Jay Wright has previously expressed concern for his team and their bad habit of getting off to slow starts.
On Monday night, Wright did not have to worry about that. The Wildcats used a hot start to take an early lead, going wire-to-wire for the win. Villanova beat Penn 77-57 to improve to 3-0 in Big 5 play.
“I wanted to see us start the game really focused, Wright said. “I thought we did a great job of that.”
The Wildcats, specifically Daniel Ochefu, came bursting out of the gate. Villanova won the tip-off and Ochefu went right to work. He showed off his mid-range jumper and ability to work inside.
The senior center scored nine of Villanova’s 14 points to begin the game, as Penn remained scoreless.
The Quakers would eventually get on the board, thanks to Sam Jones draining a three at the 14:49 mark. However, they would find themselves hitting another dry spell immediately after.
Meanwhile, Villanova continued to roll and build upon its lead. The Wildcats got off to a 30-3 start, their best of the season. The run spanned for approximately the first 14 minutes of the game.
“I loved the way we started defensively in the first half,” Wright said.
A start that caliber hadn’t been replicated before. Another thing that was new and unusual, was the team’s under reliance of the three-pointer. The Wildcats shot only 11 three-point attempts for the whole game (making only one of them), their lowest number of shots from beyond the arc for the season.
The same couldn’t be said for the visitors, as Penn took shot after shot from long range. The Quakers failed to convert most of them, shooting a subpar 7-of-32 (21.9%) from beyond the arc.
Villanova chose to take the grittier approach, driving and primarily looking to take the ball inside. The Wildcats shot a respectable 25-of-51 (49.0%) overall. This approach also got them a high number of trips to the free throw line, finding themselves in the bonus earlier than usual.
“This is a really good challenge for us when teams are taking away threes,” Wright said. “You need to drive the ball and get to the foul line.”
Unfortunately, the charity stripe was far from kind to the Wildcats. Villanova struggled from the free throw line, converting only 26 of its 41 attempts (63.4%).
Thanks to the big lead established by the hot start, Villanova was able to cruise to the finish line. The Wildcats defense was impeccable too, limiting the Quakers to just 5-of-29 (17.6%) on the floor. The complete first half performance gave them a 39-11 lead going into the half.
Perhaps the Wildcats took it a little too easy, as the second half saw a relaxed Villanova team and an intense Penn squad.
Despite the large deficit, the Quakers gave a greater effort, refusing to quit.
“In the second half, we tried to play a little of our zone because we want to be a better zone team,” Wright said. “We didn’t do a great job. They did a great job attacking it.”
As a result, Penn quadrupled its offensive output, outscoring Villanova 46-38 in the second half alone.
Freshman guard Jackson Donahue led a resurgent effort for the Quakers. Donahue scored all 18 of his points in the second half alone, including five made three-pointers, before he fouled out of the game.
Regardless, Villanova’s lead was too great. The Wildcats kept the Quakers at least 20 points away.
Jalen Brunson was dominant, scoring 20 of his 22 points in the second half.
“Their defense was playing us one-on-one so I was just being aggressive,” Brunson said. “They were fouling me, and I was making my free throws.”
Brunson was 6-of-10 on the floor, and sunk Villanova’s lone three-pointer. He was one of the few to not struggle from the free throw line, making 9-of-10 of his free throw shots.
Ochefu finished with another double-double, scoring 12 points and collecting 10 rebounds in the win. Ryan Arcidiacono had 13 points, six rebounds, and three assists.
Villanova improves to 10-2 for the season. Now, the Wildcats will turn their attention to be tested once again, when they face #6 Xavier to open up conference play on New Year’s Eve. Tip-off is at 12 p.m.
“Everybody knows the Big East is a whole different beast,” Ochefu said. “We’re excited to start. We’ve got to get ready for the battles we’ll be in.”