Villanova Wildcats

DiVincenzo helps Villanova avoid a nightmare

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DiVincenzo helps Villanova avoid a nightmare


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.

Injury updates
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.”

Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

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Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

VILLANOVA, Pa. — There were many reasons why Villanova was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And many more for why it's one of just two top seeds still standing.

The Wildcats do a lot of things well. They have depth, they can shoot from three, they defend, they are well-coached and they play hard. But perhaps their greatest attribute isn’t physical or psychological.

It’s experience. 

Of 'Nova’s core six, five were on the national championship team two seasons ago. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth played key roles on that squad. Donte DiVincenzo (injured) and Eric Paschall (transfer) were on the team but did not play. Having players that talented and that seasoned can’t be quantified. Not to mention a coaching staff still in tact from that title team. 

Between that run in 2015-16 and playing one of the toughest schedules in the country in a battle-tested Big East conference, there is nothing this group has not seen.

“Obviously the playing experience is most important but having coaches who have been in it," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said Monday. "Having guys like Donte, Eric, who were sitting out, be a part of that '16 run — that’s important, too. They learned a lot, they picked up a lot. To be able to share that experience with the young guys, I think that helps this team a lot.”

DiVincenzo agreed with his coach's sentiment.

“We’ve seen the biggest stage," the redshirt sophomore guard said. "Although myself and Eric were not playing, we were there and witnessed it and we know what it takes not only to win it but to get there.”

Next up for Villanova is the Sweet 16 and fifth-seeded West Virginia on Friday night in Boston. The Mountaineers begin guarding you in the parking lot. It is a 90-foot torture test of relentless pressure, end to end. A brutal matchup for any team.

But rest assured, Villanova will be prepared and won’t be overwhelmed. 

“No matter what the stage is, we don’t care," Bridges said. "You can put us anywhere, we’re going to play the same game. We tell the young guys, 'Don’t think of it as the Sweet 16, think of it as the next game.'"

It may be more than just the next game.

But the moment won’t be too big for this bunch that’s seen it all.

How Sweet it is — 'Nova crushes Alabama

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How Sweet it is — 'Nova crushes Alabama


PITTSBURGH — Mikal Bridges hit five 3s, scored 23 points and helped No. 1 seed Villanova put the field on notice that it's the team to beat with an 81-58 win over ninth-seeded Alabama on Saturday.

The Wildcats (32-4) are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since they won the 2016 national championship. Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth -- and yes, The Big Ragu -- look every bit the favorite to make it two in three years.

Villanova plays Friday in Boston against the Marshall-West Virginia winner.

The sport is still buzzing from top-seeded Virginia's 20-point loss to 16th-seeded UMBC on Friday night.

Alabama (20-16) failed to make it two No. 1s KO'd in less than 24 hours.

After a tense first half in a round that has given the program fits, the Wildcats hit their first six 3s in the second and put on a thrashing up there among the most dominant under coach Jay Wright.

Bridges, who averaged 17.9 points and played his way into a likely NBA draft lottery pick, scored 1 point and missed all five shots in the first half. He found his groove once the second half tipped. Bridges scored the first 5 points of the half and then finished a thunderous alley-oop on a pass from Booth that made it 41-27 and sent the Wildcats wildly waving their arms in celebration headed into a timeout.

Bridges hit his first three 3s in succession to cap an 18-1 run and a Sweet 16 berth was in sight.

Brunson added a 3 to make it 56-31 and the rest of the half was simply a countdown to Boston. Villanova made 17 of 41 3s.

The Wildcats lost in the first weekend as a 1 or 2 seed in 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2017.

Villanova got a brief scare that it might add `18 to the list against Alabama.

The Wildcats live-and-die by the 3-pointer -- they say, "shoot em' up and sleep in the streets" -- and when it's on, look out. The Wildcats are as dangerous as any team in the nation.

When it's off, well, that's how they're so upset-prone in March. They missed eight of their first 11 3s in the first half and Alabama briefly grabbed the lead.

Donte DiVincenzo steadied Villanova with three straight 3s that brought a gasp from the crowd and gave the Wildcats a 22-15 lead. He threw in a fastbreak layup off his own steal and hit his fifth 3 of the half to make it 32-27.

DiVincenzo -- the redheaded guard nicknamed "The Big Ragu" -- scored all 18 of his points in the half. Villanova attempted 20 3s (made seven) out of 27 shots.