It seemed fitting that the season home opener for the reigning national champions fell at the end of what has been a stressful week of the year for the majority of the nation. Regardless, basketball season is the time where members of Nova Nation can come together as one and support a common ideal–Villanova basketball. In the season opener at home, Villanova gave all of its fans a reason to celebrate.
The No. 4 Wildcats began their title defense on Friday night, throttling the visiting Lafayette Leopards 88-48.
Thanks to a hot start by Villanova, the Wildcats were able to get off to a 25-2 run to begin the game, effectively deciding the fate of the game early on. Combined with notable performances from Mikal Bridges (16 points, eight rebounds, and four assists), Jalen Brunson (17 points and seven rebounds), and senior Kris Jenkins (16 points), the ‘Cats were able to obtain the much-expected first win of the season.
“We really started well, our defense was great early,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “It’s tougher for a team like that to play behind against us. Our guys know, if you get behind on teams like that early you can be in trouble.”
It was fitting that the first basket of the 2016-17 season was made by Jenkins, who scored the last basket of the championship season (some of you might remember that 3-pointer).
Austin Evans got Lafayette its first points of the game, sinking a jumper to make it 5-2 with 17:18 remaining in the first half. Then, Villanova turned on the intensity.
Villanova’s defense was exceptional in the season opener, and a big reason why Lafayette was taken down so easily. The Leopards went cold, going scoreless for just over six minutes after Evans’ basket. Meanwhile, the Wildcats heated up and poured it on.
Lafayette’s scoreless streak was finally put to an end, as a Nick Lindner 3-pointer made it 25-5 in Villanova’s favor, with 10:32 left in the first half.
It helped having two Wildcats return to the court this season. Donte DiVincenzo, who medically redshirted after suffering a foot injury, and Eric Paschall, who sat out last season after transferring in from Fordham. Both showed glimpses of being reliable players off the bench. Paschall got his first Villanova basket with a strong dunk. He went on to finish with seven points and seven rebounds in his Wildcat debut.
“He’s going to be good,” Wright said of Paschall. “He’s going to be a big part of what we do. It’s his first year playing with us. He’s got to learn the attention to detail. The more minutes we can get him, the better.”
As for DiVincenzo, he also had a similar day, chipping in seven points and seven boards for the game.
“Donte can really be on of our best rebounders,” Wright said. “He was last year in practice. He is a tremendous rebounding guard.”
It was a positive first step for the returning seniors–Jenkins, Josh Hart, and Darryl Reynolds, who fill in at captains for the departed Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu. So far so good, as they helped Villanova claim a 49-17 lead at the half.
The second half started off quick with a three pointer from Lafayette’s Paulius Zalys after only eight seconds of play. The quick basket gave the Leopards a hopeful start, but unfortunately for them, the second half continued to be more of the same.
Lafayette was paced by a 12 point performance from Matt Klinewski. Lindner added another 10 points, four rebounds, and three assists. However, their efforts would be nowhere near enough, as Lafayette head coach and Villanova alum Fran O’Hanlon had to watch his team be overwhelmed by the Wildcats.
Villanova’s stifling defense held the Leopards to shooting just 19-of-65 (29.2 percent) on the floor. The 3-point oriented Leopards also shot a horrendous 6-of-32 (18.8 percent) from long range. It also didn’t help that Lafayette lost the battle on the boards, with Villanova holding a clear 53-33 advantage in rebounds.
The Wildcats continued to have the hot hand on offense, sinking 15 threes for the whole game. They showed no signs of a championship hangover.
“Playing a game is probably the best thing we could do to get past last season.” Wright said. “I really feel a difference now that we’re a game in, we played somebody, it’s a new season.”
With the first win of the season behind them, the Wildcats will turn their attention to a team that won’t be as easy as the one it faced on Friday night. They will travel to Indiana to take on the No. 15 Purdue Boilermakers as part of the Gavitt Games on Monday, November 14. Tip-off is at 7 p.m.