Villanova Wildcats

Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

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Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

VILLANOVA, Pa. — There were many reasons why Villanova was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And many more for why it's one of just two top seeds still standing.

The Wildcats do a lot of things well. They have depth, they can shoot from three, they defend, they are well-coached and they play hard. But perhaps their greatest attribute isn’t physical or psychological.

It’s experience. 

Of 'Nova’s core six, five were on the national championship team two seasons ago. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth played key roles on that squad. Donte DiVincenzo (injured) and Eric Paschall (transfer) were on the team but did not play. Having players that talented and that seasoned can’t be quantified. Not to mention a coaching staff still in tact from that title team. 

Between that run in 2015-16 and playing one of the toughest schedules in the country in a battle-tested Big East conference, there is nothing this group has not seen.

“Obviously the playing experience is most important but having coaches who have been in it," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said Monday. "Having guys like Donte, Eric, who were sitting out, be a part of that '16 run — that’s important, too. They learned a lot, they picked up a lot. To be able to share that experience with the young guys, I think that helps this team a lot.”

DiVincenzo agreed with his coach's sentiment.

“We’ve seen the biggest stage," the redshirt sophomore guard said. "Although myself and Eric were not playing, we were there and witnessed it and we know what it takes not only to win it but to get there.”

Next up for Villanova is the Sweet 16 and fifth-seeded West Virginia on Friday night in Boston. The Mountaineers begin guarding you in the parking lot. It is a 90-foot torture test of relentless pressure, end to end. A brutal matchup for any team.

But rest assured, Villanova will be prepared and won’t be overwhelmed. 

“No matter what the stage is, we don’t care," Bridges said. "You can put us anywhere, we’re going to play the same game. We tell the young guys, 'Don’t think of it as the Sweet 16, think of it as the next game.'"

It may be more than just the next game.

But the moment won’t be too big for this bunch that’s seen it all.

No. 21 Villanova beats Saint Joseph's for 25th straight Big 5 win

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No. 21 Villanova beats Saint Joseph's for 25th straight Big 5 win

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VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Villanova soared to the top of the college basketball world by capturing national championships in two of the last three seasons.

The Wildcats have been kings of their own city for much longer.

Eric Paschall had 14 points and nine rebounds, and No. 21 Villanova beat Saint Joseph's 70-58 on Saturday for its 25th straight Big 5 victory.

Joe Cremo and Phil Booth scored 12 points apiece as the Wildcats (8-2) continued their dominance of the long-standing city series with Philadelphia rivals Saint Joseph's, Penn, La Salle and Temple. Jermaine Samuels added 11 points.

"It's just the intensity of it," Samuels said. "We're getting every team's best shot. They're not giving up. That's the biggest takeaway I've gotten from these Big 5 games."

Lamarr Kimble led Saint Joseph's (5-5) with 22 points. The Hawks played without Charlie Brown after the top scorer in the Atlantic 10 sprained his ankle in a win at Princeton on Wednesday.

Saint Joseph's struggled offensively, shooting 34.5 percent (20 for 58) from the field. The Hawks went 6 for 27 from 3-point range and 12 for 18 from the foul line.

"We've been getting kicked in the (butt) all year with missed layups," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "I think the same thing happened today."

Trailing 62-40 midway through the second half, the Hawks went on a 16-0 run to make things interesting. But a Booth 3-pointer and a Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree three-point play with 1:05 remaining helped seal Villanova's sixth straight win.

"We're starting to get more organized," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "I think guys are starting to get more comfortable with each other. But we still have a lot of work to do."

Fresh off come-from-behind Big 5 victories over La Salle and Temple, Villanova began to pull away from Saint Joseph's late in the first half, taking a 38-28 lead into halftime on the strength of four 3-pointers from Cremo and two from Paschall, including one in the final minute.

The Wildcats extended their lead to 48-31 three minutes into the second half after back-to-back buckets from freshman Cole Swider capped a 10-0 run. Swider scored all eight of his points in the second half.

"It's hard as a freshman to come into these games," Wright said. "That's going to be the story of the season - how we can develop our young guys and our new guys."

No. 23 Villanova survives a scare from La Salle

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No. 23 Villanova survives a scare from La Salle

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Villanova coach Jay Wright was raised on Big 5 hoops and considers himself a bit of a keeper of the city series' legacy. He's also quick to warn the Wildcats that anything can happen when Philly teams play at the Palestra.

"It brings me back to childhood," Wright said. "Every time I step in this building, it's a special experience. Once the game comes, I just know crazy things are going to happen. I just expect it."

Winless La Salle came primed for an upset — but the only unpredictable part of a Villanova game against a city rival is the final score of its latest win. Eric Paschall scored 27 points, Phil Booth had 19 and No. 23 Villanova held off one more upset in an 85-78 win over La Salle on Saturday.

Villanova (6-2) remained the class of the city and won its 23rd straight Big 5 game, round-robin play among five Philadelphia Division I basketball teams. The Wildcats haven't lost a city series game since Dec. 5, 2012 against Temple.

They got a pretty good scare against winless La Salle (0-8).

The Wildcats were reeling after consecutive home losses to Michigan, in a national title game rematch, and in overtime to Furman that knocked them out of the AP Top 25 poll. Villanova steadied itself with three straight wins in a Florida tournament and defeated then-No. 14 Florida State in the title game to return to the rankings.

But a return to Philly only unsettled the Wildcats early.

La Salle was the home team at the Palestra, which serves as much a museum to Philly's glorious history as it is a court for city series games to be played on. The Explorers played the first half like an undefeated team instead of a winless one and buried nine 3-pointers. The sensational sequence came at the midway point: David Beatty drew a foul on a layup and La Salle kept possession. Isiah Deas capitalized with a 3. Beatty had a steal and Jack Clark hit a 3 for a 32-20 lead that set the stage for a monster upset.

The rest of the half turned into a 3-point shootout worthy of NBA All-Star weekend, and the Wildcats closed to 42-39 at the half. The Wildcats, who lost players from the title team to the NBA, could never really shake the Explorers until the waning moments.

"We had the great confidence that over the last few years that we were eventually going to wear people down," Wright said. "Well, none of those guys are on this team, so that confidence isn't there."

That puts more responsibility on championship holdovers Booth and Paschall.

"We know how coach thinks. Whenever coach tells us something, we try to teach it to the younger guys as quick as possible," Paschall said.

Traci Carter's 3 pulled the Explorers to 69-66 and they got it within one with 5:24 left. Miles Brookins lobbed a lazy pass into the middle that was picked off by Saddiq Bey and converted into a three-point play by Booth. Paschall sucked the air out of La Salle fans with a dunk for a 78-72 lead.

Wright kept former assistant coach Ashley Howard winless in his first season on the bench at La Salle. Howard, who worked five seasons under Wright, was hired at La Salle just a week after the Wildcats won their second national championship in three seasons.

"These guys have no weaknesses because all these guys can shoot," Howard said.

The Explorers are forced to wonder how much better their upset odds would have improved had leading scorer Pookie Powell not sat out with an injury (lower body). Carter scored 17 and Deas had 15.

Big picture
Villanova: Wright made it 2-0 this season against the branches of his coaching tree. He also beat former assistant and current Quinnipiac coach Baker Dunleavy in November.

La Salle: Also played without guard Cheddi Mosely (concussion) and forward Jared Kimbrough (foot). The Explorers made 11 of their first 15 shots in the second half.

Long distance
La Salle and Villanova each hit 12 3-pointers. Booth and Paschall each had three and Deas hit five.

Up next
Villanova continues its city series games on Wednesday against Temple and Saturday against Saint Joseph's.

La Salle has a busy week with games Tuesday against Bucknell and Saturday against Penn.