VILLANOVA, Pa. — “We’re No.1.”
The chant rained down from the student section of the packed Pavilion in the closing minutes of Villanova’s dominating 88-57 win over archrival St. Joe’s Saturday (see Instant Replay).
With No. 1 Kentucky falling to No.11 UCLA Saturday afternoon, Villanova fans are hoping their team leapfrogs Kentucky for the No. 1 spot in the country.
The team? Not so much.
“Thank God we’ve experienced that already,” head coach Jay Wright said. “It’s something to deal with. And last year, we really didn’t know what to do about it … I thought it affected us a little bit."
Last season, Villanova reached the top spot on Feb. 8. That ranking lasted a whole two weeks.
“Hopefully, if it happens, we’ll be better,” Wright said. “If it doesn’t happen, we’ll be fine.
“If it happened, these seniors would know, we all would know, what it’s all about.
“If it didn’t happen, they also know it’s not the biggest of a deal, because we did it, and we lost it.”
But to be in contention for the top spot, the Wildcats first had to deal with a slumping St. Joe’s team.
The Hawks “came out and they had a lot of energy,” as senior Kris Jenkins put it. The Hawks, led by the young backcourt duo of Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr Kimble, put up a fight against the reigning national champions, even taking a three-point lead with nine minutes to go in the first half.
“We wanted to avoid the spurts,” St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli said. “We wanted to play the game in segments.”
After winning the opening segment, the Hawks couldn’t avoid giving up one of those game-killing spurts.
Led by Josh Hart and Jenkins, Villanova went on a 20-4 run to close out the half. The Wildcats forced six turnovers in five minutes, while shooting 8 for 11 during that stretch, giving the Wildcats a 44-31 halftime advantage.
“Whenever we come out, we want to start the game playing Villanova basketball,” Jenkins said. “We want to set the tone, and they came out and they had a lot of energy, but we were able to wear them out over the course of 40 minutes.”
Hart finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists — recording the school’s first triple-double since 1986.
“He’s just so complete in every way … He’s the best competitor out there,” Wright said. “If he wasn’t on a team with Kris, he’s one of the best shooters, he’s one of the best finishers in the country, and he’s a great decision maker and he’s our best defensive player.
“The guy's so complete, I just believe he’ll be a great player at the next level … I think this guy is as complete a player as there is in the country.”
While the “segments” approach didn’t work in the Hawks’ favor, neither did the overall game plan.
“The plan was to have them go over the top of us, not through us. Their numbers on two-point shooting coming in were extraordinary, not that their three-point shooting was poor,” Martelli said.
The Hawks learned the hard way that the over-the-top approach doesn’t work. Villanova shot 47 percent from three (16 for 34), with Jenkins “deadly weapon” of a shot sinking a game-high four three-pointers.
After the game, both Wright and Martelli admitted Villanova’s experience made the difference in those crucial eight minutes before the half.
“Just having older guys makes a big difference in this game,” Wright said. “I think their young guys are going to be really good."
The game was a tale of two teams quickly heading in different directions.
The loss is the fourth straight for St. Joe’s, following a 3-0 start to the season.
“I hope that everybody is willing to self-examine,” Martelli said. “Anger doesn’t do it. Frustration doesn’t do it. You have to self-evaluate.
“The mindset is that you start with the man in the mirror and go from there.”
For Villanova, the win is their eighth straight to start the year. Is that good enough for the No. 1 spot in the nation?
“Whatever happens, happens,” Wright said.