Villanova Wildcats

A year later, Jalen Brunson shines in Big East title game for Villanova

A year later, Jalen Brunson shines in Big East title game for Villanova

NEW YORK -- Jalen Brunson was averaging 10.3 points and 2 1/2 assists in 24 1/2 minutes per game going into last year's Big East Championship Game.

He had just been named to the Big East all-freshman team, and, with his calm demeanor and team-first mentality, he would become a huge part of Villanova's run to the NCAA title three weeks later.

So Brunson's stat line that night a year ago was shocking:

Nine minutes. No points.

After starting the game as usual, Brunson was yanked by coach Jay Wright after Seton Hall dominated the game's opening minutes. He wound up playing only two minutes in the second half.

"I just approached it like, 'OK, if that’s what you want to do, I'll be the biggest cheerleader,'" Brunson said Saturday night.

"I just told coach, whatever you need me to do. And whatever you need me to do this year as well, I'm all in for the team. Whatever he wants me to do, I'm down for."

This year's Big East Championship Game was a little different. Brunson, now without question one of the best point guards in the country, was his usual self with 17 points on 5 for 7 shooting and five assists in 34 minutes as the Wildcats beat Creighton, 74-60, to win their second Big East title in three years.

He said last year's game -- the only time in his career he's failed to score and the only time he's played single-digit minutes -- wasn't on his mind, although he later conceded it was but just a little bit.

"I was just focused on trying to make the right play, just trying to make sure our team was together, making sure we were defending well, making sure we were on the same page," he said, "Honestly, that's the only thing I was focused on."

Jay Wright said he was forced to pull Brunson from last year's championship game for strategic reasons.

"They came up with a gameplan no one had ever done to us where they ran offense to get Jalen switched on (Isaiah) Whitehead and just isolate Jalen," Wright said.

"And he’s a little freshman going against a big strong pro and they just kept on doing it and we just didn’t have an answer for it, and that's how they beat us last year. So we had to try to play bigger. We played Mikal (Bridges) and didn't play [Brunson] that much and it worked in the second half but we just couldn't win it.

"But we went to practice the next day and said, 'If someone does this to Jalen, this is what we're going to do.' And they did try it in the (NCAA) tournament and he handled it, but we didn't have him prepared for the Seton Hall game. It was just (Seton Hall coach) Kevin Willard making a smart move."

Brunson had never played just nine minutes in his life. So to have to sit on the bench and watch the biggest game of his life up to that point wasn't easy.

"It was definitely hard, I'm not going to lie," he said. "But it was a learning experience and something that made me stronger and it made me tougher and something that made me work harder, as well."

Villanova, which trailed Seton Hall by as many as 14 points in the first half last year, rallied to take the lead before losing by two with Brunson watching from the bench. It was a loss the Wildcats say helped propel them to the national title.

Wright said he was amazed how well Brunson handled what amounted to a public benching on national TV in the conference championship game at sold-out Madison Square Garden.

"Never worried about his confidence," Wright said. "That kid, really, I never worry about his confidence. Which is rare. You probably say it a lot but you worry about kids' confidence. Not him.

"But I just admired so much how he handled it afterwards. There was never, ever any doubt. There was never, 'If you had played me, we would have won,' or, 'I can't believe you didn't play me.'

"We went to practice the next day and said, 'You’re our guy,' and we worked on what we would do if someone does that next time, and I said to him, 'It's on me, they had a great gameplan, I wasn't prepared for that, and now we have an answer.'

"Jalen … It's like having a 15-year NBA veteran on the team. It's amazing. It’s really special. He's a hell of a player, but his mentality is on a whole different level. It's better than mine. I was kind of losing it with the ref late in the game, and he came over and was like, 'Yo, coach, attitude, attitude, stay calm.' He’s a sophomore, and he's saying that to me."

As productive as Brunson was last year, he's on another level this year.

He was recently announced as one of five finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, which is given annually to the best point guard in college basketball.

He's averaging 14.8 points, 4.2 assists and 2.5 rebounds per game, shooting 40 percent from three-point range and 54 percent overall.

He's one of only three players in Division I averaging at least 14 points and 4.0 assists per game and shooting at least 54 percent overall and 40 percent from three.

With Brunson in the lineup, Villanova is now 66-8 over the last two seasons.

Brunson said that experience last year, that nine-minute run against Seton Hall a year ago Sunday, wound up helping shape the player he is now.

"It was definitely a little bit disappointing and frustrating, but one thing I learned is that it all worked the best for me because I eventually got better," he said.

"What we took from that game was that we needed to play harder, we needed to play better, and individually it definitely made me work a little harder and what our team took from that game really helped us down the road."

Edwards leads Purdue to rout of reigning champ Villanova

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Edwards leads Purdue to rout of reigning champ Villanova

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Carsen Edwards had a career night, scoring 42 points as Purdue knocked reigning national champion Villanova out of the NCAA Tournament Saturday night in an 87-61 rout.

Matt Haarms added 18 points and nine rebounds for the third-seeded Boilermakers (25-9), who advanced to their third straight Sweet 16.

Eric Paschall had 19 for Villanova (26-10), which saw its quest for a third national title in the last four seasons end during the tournament's first weekend. Fellow senior Phil Booth scored 15 points, putting him over 1,500 for his career.

Edwards has battled a sore back and had been in a recent shooting slump, making just 7 of 23 shots from the field in Purdue's first-round win over Old Dominion. He found the bottom of the net early and often against `Nova, making 12 of his 21 shots, including nine of 16 from behind the arc.

Purdue shot 54 percent while holding Villanova to just 20 baskets on 58 shots (34 percent).

Purdue jumped out early, building a 13-point lead thanks to Edwards' outside shooting and Haarms' work down low.

The 7-foot-3 Dutchman towered over the shorter Wildcats, who didn't start anyone over 6-8. He had Purdue's first four points on a dunk and a put-back. Edwards hit five of his nine first-half shots, all of which came from three-point range.

Purdue had nine three-point baskets in the first half and a dunk by Haarms put the Boilermakers up 43-24 at intermission.

Another dunk from the Dutchman extended the lead to 35 in the second half. Villanova chipped away but the sixth seeded Big East champions did not have weapons to make it a game.

Defending champion Villanova shows its experience in NCAA Tournament first-round win over Saint Mary's

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Defending champion Villanova shows its experience in NCAA Tournament first-round win over Saint Mary's

BOX SCORE

HARTFORD, Conn. — Villanova got off to a slow start in defense of its NCAA championship against a determined, defensive-minded Saint Mary's team that came in confident after a season-defining win.

But the Wildcats, a No. 6 seed in this NCAA Tournament after an up-and-down season, have one thing no team in the field of 64 has: a pair of leaders who have won two national titles.

 NPhil Booth scored 20 points, fellow senior Eric Paschell added 14 and Villanova held off 11th-seeded Saint Mary's 61-57 on Thursday night.

"We're growing, our young guys are growing, but we have two seniors who do everything for us, on and off the court," coach Jay Wright said. "We're just so lucky to have them."

Sophomore Jermaine Sameuls added 12 points for the Wildcats (26-9), who led for almost 33 minutes, but never by more than eight points.

"The tempo was excruciating," Wright said. "We felt going in we were going to have to grind with them."

The Gaels used the same slow pace to upset Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Tournament, and it gave them a chance against Villanova (26-9) in a tense opening-round matchup.

Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts each had 13 points for Saint Mary's (22-12). Ford's basket in the lane after a few nifty moves got the Gaels within six points at 61-55 with 34 seconds left.

After Paschell missed a foul shot on the other end, Fitts cut the deficit to four points with a leaner in the lane. The Gaels had two more chances in the final seconds, but Fitts hit the rim on a 3-point attempt and Villanova freshman Saddiq Bey stole the ball from Ford in the final seconds to seal the win.

"We had a few games this year where we put the press on and were able to get back in the game," said Ford. "And if we get a few of those loose balls, or maybe make a three when we were down four, I think it's a different game."

Saint Mary's led 30-28 at the half, but Booth scored the first five points after intermission during a 12-3 run that put the Wildcats up 40-33. He had 12 points and five of his six assists in the second half.

"We weren't doing that bad, actually," Booth said. "It was more that they were playing very well and we were trying to match how they were bringing it. I think we just had to take it to another level, because they were playing at a high level."

Big picture

Villanova: The defending champions are in the tournament for the 14th time in 15 seasons and improved to 14-1 since 2016.

Saint Mary's: The Gaels are 4-6 in opening-round games in the NCAA Tournament and 5-10 overall. Saint Mary's has advanced to the Sweet 16 once in the modern era when it beat the Wildcats in 2010. There's a reminder of that run in the hallway outside the locker room that the players see as they walk out to practice each day in McKeon Pavilion.

Empty arena

The game tipped to a relatively empty arena, but it wasn't because nobody had bought tickets.

Fans of the Wildcats, many of whom made the 4-hour drive from Philadelphia to Hartford, Connecticut, were lined up along with Gaels fans behind metal detectors as security emptied the arena from the afternoon session.

"You worry about those things, you know?" Wright said. "We have a lot of guys in the NCAA Tournament for the first time thinking, `This is the NCAA Tournament?' There's no one in the stands."

By halftime, the 16,000-seat XL Center was nearing capacity, but some frustrated fans were sill filing in.

From distance

The game was billed as a battle between one of the nation's top 3-point shooting teams in Villanova against some of the nation's best perimeter defenders. In the end, the Wildcats finished 8 of 20 from behind the arc, while Saint Mary's was 8 of 22.

On the boards

The taller Gaels won the rebounding battle 33-29 and 10-5 on the offensive end. The Wildcats didn't have an offensive board until the second half and that led to an 11-4 advantage for Saint Mary's in second-chance points. Wright said this year's team was hurt by the transfer of 6-foot-9 Dylan Painter, but is going to have to find a way against taller opponents.

Up next

Villanova will play No. 3 seed Purdue in the second round Saturday.