It took almost two calendar years, but Donte DiVincenzo, Jalen Brunson and No. 1 Villanova finally stepped out of the phone booth and conquered their Big East kryptonite.
DiVencenzo starred with a career-high 30 points and Brunson was his typical steady self with 27 points of his own as the Wildcats used a potent second-half run to vanquish its Butler demons with an 86-75 victory at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday afternoon. Butler had beaten Villanova three straight times, including an upset in Indianapolis in December.
It was a statement of a rebound win after Wednesday’s stunning loss to St. John’s for Jay Wright’s Wildcats, who improved to 23-2 on the season. Butler fell to 17-9
The hot-shooting Bulldogs jumped out by as many as 13 in the first half and Villanova was grasping for answers. The answers were found in the form of DiVincenzo and a crushing second-half run that bullied the Bulldogs into submission. Villanova took its first lead at 42-40 early in the final half and never relinquished it while turning up the heat in front of a sellout crowd of 20,603 fans clad in white.
Kelan Martin finished with a team-high 30 points in an unsuccessful Butler effort.
The Wildcats still haven’t dropped back-to-back games since March 2013.
Villanova finished its four-game homestand with a 3-1 record, but could fall from the No. 1 perch this week as No. 2 Virginia continues to steamroll the competition.
• The turning point of this game was simple. Butler led 38-30 with 1:48 left in the first half and the ‘Nova Nation was quietly sitting on its hands. But then the ‘Cats flipped the switch and went on one of their typical devastating runs that just crush an opponent’s spirit. This one was a 21-4 run over the next 6:55 that punished Butler and put the Bulldogs in a 51-42 hole they could never recover from. DiVincenzo, the 6-foot-5 redshirt sophomore, was the firestarter during the run as he recorded 11 of the 21 points and sent a jolt of energy throughout the building. Without the explosion from DiVincenzo, who dropped 20 total in the second half, who knows where this game goes?
• Villanova fans surely remember the last meeting with Butler in December when the Bulldogs shot a scorching 15 for 22 from behind the arc en route to the 101-93 upset in Indy. Wright did, too. So to counter, he started freshman guard Collin Gillespie for more quickness and defense on the perimeter. Fellow freshman Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, a forward, started Wednesday’s upset loss at the hands of St. John’s. While the justification in Wright’s decision was there, the execution itself lacked as the Bulldogs torched the nets in the first half, shooting 56 percent from the field and 54 percent from downtown. Bad memories came back to life as Butler led by as many as 13. Good thing for Villanova that the rules of basketball state the teams must play two halves.
• Kelan Martin was an unstoppable monster for Butler in this game… in the first half. He led a potent Bulldogs attack. Of course, his 17 points on 6 of 8 shooting, including 5 of 6 from downtown, made an impact. But it was the way he had almost every answer that was so stifling to the Wildcats. After a DiVincenzo trey got the ‘Cats back within four with 5:03 left in the first half, Martin answered with a trey of his own just seconds later. It seemed like it was just going to be one those days for Villanova. But in the second half, there was barely a peep out of Martin. In the ultimate 20 minutes, he was just 4 of 12 for 13 points. After Martin put up 24 in the first meeting, slowing him down was a major key for Villanova in this game. It took until the second half, but mission accomplished.
• The current injury situation is really taking its toll on Villanova. Redshirt junior Phil Booth, a reliable veteran presence at both ends of the floor, is a huge component of the Wildcats’ glue. A game like this is where Wright’s team could have really used Booth, who’s out up to the next month with a broken hand, to calm things down while doing the dirty work he’s known for. Of course, the Wildcats are used to playing without Booth as he missed most of last season with a knee injury. And their depth suffered. Junior forward Eric Paschall and his unique skillset are out indefinitely after a concussion suffered on a nasty fall last Sunday vs. Seton Hall. His 12.8 points and 4.2 boards a game are holes in the lineup, but he’s also shooting 64 percent from the field and 54 percent from downtown on the season. Combine that with his defensive presence inside, and it’s almost like Villanova fans don’t realize all Paschall brings until he’s out of the lineup. Again, much like what Booth brings, all Paschall does on the floor would have been a major boost to the ‘Cats on Saturday.
• Where was Mikal Bridges? Well, he was physically in the Wells Fargo Center, in uniform, but his game was on the side of a milk carton in the press room. With Booth and Paschall out, more responsibility is on Bridges to be the force he can be at both ends of the floor like the 6-foot-7, lottery pick, freak of nature he can be. And he just wasn’t that force in this game. Not even close. It was hard to even notice him when he was on the floor. In the first half, he shot a miserable 1 for 7 from the floor. His one highlight was a steal and flush in the latter stages of the second half that gave ‘Nova a 73-64 lead. He finished with just 10 points on 4 of 13 from the field. Shorthanded Villanova is going to need plenty more from in the coming weeks.
• Those Villanova throwback unis are sweet.
• The coming week is far from easy for Villanova as the Big East grind takes the Wildcats to Providence on Wednesday night and then to Cincy for a mammoth showdown with No. 5 Xavier next Saturday afternoon.