It was only a one-game thing, Jay Wright insisted.
With Kris Jenkins struggling, Wright opted to start Eric Paschall in his star senior’s place for Saturday night’s game against St. John’s.
And the Villanova coach was thrilled to see how Jenkins responded with 15 points, five rebounds and four assists in the fourth-ranked Wildcats’ 92-79 win over St. John’s on Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
“I thought he was great,” Wright said. “Exactly how we wanted him to play. Looking at his line, I thought he had more assists than that. He got rebounds, got to the foul line, played great defense. We started him in the second half.
“All we wanted to do was get his head clear and get him going. He was awesome. He’ll start the next game.”
No one needs to be reminded how instrumental Jenkins is to Villanova’s success. Along with Josh Hart and Darryl Reynolds, he’s part of the winningest class in program history. And, of course, he hit one of the greatest shots in NCAA Tournament history to lift the Wildcats to last year’s national championship.
But the senior hit a rare cold patch recently, scoring only two points in a 74-72 loss to Marquette on Jan. 24 and following that up with two more single-digit scoring games (eight vs. Virginia last Sunday and six at Providence on Wednesday), shooting a combined 4 for 29 in that stretch.
That led to Jenkins not starting Saturday for only the second time this season.
“I just wanted him to come off the bench firing,” Wright said. “I wanted him offensively to be really aggressive.”
Jenkins didn’t stay on the bench long, coming into the game just three minutes into the contest. By then, the Wildcats already had a lead they would not relinquish with Donte DiVincenzo then helping ’Nova jump out to a 24-5 advantage midway through the first half, scoring 11 points during one minute-and-a-half stretch.
The game was never particularly close again, although when St. John’s had a big run to start the second half, it was Jenkins who responded with a few big points to help stem the tide, scoring 10 of his 15 points after the break.
“The start of the second half I thought he was great,” Wright said. “I love how he started.”
Hart, Jenkins’ partner-in-crime, also had a big second half with 16 points after halftime. It was a fitting Wells Fargo Center sendoff for the two seniors, who led Villanova to wins in all four games they played in the Sixers’ home this season.
“I didn’t even realize it was my last one here,” Hart said. “It went by quick. Whenever you play in an arena like this, it’s always amazing.”
As Jenkins’ recent slump shows, as well as the season-high 23 turnovers Villanova committed Saturday vs. St. John’s, Wright knows there’s still “a lot of room for improvement” in the final two months of the season.
But like Hart, the ’Nova coach enjoyed getting one more chance this season to play in front of a huge crowd at the Wells Fargo Center, before the Wildcats return to campus for the first time in three weeks to face Georgetown at the Pavilion on Tuesday.
“We love playing here, we really do,” Wright said. “The atmosphere is amazing. It’s a unique combination with the student body on both ends of the floor and then you get all the Philadelphia basketball fans with Villanova fans. I don’t know if anywhere else in the country you get this environment in a pro arena.
“I really think it’s one of the special environments in college basketball.”