PITTSBURGH — It was a classic matchup between one of the hottest-shooting teams in the country and a team that prides itself on extraordinary defense.
Extraordinary defense won by 41.
Villanova opened the 2015 NCAA Tournament by demolishing Lafayette, 93-52, Thursday night in an Eastern Regional game at CONSOL Energy Center (see Instant Replay).
Lafayette, No. 2 in Division I with 41 percent accuracy from three-point range, was hounded into 4 for 18 shooting from deep Thursday.
The 41-point margin of victory was Villanova's second-biggest ever in an NCAA tournament game. The 1971 team beat Penn by 43.
“I think we set the tone defensively,” junior guard Dylan Ennis said. “We know that’s what they do — they shoot threes and outscore teams, and we pride ourselves on our defense, so it was going to be our defense against their three-point shooting, and I think we did a great job focusing on their shooters and making sure they didn’t get hot.”
Ennis led a typically balanced Villanova attack with 16 points and added five assists, and Daniel Ochefu contributed 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.
All eight players in head coach Jay Wright’s rotation scored between seven and 16 points.
But this game was all about Villanova’s ferocious defense. Lafayette’s 22 percent shooting from deep matched the Leopards’ second-worst effort this year. They were 1 for 9 (11 percent) vs. Army.
“It was great just coming out and imposing our defense and taking the game over defensively,” said Darrun Hilliard, who had 12 points, three assists and three steals. “It was a great game for us defensively.
“We knew they were a phenomenal three-point shooting team, one of the best in the country and they were going to come in and put threes up. We wanted to run them off the three-point line and make them put it on the floor, and I think we did a great job of that.”
With the win, Villanova earned a game Saturday against North Carolina State, who rallied for a 66-65 victory over LSU later on Thursday. The winner advances to the Sweet 16 in Syracuse.
“I think playing the No. 2 team in the nation, we were a little nervous,” Lafayette senior Seth Hinrichs said. “But we just didn't execute to come out to start. We knew we had to get off to a good start, and we didn't do that tonight. So credit them. They're a really good defensive team and they got us out of rhythm.”
Villanova was up 13-4 after five minutes and 34-13 after 14 minutes. Lafayette got within 14 at 38-24 late in the first half, but Villanova closed the half on an 11-2 run and then opened the second half on a 24-8 run.
The Wildcats led by as many as 45 points before the subs went in.
“It's hard to come back against them,” said Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon, who played at Villanova in the 1970s.
“They handle the ball so well. We knew coming in here how well they handle the ball. It’s not like we could pressure them or trap them. They just move it too well. We were hoping we would play good, solid defense, try to switch a little bit, maybe not give up as many threes. Then we didn't score. They turned us over and just the plan didn't work.”
As cold as Lafayette was, Villanova was electrifying on offense. The Wildcats made 11 of 22 threes and shot 63 percent overall from the field.
Ryan Arcidiacono shot his way out of a recent slump by burying 3 of 4 threes and adding six assists, Ennis was 3 for 6 and freshman Phil Booth made both of his shots from deep.
JayVaughn Pinkston (12 points, six boards), Kris Jenkins (10 points), Josh Hart (seven points, eight rebounds, four assists) and Booth (nine points) all had their moments.
“On the scouting report, usually I'm going to circle the really good shooters on the other team, and you get two or three that you circle,” O’Hanlon said.
“When we were doing the scouting report on Villanova, I circled two that don't shoot threes. These are the two we don't have to worry about shooting threes. And you can guess it was Pinkston and Ochefu. All the other guys really shoot the ball.”
Villanova is now 33-2, and the 33 wins are the most ever by a Philadelphia team. Temple won 32 in 1987 and 1988.
A win Saturday sends the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009.
“It’s a great feeling to put up that many points and do it the right way,” Hilliard said. “No guy stood out with 30 points or anything. It was all spread out.”
Villanova has now won games by 26, 28, 35, 37 and 41 points in the last month.
“A lot of people were saying we set the tone for the tournament, but we’re not thinking like that,” Ennis said. “Just focusing on tonight. It was a good way to start.”