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No. 5 Villanova wins Battle 4 Atlantis title over Northern Illinois

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No. 5 Villanova wins Battle 4 Atlantis title over Northern Illinois

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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- Villanova coach Jay Wright loves playing in November tournaments, from the chance to learn how his team responds to early challenges and experiment with which lineups work best.

Of course, it helps that the fifth-ranked Wildcats keep winning trophies, too.

Mikal Bridges scored 18 points and Villanova pulled away down the stretch to beat Northern Iowa 64-50 in Friday's Battle 4 Atlantis championship game, marking the fifth straight season the Wildcats have won a November tournament.

Jalen Brunson added 16 points and was named the tournament's most valuable player for Villanova (6-0), which has 17 straight wins in these early season tournaments -- including a run to the 2013 Atlantis championship here in the Bahamas. They've won the 2014 Legends Classic, the 2015 NIT Season Tip-Off and the 2016 Charleston Classic since.

"There's a challenge coming here," Wright said. "Everything's taken care of for you here. You're treated like a king. But this is paradise. There's a lot of temptations here. And if you get caught up in that and that's more important to you than being a good basketball and a good teammate, that can affect you.

"These guys and the guys we've had over the years, they're really good basketball players. They're intelligent and they know this is an opportunity to play great competition -- and they take it very seriously."

The Wildcats led most of the way then used an 8-0 run in the final 4 minutes to turn away the Panthers (5-2) for their third win in as many days.

"It gives us great confidence right now, knowing that we've played pretty well as a team," Bridges said. "But it can also hurt if you get too satisfied with this and get complacent."

Juwan McCloud scored 13 points to lead the Panthers, who shot 42 percent and controlled the boards. But Northern Iowa made just 6 of 23 3-pointers and failed to get to the free-throw line in a game that had just 20 total fouls.

"We just didn't have quite enough offense today," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. "I love this team. And we're going to get better. And we're going to be right there when it matters."

Big picture
Northern Iowa: The Panthers finished with two wins in three games in the Bahamas, starting with a 61-58 win against SMU then getting a couple of late baskets to beat North Carolina State 64-60 on Thanksgiving day. They just couldn't complete the three-day run.

"The thing I liked the most was the toughness part of it," Jacobson said. "We came down here and we were tough."

Villanova: The Wildcats managed to avoid the trouble that befell fellow ranked teams No. 2 Arizona and No. 18 Purdue in Atlantis. They used a second-half spurt to pull away from Western Kentucky 66-58 in Round 1, then ran off a bigger one -- 23-2 -- to erase a double-digit deficit and beat Tennessee 85-76 in the semifinals. And Bridges' leap from last year has built a scary 1-2 punch with Brunson, a preseason Associated Press all-American.

"The thing I learned is we don't quit," Brunson said, adding: "I think we really got tested in this tournament."

The key sequence
The Panthers got within 51-45 on Spencer Haldeman's 3 with 5:33 left after trailing by double figures midway through the second half, but Klint Carlson missed a 3-pointer and a jumper with a chance to bring them even closer.

Phil Booth soon answered with a 3. Then, after Eric Paschall's score inside, Bridges hit a 3 off a crosscourt feed from Brunson to push the lead to 14 with 2:03 left.

Championship tests
Northern Iowa has already played the past two national champions, though this one went much better than the first meeting. The Panthers trailed by 31 points in a season-opening 86-69 loss at 2017 champion North Carolina despite the fact the Tar Heels were down two starters -- including Final Four most outstanding player Joel Berry II.

"I would say that this shows we can play with anybody in the nation," McCloud said.

Extra inspiration
Villanova's bench was a little deeper than usual.

Ten-year-old Asher Davies, from Canby, Oregon, met Wright before the game and sat at the end of the bench during the game as part of the Make-A-Wish program. Davies was also recognized during a first-half timeout.

"I know he's been struggling with an illness," Wright said. "And then we're getting ready for the game, we think it's all about us, it put us in a really good perspective before the game."

Up next
Northern Iowa: The Panthers host UNLV on Wednesday.

Villanova: The Wildcats host Penn on Wednesday.

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

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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.