Villanova Wildcats

For Villanova, Mikal Bridges has become a defensive specialist

For Villanova, Mikal Bridges has become a defensive specialist

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Mikal Bridges arrived at Villanova as a high-scoring forward who could run the floor with the best of them, post up in the paint and bomb in the occasional three-pointer. Didn't take long before he was a defensive specialist.

Now, he's one of the best defensive players in the Big East.

Bridges, the sophomore from Great Valley, is among three players to share the conference's Defensive Player of the Year award. Teammate Josh Hart and Khyri Thomas of Creighton share the honor with Bridges in balloting by the league's head coaches.

"It feels great to go out there and just play as hard as I can," Bridges said. "I try to go out there and help my teammates and play great defense, whether it's off-ball or on-ball and try to be the best teammate, that's what I'm really proud of."

It's tough statistically to measure individual defensive prowess, but Bridges does rank fifth in the Big East with 1.7 steals per game and seventh in blocks at 0.9 per game.

As a team, Villanova is among the best in NCAA Division I defensively -- seventh in field goal defense, 17th in scoring defense, 27th in three-point defense and sixth-best in fewest fouls committed.

And Bridges, with his lanky frame, long arms and nonstop intensity, is as tough a defensive forward as the Wildcats have had in years.

"He came in as a high school scoring phenom like they all do, so I'm really proud of how he has opened up his game defensively," Jay Wright said.

"He really started to take pride in it last year because he knew that would get him on the floor, but I think he took pride in it this year knowing that's what great players do. It's different each year. I'm really proud that he continued to improve defensively this year when he became a starter."

Bridges has improved in every way this year.

On last year's national championship team, he came off the bench to average 20 minutes, 6.4 points and 3.2 rebounds.

This year, Bridges is averaging 30 minutes, 9.9 points per game, shooting 56 percent from the field (fourth-best in the Big East) and 39 percent from three (12th-best in the Big East), to go with 4.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks.

He's one of just four players in Division I to average at least 4.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals and assists per game and shoot at least 55 percent. And one of just eight players to average at least 0.9 blocks and at least 1.7 steals per game.

He can score, but Bridges knows the reason he's a starter on the nation's top-ranked team is because of his defense.

"That's how it goes here. If you don't play defense here, you won't play and that's how it's going right now," Bridges said.

"Everybody here plays defense. I was blessed with the ability, my length and the opportunities I get in the game, but defending is the main thing for anybody. Even Kris (Jenkins) and Josh (Hart), as much as they can score, they build up the offensive energy from the defensive end."

Bridges played well in last year's NCAA run, averaging 22 minutes in 'Nova's six tourney games, shooting 63 percent and contributing 6.8 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals.

He and Hart are Villanova's first Big East Defensive Players of the Year since Jason Lawson won the honor 20 years ago in 1997. Harold Presley in 1986 and Gary Massey in 1988 also won the award for the Wildcats.

Villanova opens the defense of its NCAA title at 7:10 p.m. Thursday in Buffalo when the Wildcats face Mount St. Mary's.

Most of the attention will be on Hart, Jenkins and Jalen Brunson, but keep an eye on Bridges. Especially when Villanova doesn't have the ball. That's where you'll see him really make a difference.

"His length is a big part of [his defensive ability], but his intelligence is also a big part," Wright said.

"He plays the top of our press, he plays different players -- he'll guard point guards, he'll guard forwards -- and he's got to know the personnel and their tendencies, he's got to know our scouting report. So he's a really bright defensive player, also."

History of Big East Defensive Player of the Year
2017 -- Josh Hart, VillanovaMikal Bridges, Villanova; Khyri Thomas, Creighton
2016 -- Kris Dunn, Providence
2015 -- Kris Dunn, Providence; Sir'Dominic Pointer, St. John's
2014 -- Fuquan Edwin, Seton Hall
2013 -- Gorgui Dieng, Louisville
2012 -- Fab Melo, Syracuse
2011 -- Rick Jackson, Syracuse
2010 -- Hamady Ndiaye, Rutgers
2009 -- Hasheem Thabeet, UConn
2008 -- Hasheem Thabeet, UConn
2007 -- Jerel McNeal, Marquette
2006 -- Hilton Armstrong, UConn
2005 -- Josh Boone, UConn
2004 -- Emeka Okafor, UConn 
2003 -- Emeka Okafor, UConn
2002 -- John Linehan, Providence
2001 -- John Linehan, Providence
2000 -- Etan Thomas, Syracuse
1999 -- Etan Thomas, Syracuse
1998 -- Damian Owens, West Virginia
1997 -- Jason Lawson, Villanova
1996 -- Allen Iverson, Georgetown
1995 -- Allen Iverson, Georgetown
1994 -- Donyell Marshall, UConn
1993 -- Jerry Walker, Seton Hall
1992 -- Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown
1991 -- Dikembe Mutombo, Georgetown
1990 -- Dikembe Mutombo, Georgetown; Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown
1989 -- Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown
1988 -- Gary Massey, Villanova
1987 -- Mark Jackson, St. John’s
1986 -- Harold Pressley, Villanova
1985 -- Patrick Ewing, Georgetown
1984 -- Patrick Ewing, Georgetown
1983 -- Patrick Ewing, Georgetown
1982 -- Patrick Ewing, Georgetown

No. 13 Villanova blows second-half lead to St. John's

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No. 13 Villanova blows second-half lead to St. John's

Updated: 9:32 p.m.

BOX SCORE 

NEW YORK — A 70-foot shot just before halftime gave St. John's momentum, and LJ Figueroa and the Red Storm used a strong defensive effort in the second half to surprise No. 13 Villanova.

Figueroa scored 22 points and St. John's rallied to beat the Wildcats 71-65 on Sunday night. It was the first win for the Red Storm at Madison Square Garden against Villanova in 17 years, and they accomplished the feat in front of an energetic sellout crowd of nearly 20,000 fans.

"It was as loud as I can remember, maybe louder," St. John's coach Chris Mullin said. "I'm happy for them they got to experience that too. There's nothing like that. There are some great places to play college basketball, but when you get a full Madison Square Garden against a championship team like Villanova there's nothing like that. It's awesome. It helped us. It kept us in the game and took us to another level."

Trailing by 17 late in the first half, the Red Storm scored the final six points, including Justin Simon's shot from the opposite 3-point line that banked in just before the buzzer and made it 37-26.

"We were screaming the whole way into the locker room," said Mustapha Heron, who added 19 points. "We had to do it on the defensive end (in the second half)."

The Red Storm (19-7, 7-6 Big East) were down 48-34 with 12:30 left. They scored 20 of the next 25 points to take their first lead on Figueroa's 3-pointer from the corner.

During that run, Villanova coach Jay Wright was hit with a technical foul for arguing a call.

"Their half-court defense went to another level after they pressed us and the crowd got going," Wright said. "We had it to 11-12 in the second half there and they started pressing us. They got that turnover at half court and we got the technical that really got them going. That was the turning point in the game."

The teams traded the lead over the next few minutes before Figueroa hit another 3-pointer that gave the Red Storm a 58-57 advantage with 3:12 left and started an 8-0 run.

The Red Storm led 63-57 with 50 seconds left when Villanova's Phil Booth was fouled shooting a 3-pointer. He made two free throws to get the Wildcats within four.

That's as close as they could get as St. John's converted its free throws down the stretch to complete the biggest comeback since the team rallied from a 20-point deficit against DePaul in 2010.

Joe Cremo scored 14 points for Villanova (20-6, 11-2), and Eric Paschall added 11 points and 14 rebounds.

"It was a tale of two halves," Wright said. "We were really dominant in the first half, the second half they matched up the intensity."

The game was a little bit of revenge for the Red Storm, who lost to Villanova by five after blowing an 11-point second-half lead on Jan. 8.

The Wildcats jumped all over the Red Storm early on, outscoring them 29-10 over the first 12 minutes. During that stretch, the Red Storm went without a basket for 7:39.

He said it 
"It was a great college basketball atmosphere, the Garden was awesome today," Wright said. "Fun to be a part of it -- somewhat."

Singing St. John's praises 
Wright thinks St. John's is an NCAA Tournament team right now. There's still a few weeks left in the regular season.

"We played a lot of good teams this year — Marquette, Michigan, Kansas — this team I think is going to be a tournament team," he said.

Tip-ins 
St. John's Shamorie Ponds had 11 points on 2-of-14 shooting. ... It was the lowest scoring first half for St. John's this season, surpassing the 27 points the team had against Butler. ... St. John's Marvin Clark II hit a 3-pointer to start the second half and cross the 1,000-point career mark. It was his first basket of the game. ... St. John's is 3-1 this season in the conference against the top two teams — Marquette and Villanova.

Up next 
Villanova: At Georgetown on Wednesday.

St. John's: At Providence on Wednesday.

Eric Paschall, Phil Booth lead No. 13 Villanova past Providence

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Eric Paschall, Phil Booth lead No. 13 Villanova past Providence

BOX SCORE

VILLANOVA, Pa. — By the time Eric Paschall and Phil Booth exited the game in the final minutes, some fans had already left the arena since the result was no longer in question. Those that remained made sure to give the two fifth-year seniors a hearty ovation.

Paschall scored 20 of his 25 points in the second half and No. 13 Villanova rebounded from its first Big East loss by running away from Providence 85-67 on Wednesday night.

Booth added 22 for the Wildcats (20-5, 11-1), who were fresh off a one-point loss to No. 10 Marquette after getting off to a program best 10-0 start in league play.

"Great leadership from our two seniors," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "They've been carrying us a lot."

Nate Watson led Providence (14-11, 4-8) with 18 points. The Friars have lost four of their last five but were coming off an impressive 14-point road win at St. John's on Saturday.

"They had a lot of adults on the floor," Providence coach Ed Cooley said. "Most old teams win. Not many young teams win, unless they're just the blue bloods of all blue bloods."

After two straight 3-pointers from Paschall put Villanova ahead 53-45 early in the second half, Providence scored the next 10 points, culminating with a steal and acrobatic reverse layup from Maliek White, to take a 55-53 lead with 10:29 remaining.

But Paschall delivered two more big threes - right in front of the `Nova bench - to help the Wildcats close the game on a 23-6 run. Underclassmen Saddiq Bey and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree helped seal the win with a 3-pointer and three-point play during the decisive spurt.

Pashcall shot 10 for 13 from the field and 5 for 6 from 3-point range. Cosby-Roundtree finished with 12 points and didn't miss a shot from the field (4 for 4) or the foul line (4 for 4) as Villanova shot 63 percent in the second half.

"We just knew we had to get better," Paschall said. "It was a whole bunch of little things we had to work on."

Providence junior Alpha Diallo, the eighth leading scorer and top rebounder in the Big East, was held scoreless until an emphatic dunk and three-point play with 1:38 left in the first half followed by a 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left.

Diallo finished with 11 points and seven rebounds while committing five turnovers.

"I was proud of our guys for about 35 minutes," Cooley said. "I thought their experience and discipline showed late while our inexperience and lack of discipline showed late."

Big picture

Providence: The Friars, who have made the NCAA Tournament and won at least 20 games in each of the last five seasons, continue to struggle to put together complete performances. "Unless we can turn my team into another team, that's just what we're going to have to deal with with this year's group," Cooley said.

Villanova: The Wildcats have a one-game lead on Marquette for first place in the Big East while no other team in the league even has a winning record. Villanova won the first four regular-season championships of the revamped Big East before Xavier took the title last season.

Fouls upon fouls

After shooting a perfect 14 for 14 from the foul line in the first half, the Wildcats were on the wrong end of the whistle during one stretch midway through the second half in which they were called for four fouls in one possession.

Wright said he was proud of how his players kept their composure after what he called a "rare" sequence, while Booth claimed to have barely noticed the uniqueness of the situation.

"We were more focused on what we did wrong that caused the fouls," Booth said. "You just gotta keep playing."

Gotta have Hart

Los Angeles Lakers guard Josh Hart, who led Villanova to the 2016 national championship, joined his old college team for practice Tuesday and was honored before Wednesday's game, while wearing a Jalen Brunson Dallas Mavericks jersey.

"He sat through a film session and said, `I shouldn't have entered that room, I couldn't get out,'" Wright laughed. "But it's always good to have him. Our guys love him."

Up next

Providence begins a three-game home stretch vs. Xavier on Saturday afternoon.

Villanova plays the first of three straight games on the road at St. John's on Sunday evening.