For the second consecutive Tuesday, Villanova took on a Big Five foe at The Palestra. This time, though, it did so as the nation’s No. 1 team. But that didn’t matter for La Salle, which gave the top-ranked Wildcats all they could handle.
It took a terrific performance by sophomore guard Jalen Brunson for Villanova to overcome the Explorers. His career-high 26 points helped the ‘Cats escape with an 89-79 victory. With the win, the Wildcats have now started at least 9-0 for the third time in four seasons, and are one step closer to their fourth straight Big Five title.
Even though this game was played about nine miles away from La Salle’s home gym, the Explorers were still able to draw a fan base filled with energy and enthusiasm. On the court, they fed off of the environment and were able to give Villanova a very tough and competitive game.
“We’re not surprised at all,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “We were not surprised at their effort, their talent. They are as talented offensively, one on one, as we are.”
La Salle put its effort and offensive talent on display early when it opened the game strong and went back-and-forth with Villanova throughout the first half. The ‘Cats led by just four points, 40-36, at halftime.
The Wildcats slowly expanded their lead to 13 points with under eight minutes remaining in regulation. However, a barrage of 3-pointers kept the Explorers in the game until the game’s final minute.
Sophomore guard Pookie Powell, who scored 20 of his career-high 27 points after intermission, led La Salle’s second half charge. Luckily for the Wildcats, Brunson was able to help the Wildcats offense answer every Powell bucket. They did not relinquish the lead once in the second half.
After the game, Wright referred to Brunson in the same breath as his three seniors as far as performing like a veteran player. He praised the young guard’s “old soul” and reliability, which was evident when the Villanova’s offense was in need of a bucket.
With under two minutes remaining, Powell cut the Villanova lead to 75-70 before Brunson answered with a layup 20 seconds later. Then he made all four of his free throw attempts to tighten the muzzle on the lively LaSalle crowd and seal the Wildcat’s victory.
“It’s kind of like an ace in the hole,” Wright said of his “veteran” sophomore. “You know, at any point, when you need to get a bucket, he can go get one for you. And that’s kind of what we did tonight.
“When we were struggling a little…then Jalen knew he had to score more. Nights when [we are] making shots, then Jalen’s going to find them. That’s what I mean about the ‘old soul’ – he thinks the game that way, and that’s really valuable.”
Brunson was 5-of-7 from the field in the second half and finished the night shooting 10-of-17 overall. He made two of his three 3-point attempts and committed zero turnovers as the general of the Villanova offense.
Senior guard Josh Hart joined Brunson as the only other ‘Cat with more than 20 points. He finished 8-of-18 with 21 points, a team-high eight rebounds, and three assists. This is his second consecutive game leading the team in rebounding, and he now has 22 assists over his last three games.
Two other Wildcats finished the night in double digits in scoring. Redshirt sophomore forward Mikal Bridges was 6-of-8 from the field on his way to 16 points. Jenkins scored 12 points despite shooting an uncharacteristic 2-of-7 from beyond the arc and 4-of-13 overall.
Wright gave a lot of credit to LaSalle head coach Dr. John Giannini, for implementing an effective game plan on both ends of the floor. The Explorers played tough perimeter defense, holding Villanova’s best 3-point shooter, senior forward Kris Jenkins, to just two makes in seven attempts.
Offensively, they were able to move the ball around and find openings inside and outside. They scored 38 points in the paint and made 8-of-21 long distance shots as a team. Two LaSalle guards, redshirt junior Amar Stukes and redshirt senior Jordan Price, each had six assists that helped La Salle sustain an effective scoring attack.
The Wildcats will now have a few days to recover before taking on Notre Dame at the Prudential Center in Newark N.J. as part of the Never Forget Classic. It will be the first game of a doubleheader and is scheduled to tip-off at noon.