Villanova Wildcats

No. 5 Villanova hangs on to beat Tennessee in Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal

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No. 5 Villanova hangs on to beat Tennessee in Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- Fifth-ranked Villanova walked into the locker room at halftime facing a double-digit deficit against Tennessee and several players battling foul trouble.

The way coach Jay Wright figured, there was at least one positive note: His Wildcats should be fresh and ready to roll out of the break.

Jalen Brunson scored 25 points to help Villanova rally from 15 down and beat Tennessee 85-76 in Thursday's semifinals at the Battle 4 Atlantis, earning a trip to the championship game.

The Wildcats (5-0) trailed 44-29 with 1:39 left before roaring out of the break with a dominating run. Villanova scored the first 11 points as part of that 23-2 burst, with the Wildcats playing far more aggressively and getting out in transition.

"I would love to tell you I came up with some great strategy," Wright said. "It was just we made it through the first half with everybody in foul trouble. ... We just said, `All right, we've got everybody back, let's go play, let's do what we were supposed to do.'"

Villanova shot 52 percent after halftime, fueled by Tennessee's 12 second-half turnovers that helped the Wildcats get loose on the break. The Wildcats also had an aggressive edge that got them to the line 24 times after halftime.

"That's how we should play, and throughout the whole game," said Mikal Bridges, who had 21 points. "You just saw parts of that today, in the beginning of the first half and the beginning of the second half. We practice every day trying to play like that for 40 minutes."

Villanova built a 15-point lead with 4:40 left before having to hold off a late rally by the Volunteers (3-1).

Grant Williams scored 20 points for Tennessee, which clawed to within 79-76 on Admiral Schofield's 3-pointer with 51.6 seconds left. But that was as close as the Volunteers got, with Villanova hitting four free throws and getting a breakaway dunk from Donte DiVincenzo with 13.2 seconds left to seal it.

"When they get points easily off turnovers, and out in transition, and also they get more possessions on offense, it's hard when you don't have those shot opportunities," Williams said. "I think their pressure really took us out of our offense.

"In the first half we did a good job of getting to what we wanted. In the second half, they just ran us out of what we wanted."

Big picture
Tennessee: The Volunteers were coming off an overtime win against No. 18 Purdue in the first round and they were poised to add an even bigger upset. But that flat second-half start wiped out a strong half's worth of work and squandered the momentum that came through their board work and converting turnovers.

"We went in and they were feeling pretty good obviously and they were saying all the right things," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "But we didn't come out and do the right things."

Villanova: That's two straight days the Wildcats put together a second-half spurt to take control in the Bahamas. They did it in Round 1 against Western Kentucky to finally break the game open, but this one -- full of active hands, deflected passes and guys diving on the floor -- brought them back in a game that was once getting away from them.

Foul issues
Villanova had five players with at least two fouls by halftime, including starting forward Omari Spellman (three), Bridges (two) and Brunson (two). The game had a total of 52 fouls between the teams.

Brunson's scoring
Brunson scored 18 of his 25 points after halftime, finishing the game 8 of 16 from the field and 9 for 9 from the line to go with six assists.

"(Teammates) give me confidence," Brunson said. "Coach gives me confidence. I put the work in, I should have confidence in myself."

Second-half numbers
Villanova scored 14 of its 21 points off turnovers and 10 of its 12 fast-break points after halftime. The Wildcats also made 20 of 24 free throws after halftime and 33 of 37 for the game.

Up next
Tennessee: The Volunteers will play the North Carolina State-Northern Iowa loser in Friday's third-place game.

Villanova: The Wildcats will play the N.C. State-Northern Iowa winner in Friday's championship game.

Villanova moves up to No. 1 in the nation

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Villanova moves up to No. 1 in the nation

If you're looking for a sliver of good news on a depressing day in Philly sports, Villanova is now the No. 1 team in the nation.

The 10-0 Wildcats moved up to the top spot in Monday's AP poll, receiving 41 of 65 first-place votes.

Michigan State, Wichita State, Duke and Arizona State round out the top five, in that order (see Top 25).

Duke, the unanimous No. 1 team the last two Mondays, lost 89-84 on Saturday at Boston College.

Last week's No. 2 team, Kansas, moved down to No. 13 after losing twice last week to Washington and Arizona State.

Villanova plays twice this week — at Temple on Wednesday for a Big 5 showdown, then vs. Hofstra on Friday night. Those are the Wildcats' last two non-conference games before they begin Big East play on Dec. 27 at DePaul.

Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

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Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

BOX SCORE

Duke's run at No. 1 ended with a court-storming loss at Boston College and No. 2 Kansas wilted in a rare home loss.

Undaunted and undefeated, Villanova is charging toward the top spot.

"We played the next No. 1 team in the country," La Salle coach John Giannini said Sunday.

The Explorers got a taste of how tough it can be to knock off the Wildcats. La Salle scored more baskets, sank more 3-pointers, had more steals and still was just another victim in Villanova's unbeaten season.

Phil Booth scored 18 points and Donte DiVincenzo had 18 points and 10 rebounds to help the fourth-ranked Wildcats avoid an upset in a 77-68 win over La Salle.

"They don't have bad games," Giannini said.

This was as close as one gets for the Wildcats (10-0). They were sloppy -- throwing the ball away several times on outlet passes -- slumped from the 3-point line and could not shake the pesky Explorers until the final minutes of the game to win their 21st straight Big 5 game.

The Wildcats had depth and a massive edge from the free-throw line to sink the Explorers. La Salle (5-6) was a two-man show in B.J Johnson and Amar Stukes, and that was enough to give them a 62-61 lead with 4:47 left.

But the Wildcats had Booth and DiVincenzo, and Jalen Brunson scored 17 and Mikal Bridges, quiet all game, came to life for crucial baskets late to seal the win. Throw in the whopping disparity from the line -- Villanova made 27 of 35, La Salle was 4 of 5 -- and the Wildcats made their case for why they should fight it out with No 3. Michigan State (9-1) to become the new No. 1 team in the AP Top 25.

"It's a great lesson for our guys. The score isn't always what the game is really about," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Booth put the Wildcats ahead with three free throws and followed with an assist on DiVincenzo's 3-pointer that made it 67-62 and finally gave them a bit of breathing room. Bridges, coming off a career-high 28 points against Gonzaga, went inside for a pair of tough buckets and a 71-64 lead that brought the Villanova fans to their feet.

"These guys have played in these games. They're not surprised," Wright said.

Johnson led the Explorers with 21 points and Stukes had 16 to help keep slim hopes alive of pulling off a stunner. The duo combined to hit seven 3-pointers and carried La Salle to the brink of victory.

"When we're out there and we started making plays, we felt like we could do that against anybody," Stukes said. "The shots started falling. We just had to play defense."

The Wildcats beat No. 12 Gonzaga by 16 points this week at Madison Square Garden and were expected to roll against the Explorers at the Wells Fargo Center. The foundation for their perfect record had come from the 3-point line; the Wildcats hit a school-record 19 against Saint Joseph's and buried 10 against the Zags. Against the Explorers, the 3s dried up in the first half. Villanova missed its first six attempts and missed eight of 10 overall in the half.

La Salle went the opposite direction in the first half. Shooting a miserable 29 percent from 3-point range this season, the Explorers went 6 of 12 to take a 38-37 lead. Stukes hit two straight 3s and his bucket a tick before the horn gave La Salle the lead at the break.

Villanova, La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Penn make up the city series field. The Wildcats have emerged as the class of the city and haven't been defeated by a Philadelphia-area team since Temple won on Dec. 5, 2012.

Big picture
La Salle: The Explorers lost for the 15th time in the last 16 games against Villanova. But a lot of teams lose all the time to `Nova. It's what the Explorers do from here that will define their season. They have two more nonconference games to shape up before they open the Atlantic 10 season Dec. 30 against St. Louis. The Explorers haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and will need more consistent performances like they had in the first half to get there again this season.

Villanova: The Wildcats win again. Even when the score is close, the outcome never seems in doubt against a city school. Los Angeles Lakers rookie Josh Hart, one of the stars of the 2016 national championship team, sat courtside and earned a standing ovation as the alum of the game. He trash-talked Johnson in the second half and laughed when the La Salle forward buried a bucket after their exchange.

Ouch
Villanova played without G Collin Gillespie because of a left wrist injury suffered in practice.

Up next
La Salle: Hosts Mercer on Sunday.

Villanova: The Wildcats finish the Big 5 season Wednesday at Temple.