A game that featured two undefeated, Top 25-ranked schools did not disappoint.
Those who came to the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. were treated to a heavyweight fight against two former conference foes, as Notre Dame and Villanova led off the inaugural Never Forget Tribute Classic.
The Never Forget Tribute Classic not only brings a college basketball doubleheader to fans of the game, but it is also in partnership with the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund, which helps support the education of children of the victims of the 9-11 attacks.
Villanova and Notre Dame duked it out, leaving fans and the crowd with a game to never forget. Once the final buzzer sounded, the Wildcats emerged on top, winning 74-66 over the Fighting Irish.
It was a sure test for top-ranked Villanova, who trailed for a majority of the game.
“We were not doing a good job in the first half, for whatever reason,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “They’re good, they’re really good. Nothing different at halftime, we had to try to do what our gameplan is. Basically, we had to try harder. There’s not a lot choices against them, you have to play them straight up as a team, and you have to beat them together.”
The Fighting Irish came out swinging, they were making their shots, while containing Villanova. The Wildcats couldn’t find their stroke from deep, as the Notre Dame defensive effort contained them from the perimeter.
Notre Dame was paced by the efforts of Matt Farrell and Steve Vasturia, who led the way with 18 points each.
At one point in the first half, Vasturia got a layup to fall, pushing the Notre Dame lead to double figures with 4:33 remaining.
Wright called time out, as Notre Dame fans erupted with excitement at the beatdown that was unfolding before their eyes.
Josh Hart checked back into the game and started to make his presence felt. At that point, he had 12 points off of 4-of-7 shooting, but he would go on to take over the game and watch his scoring production multiply.
Hart scored 10 of Villanova’s 14 next points to close out the first half, helping trim Notre Dame’s lead down to just 41-36 at half.
“We didn’t believe he’d develop into this good of a leader, I thought it would take a little longer just because he had Arch and Daniel for 3 years ahead of him,” Wright said of Hart. “He’s a fun loving guy, but he takes it so seriously and takes responsibility. What is he doing when we’re down? He’s bringing everyone in together. In huddles on the court, he’s grabbing guys by the head and pulled them in. He’s an incredible leader.”
Hart didn’t stop there, continuing to wreak havoc on both ends of the court in the second half. Eventually, the rest of the ‘Cats followed his lead.
A block by Eric Paschall led to a fast break opportunity. Hart received the ball and passed it to a cutting Jalen Brunson for an easy deuce to give Villanova its first lead of the game, taking a 57-56 edge over Notre Dame with 9:07 remaining.
From there, the tide of the game began to go Villanova’s way and Hart continued his dominance, finishing with a career-high 37 points, off of 10-of-14 shooting. He also had 11 rebounds and four assists to complement his high-scoring night.
“I honestly didn’t know how many points I had, I was just trying to make the right play,” said Hart, laughing.
The National Player of the Year candidate gave an unforgettable performance and went on to help the Wildcats close out the victory.
“He’s as good as any player in the country,” Wright said. “He’s so complete. He will do whatever it takes to win games and he has the ability to do it at the right time. He did everything, he is as a complete a player as we’ve ever had.”
Another supreme performance has helped him build up his stature as a candidate for the highest accolade a college basketball player has received, but even with an undefeated start and an excellent game against a ranked opponent, he’s not done yet.
“Everyone has to have that mentality, that chip on your shoulder to be great,” Hart said. “I want to be great as good as Josh Hart can be. I don’t know how good that is, but I’m going to try to figure it out. I’m going to have that mentality.”
With the win, the Wildcats improve to 10-0. They will return to the Pavilion to play Temple on Tuesday night, where they will hope to win and defend their Big 5 title for the fourth straight year. Tip-off is at 7 p.m.