No. 1-ranked Villanova faced off against rival La Salle at the site that’s known for being the birthplace of the Big 5, the Palestra.
The historic Philadelphia five-way rivalry that features Villanova, La Salle, Penn, Temple, and St. Joseph’s has seen many great games over the years, and Tuesday night was no different.
In their first game ranked as the top team in college basketball, the Wildcats were immediately put to work by the Explorers, who were right behind them every step of the way. Villanova ultimately held off La Salle to win 89-79, improving to 9-0 for the season and 3-0 in Big 5 play.
With La Salle down by two, Explorers’ Demetrius Henry went to the free throw line with a chance to tie the game midway through the second half. Unfortunately for the Explorers, Henry missed both attempts and the Wildcats responded with a 9-0 run to give them some separation.
Despite this, La Salle never backed down and kept it close until the very end. At one point in the closing minutes of the game, the Explorers trimmed the Wildcat lead down to just four, with 1:15 remaining, after a series of Pookie Powell baskets and a Jordan Price 3-pointer put them in a position to threaten the Villanova lead.
However, the Wildcats buckled down defensively, and the Explorers could not get the necessary shots to fall.
Jalen Brunson led the ‘Cats with 26 points and three assists. After a triple-double in the previous game, Josh Hart did not look as stellar as he did against St. Joe’s. Yes, Hart had 23 points and eight rebounds, but was an inefficient 8-of-18.
Three takeaways from the game:
Jalen Brunson Time
After Villanova had Ryan Arcidiacono to rely on for four years, it’s looking like the Wildcats can count on Brunson in crunch time. He had to take the backseat to Arcidiacono last year, but Tuesday night was his breakout party. The sophomore point guard scored a career-high 26 points off of 10-of-17 shooting. However, in the last six minutes of the game Brunson did not miss a single shot or free throw attempt. He scored 10 much-needed points coming down the stretch to help seal the victory over La Salle. Brunson is poised, plays with confidence, and has the clutch gene.
Breaking the Press
The Wildcats vaunted press defense looked anything but intimidating against the Explorers. According to KenPom, Villanova entered the game ranked ninth for defensive efficiency. Outside of Purdue, who used an obvious size advantage, teams struggled to score on the Wildcats. La Salle might have just provided a blueprint for cracking the press. Villanova did not have the same discipline and execution on defense that it usually had demonstrated so far this season. Players were overcommitting and even left guys wide open, which La Salle took complete advantage of. The Explorers were fearless and shot 31-of-59 (52.5 percent) on the floor. Maybe there was a certain type of hangover with being ranked No. 1, but that will not fly against tougher opposition.
La Salle revolves around its transfers. Its top scorer for the last couple of seasons, Jordan Price, joined the Explorers after leaving Auburn. Cleon Roberts, who leads the team in 3-point shooting percentage, originally came from Georgia Southern. Their recent batch of transfers, however, are the ones who have revived this team after a tumultuous 9-22 season last year. B.J. Johnson, a Syracuse transfer who leads the team in scoring this year, had 13 points and eight rebounds in the loss. South Carolina transfer Demetrius Henry may have been quiet against ‘Nova, but he adds some much-needed size. Then there’s former Memphis Tiger Pookie Powell, who had the biggest game of them all. Powell has not been amongst the team’s top scoring options this year, but he didn’t play like that at all. He had a game-high 27 points and had a number of big shots to keep La Salle in the game. La Salle is no slouch and is only primed to get better as the season unfolds and these guys have more time to mesh together.