask? The power play that was dreadful the night before laid the groundwork with two quick second-period tallies, one off the stick of Wayne Simmonds, the other off the stick of Shayne Gostisbehere. What else did those tallies do? They gave the Flyers a much-needed jolt of confidence — confidence that not only could they hang on the road with the best team in the league, but also that they could go on the road and take it to the best team in the league.

It was a complete effort that also included goals from Sean Couturier and Brandon Manning and an empty-netter by Valtteri Filppula.

If only that effort could be bottled up and spread out over a full season.

• What else more can be said about Couturier and the complete player he’s evolved into this season? He again displayed his evolution on the offensive end in the two games this week.

On Thursday, he collected goal No. 17 on the season when he got a piece of Gostisbehere’s point drive late in the third. On Friday, he set up Simmonds with a gorgeous backhand saucer pass across the crease before he slammed home a rebound at the end of the second period for goal No. 18.

So what’s changed for Couturier to get him here? It’s not talent. He’s always had that offensive talent dating back to junior. Sure, playing on the top line with guys like Simmonds and Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek also helps.

But he is supremely confident now in the offensive end. There’s no hesitation. But also look at where the majority of his goals have come from this season — in and around the crease. He’s getting into the greasy areas around the net and putting his 6-foot-3, 211-pound frame to work. And it shows.

That's how you become a top center.

• There were only two games last week, so let’s look into the orange and black crystal ball and take a peek at the week coming up. The Flyers are about to embark on a four-game homestand vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Islanders, St. Louis Blues and Buffalo Sabres. And that’s before hitting the mandated bye week, which starts Jan. 8.

Yeah, so, needless to say, this is a pivotal week for the Flyers if they are to make some type of push toward the postseason. It will officially be January and the nitty-gritty is approaching if it’s not already here. The Pens and Isles both sit ahead of the Flyers in the standings. The Sabres are the worst team in the East as of Sunday morning and are more-than-beatable. The Blues are a feisty squad out of the Central Division, but the Flyers already shut them out earlier in the season in St. Louis.

Better grab some points now before the bye week passes you by.

Coming up this week: Tuesday vs. Pittsburgh (7 p.m. on NBCSN), Thursday vs. New York Islanders (7 p.m. on NBCSP), Saturday vs. St. Louis (1 p.m. on NBCSP), Sunday vs. Buffalo (1 p.m. on NBCSP).

Brian Elliott's case for Flyers MVP

Brian Elliott's case for Flyers MVP

While it didn’t hit the most screeching of halts, the Flyers’ recent sleigh ride of success did a few road bumps this week before the clock struck Christmas Eve.

The six-game win streak is a thing of December past now and the Flyers hit the holiday break losers of three of four games this past week.

The streak was snapped Monday with a 4-1 defeat at the hand of the visiting Los Angeles Kings. The winning ways returned Wednesday with a hard-fought 4-3 at home over the Detroit Red Wings. Then is right back on the losing track Friday with a dud of a 4-2 loss to the lowly Buffalo Sabres. And then the week was capped with yet another loss in Columbus, this one a 2-1 decision in a shootout.

You might have some holiday cookies or some eggnog to get to, so let’s not wait any longer and hop right into this week’s Flyers observations.

• As we sit here at the holiday break, a popular exercise is to look back on the first three months of the season and try to name a Flyers MVP thus far.

Sean Couturier rightfully could be at the top of many observers’ lists with his team-leading 16 goals. Claude Giroux is back to his point-producing self with 13 goals and 29 assists for 42 points. Jake Voracek is tied for the NHL lead with 36 assists and leads the team with 44 points. And Ivan Provorov is an indispensable rock on the blue line. But my vote would go to netminder Brian Elliott.

Elliott has been a tremendous, steadying anchor for a Flyers team that has lost its way more than once this season. On the campaign, he’s 13-8-7 with a .916 save percentage and a 2.59 goals-against average. But he’s been so much more than that. He’s given the Flyers chances to win almost every night in and night out. That’s all these Flyers could ask for and more with an offense that has struggled so mightily at times. Even during the brutal 10-game skid, Elliott was rock-solid in net.

But he proved his worth to the team again this week as he was solid against both L.A. and Detroit and superb against both Buffalo and Columbus in losing efforts. Thursday in Buffalo, he stopped 33 of 35 shots faced, many of which were supreme testers. Yes, he let a leaky one in, but that happens to every goalie every now and then. Against Columbus, his 11th straight start, no less, he took a hard-luck shootout loss with 35 saves on 36 shots faced. That’s all been a microcosm of what he’s done all season. He’s held the Flyers above water to be where they’re at as of Sunday, just four points out of a playoff spot.

• What an ugly effort Friday night in Buffalo. Save for the final five minutes of the second period and the late, two-goal flurry in the third, the Flyers were overmatched by a struggling Sabres club that entered the contest as the worst team in the Eastern Conference.

Not even Elliott’s heroics in net could save the Flyers from a pitiful loss that saw the Sabres out-compete them at almost every turn, including a 1 for 5 power-play effort that doesn’t rightfully depict how bad it was.  

Look, bad losses are going to happen all throughout the season, but that one was just inexcusable. Those are games the good teams — *cough* the playoff teams *cough* — win. That kind of effort just isn’t going to work for these Flyers. They don’t have enough to get by like that.

• The loss in Buffalo left such a bad taste in Dave Hakstol’s mouth he decided to throw his lines into the proverbial blender and shake things up.

The biggest change saw Wayne Simmonds moved off the first line and 20-year-old Travis Konecny bumped up to that spot. It’s an intriguing move and one that is worth trying.

Despite recent success, the Flyers are still yearning for offense. And Konecny has oodles and oodles of offensive talent that’s just waiting to get unleashed. Playing alongside such skilled players as Couturier and Giroux can only help unleash that offensive firepower in the second-year winger.

Now, Konecny has found himself in Hakstol’s doghouse a time or two for his high-risk, turnover-increased style of play. But that’s where being alongside Couturier and Giroux can also help. Those two players are so defensively responsible that it can allow Konecny to have more offensive freedom to roam and therefore enhance his creativity.

He didn’t have shot on goal in Columbus, but Konecny was very noticeable on his new line. This is a big opportunity for him, and it’s up to him to capitalize on it.

• It was a week of ups and downs for rookie defenseman Robert Hagg.

On Wednesday, he ripped home his first NHL goal when he powered a slapper from above the circle through Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard and then earned the Ric Flair victory robe from his teammates.

Things did not go as well Friday in Buffalo when Hagg, normally steady as can be, endured perhaps his worst game as a Flyer. He had an awful giveaway that led to a breakaway and eventually an Evander Kane penalty shot Elliott had to stop. Then he took a bad holding penalty on Zemgus Girgensons moments after. That all set the stage for a rough outing overall.

With as good as Hagg has played, it’s tough to remember sometimes that he’s a rookie. Games like Friday in Buffalo harsh reminders. But such is the life of a rookie in the NHL.

• You guys know who’s pretty good? That Sergei Bobrovsky guy, that's who. Sheesh.

Coming up this week: Thursday at Florida (7:30 p.m. on NBCSP), Friday at Tampa Bay (7:30 p.m. on NBCSP)