Villanova Wildcats

Good news for Villanova: Phil Booth is finally healthy

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Good news for Villanova: Phil Booth is finally healthy

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Phil Booth can live with hitting only Villanova's second-biggest buzzer beater in a national championship game.

Let's throw it back to April 2016 in Houston.

"Five seconds to go in the half. Booth. He has time. Looks up, puts it up. And got it!" TBS announcer Jim Nantz said.

"Big time dagger. Booth!" analyst Bill Raftery said.

Just like that, Booth's jumper at the horn cut North Carolina's lead to 5 at halftime.

Nantz and Raftery are about as good as it gets in the broadcast booth, but let one of the stars of the game call this one.

"That was more of a scramble around. Clock went down. Josh (Hart) made a great block and I was just trying to find a spot. I was seeing guys coming down the court trying to catch guys in transition," Booth said as he watched a highlight reel on YouTube. "I saw the clock running, so I had to make a play; either pass or shoot it, so I found a spot at the foul line."

Kris Jenkins won the NCAA title with a 3 at the buzzer and stuffed trophy cases at Villanova's state-of-the art complex.

But ask your friends at a local Nova hangout such as Kelly's Taproom who was the leading scorer in that game, and you might win a round stumping them on Booth. Booth, now a 6-foot-3, 190-pound junior guard, averaged only 7 points that season and was scoreless in 12 minutes against Kansas in the regional final. Against the Tar Heels, Booth scored a career-high 20 on 6 of 7 shooting (two 3s) and 6 of 6 free throws.

"I didn't really know or pay attention to how many points I had until I got to my phone and saw all the texts," he said. "I had no idea. I just knew we won the game."

Booth also knew he couldn't play much more on a painful left knee that even ached in warmups against the Tar Heels. Booth has no idea how the knee was injured; he just knows it wasn't the result of a direct hit and it started early in his sophomore year. He had surgery to repair a meniscus tear about a month after the national championship game and came back ready to help the Wildcats try and defend the title.

Booth felt an unrelated "flare up" on his left kneecap early last season and his year was cut to only three games. Booth against underwent surgery at the end of the season.

He missed Villanova repeat as Big East champions and was a helpless spectator when its season ended with a loss to Wisconsin in just the second game of the NCAA Tournament.

Booth is the only player wearing a suit, his hat backward and a T-shirt draped over his shoulder, in a Big East tournament championship photo that hangs in the hall of the basketball complex.

He's a future pro if healthy, and considered the risk had he pushed through the pain last season. Booth did practice at the end of the season before he was shut down near the NCAA Tournament.

"It was all about the long-term thing. It could come back. It could not," he said. "I decided to do the thing that was best for long-term playing."

Booth, whose father, Phil Booth Sr., is a Philadelphia native who starred at Northeast High School and Coppin State University, and Jalen Brunson are the only returning players who started last season's opener. Jenkins, Hart (a Lakers first-round draft pick) and Darryl Reynolds all left as part of the winningest senior class (129-17; 63-9 Big East) in program history. Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman and Jermaine Samuels, widely considered one of the top high school recruits in the nation, kept the Wildcats as Big East favorites and a preseason national championship contender.

Booth has finished his rehab, but coach Jay Wright eased him back into workouts at the start of the semester. One day on, one day off. Wright, starting his 17th season at Villanova, said Booth will hit full speed with no restrictions next week.

"I'm as positive as I could possibly be right now," Wright said. "He's unique because I think he approached this with a long-term (view) to his career and his life."

Booth insisted his knees are fine and he's ready to help Villanova think long-term — all the way to the first weekend of April. His last basket against North Carolina put the Wildcats up 69-64 and had analyst Grant Hill raving: "How many times have we seen guys off the bench step in the finals and play big?!"

And that was on one bum knee.

With two good ones, Booth just may shine again in a title game.

Villanova still sitting pretty in the AP poll

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USA Today Images

Villanova still sitting pretty in the AP poll

Villanova is getting pretty accustomed to this whole No. 1 thing.

For the fifth time in the last six weeks, head coach Jay Wright's Wildcats are No. 1 in the AP poll, receiving 63 of 65 first-place votes this time around. This week's spot on college basketball's top perch came after a successful week that saw the 'Cats smother then-No.10 Xavier, 89-65, on Wednesday evening at the Wells Fargo Center. The Musketeers fell to No. 11 after the defeat. Villanova followed that up by holding off a feisty St. John's squad, 78-71, at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.

The Wildcats sport this No. 1 ranking heading into their own rivalry week this week. They head to Washington, D.C. on Wednesday to battle historic Big East rival Georgetown, led by first-year head coach and Hoya great Patrick Ewing. The Hoyas are 12-5 on the season, but just 2-4 in conference play. They most recently fell to No. 19 Seton Hall this past Saturday. After that, it's on to Connecticut for an old-school Big East matchup with the Huskies. The teams last met in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, a game UConn won on its way to the national championship. Villanova, though, holds a 33-31 all-time advantage.

As for the rest of this week's top five, Virginia moved up a spot to No. 2, Purdue jumped up to No. 3, Oklahoma shot up five spots to No. 4. and Duke crept up to No. 5.

Click here to view this week's top 25 poll in its entirety.

No. 1 Villanova holds off St. John's

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AP Images

No. 1 Villanova holds off St. John's

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — Donte DiVincenzo hit six 3-pointers and scored 25 points to help No. 1 Villanova silence a rowdy New York crowd and hold off upset-minded St. John's 78-71 on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

Shammorie Ponds came close to leading the Red Storm (10-8, 0-6 Big East) to their first win over a No. 1 team in 33 years. Ponds scored a career-high 37 points in front of 17,123 fans at the Garden.

Ponds punished his body as he crashed the lane for tough buckets -- going up-and-under and seemingly straight through defenders -- over the final 10 minutes that cut it to 69-65 with 1:18 left. He sank a rare jumper (all his field goals were 2-pointers) that pulled St. John's within 71-67, and suddenly the chants of "Let's Go Nova!" were drowned out by cheers for the Red Storm.

The Wildcats (16-1, 4-1) were flawless from the free-throw line over the final minute to avoid the startling upset.

Ponds, a 6-foot-1 guard who scored 31 points against Missouri in November, took just about every shot for the Red Storm down the stretch.

Once called the Michael Jordan of Delaware by coach Jay Wright, DiVincenzo simply wouldn't let the Red Storm get too close. Each time St. John's seemed set to start a game-changing run over the final 7 minutes, DiVincenzo buried 3s, hitting three that gave the Wildcats leads of nine, 10 and 11.

Mikal Bridges had 15 points and 11 rebounds for Villanova. The Wildcats went 13-for-30 on 3-point range.

Ponds was a one-man band for St. John's. No other player scored in double figures and his 15 baskets were two more than the rest of the team.

Jalen Brunson and Bridges hit 3s early in the second half to start to build a cushion and DiVincenzo added another 3 for a 10-point lead. That completed a torrid stretch of eight 3s on Villanova's last eight attempts.

St. John's hit one 3 the entire game -- one! -- and that snuffed any chance at a win. St. John's hung around for most of the first half and put checks in the boxes of things needed to do to beat Villanova.

Tariq Owens had a big block on Bridges under the basket that brought a packed MSG crowd to its feet. Bryan Trimble Jr. buried a 3 for a 20-17 lead and Brunson, one of the top players in the nation, fumbled the ball on the next possession. The Wildcats, who have seemingly fixed the defensive troubles that plagued them the last month, lost their 3-point stroke, missing 8 of their first 10 attempts.

The Wildcats pulled themselves together and showed why they're again the elite team in the Big East. DiVincenzo hit two 3s and scored eight straight points to give them the lead for good and Omari Spellman hit a 3 to send Villanova into halftime with a 34-27 lead.

BIG PICTURE
St. John's: Yes, the Red Storm were actually 10-2 on Dec. 20 and off to one of their best starts in two decades before this tailspin started. The Red Storm lost all three games on this homestand and there's little sign there will be an immediate turnaround. St. John's hasn't defeated a No. 1 team since Chris Mullin was in uniform, not the coach. St. John's beat No. 1 Georgetown 66-65 on Jan. 26, 1985.

Villanova: The Wildcats won their 13th straight game in the series. Villanova, the 2016 national champions, is rolling toward its fifth straight Big East regular season championship.

UP NEXT
Villanova puts its No. 1 ranking on the line Wednesday at Georgetown.

The Red Storm play another Top 25 team when they visit No. 10 Xavier on Wednesday.