There’s been a lot of talk around these parts lately about dreams and nightmares.
And Saturday afternoon’s matchup for No.1 Villanova sounded like the most nightmarish one possible.
Coming off a stunning 79-75 upset at the hands of St. John’s, which was previously winless in the conference, the shorthanded Wildcats, minus forwards Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, were tasked with facing their Big East kryptonite, Butler, which had toppled Villanova on three straight occasions.
It wasn’t easy, especially early on, but a redheaded Superman stepped out of the phone booth and helped the Wildcats turn the nightmare scenario into the dream of solving that Bulldog kryptonite.
Donte DiVincenzo dropped a career-high 30 points, including 20 during an explosive second half, as the Wildcats overcame an early 13-point deficit to take their first lead early in the second half and never let go of the stranglehold to beat Butler, 86-75, on Saturday afternoon at Wells Fargo Center. It was Villanova’s first win over Butler since Feb. 20, 2016.
The top-ranked Wildcats improved to 23-2 on the season and 10-2 in the conference. Butler fell to 17-9 on the campaign and 7-6 in Big East play. Villanova still hasn’t lost back-to-back games since March 2013.
Villanova head coach Jay Wright admitted afterward that worry had set in early in the contest as the ‘Cats fell behind.
“Yeah, you are,” Wright said. “You realize you have a lot of young guys out there and they have a really good team.”
But enter DiVincenzo to wash the worry away. There was no way this game ended up the way it did without his sterling performance.
Villanova was having trouble keeping up in the first half with hot-shooting Butler, which shot 56 percent from the field and 54 percent from downtown in the first half. Kelan Martin, who also finished with 30 but had 17 in the first half, and the Bulldogs had an answer for everything the ‘Cats threw at them en route to leading 38-30 with 1:48 left in the half.
DiVincenzo started the wildfire of a 21-4 run over the next 6:55 of game time that brought the whiteout-clad sellout crowd of 20,683 to its feet and sent a furious jolt of energy throughout the entire building. It was one those hallmark devastating runs the Wildcats use to just bully teams into submission. This one saw Villanova take supreme control with a 51-42 lead, and the ‘Cats never looked back.
DiVincenzo had 11 of those 21 points.
“I think [Butler] is very good at containing the three and also being able to guard one-on-one,” DiVincenzo said after the victory. “They did a great job guarding one-on-one and sometimes we just did a great job of making shots.”
DiVincenzo’s 30 points bring a gaudy, eye-popping nature to them. And rightfully so as he was spectacular on the offensive end and was clearly the Wildcats’ MVP on this February Saturday. But Wright was way more impressed with something else his redshirt sophomore forward did against the Bulldogs.
“You guys are going to think I’m nuts, but he probably played his best defensive game of the year,” Wright said of DiVincenzo. “He had 30 points, but he was at the top of the zone, he kept people in front of him, he guarded everybody. He was involved in rebounding. He didn’t get a lot, but he was in there keeping balls alive.
“It was really what he did defensively and to be able to play 40 minutes that hard defensively.”
That defensive effort spread throughout the Villanova sideline as the ‘Cats just smothered Butler in the second half. The Bulldogs shooting percentage plummeted to just 34 percent overall and 31 percent from downtown in the final 20 minutes. Villanova, on the other hand, shot 56 percent in the second half and never stopped punishing Butler for its faults until the final buzzer blared throughout South Philadelphia.
“They turned up the energy early in the second half,” Butler’s Martin said. “They just came out and made their shots. Some tough shots, as well. They chipped away, but we fell.”
There was a noticeable difference on the defensive side of the floor for Villanova and it helped turned the tide in the second half.
The Wildcats are notorious for their staunch man-to-man defense. But without both Booth and Paschall, two looming interior presences, Wright decided to dial up a ferocious zone defense that muzzled the Butler attack — the same Butler attack that shot a blistering 15 of 22 from downtown during a 101-93 upset of Villanova back in December in Indianapolis.
“Our man-to-man is a little more complicated,” Wright said. “[Freshman] Jermaine [Samuels] hasn’t been practicing. He’s only been at two practices. We played him and then when we had to play [freshman] Dhamir [Cosby-Roundtree] with two bigs out there. We felt we couldn’t guard them man-to-man. We had Collin [Gillespie], Omari [Spellman] and Jermaine out there, three freshmen in a zone and they did a hell of a job.”
“[Zone] is not that much different,” DiVincenzo said. “We practice it a lot. So we’re used to playing it because we practice it every day. Like Coach said, we had to put the young guys out there who hadn’t played it that much. But we play it throughout the season and they did a great job out there.
“It’s just communication. Know where their scorers are and just make sure everyone is on the same page.”
While as intense as it gets, the Villanova zone did not catch Butler head coach LaVall Jordan by surprise. But still, his team’s responses to it were fleeting at best.
“We have to do a better job against a zone like that. It kept us out of the paint,” said Jordan, whose team had just 10 points in the paint all day long.
“We expected some zone just with the injuries they have. Coming into the game, I didn’t know how much to expect. But it’s a part of their package defensively. … We could have handled that better.”
Just what Villanova needs, another weapon in its arsenal.
Wright said after the game that Booth is still weeks away from returning as the guard’s broken hand is still in a cast.
Things are much more cloudy for Paschall, who is out with a concussion suffered in a nasty fall while leaping for a rebound last week vs. Seton Hall.
“With concussion protocol, it’s just one day at a time,” Wright said. “He’s still a number of days away at best-case scenario.”