In a battle of East Coast-West Coast, two Catholic schools, and two teams that both made the National Championship game over the last two years, 'Cats vs. 'Dogs--only one could come out on top.
No. 4 Villanova downed No. 12 Gonzaga in the opening game of the Jimmy V Classic Doubleheader at Madison Square Garden, winning 88-72.
"This was a great win for us," Villanova's Phil Booth said. "A lot of experienced guys, older guys, we saw what they did last year."
The Wildcats set the tone early with their press and three-point shooting, capitalizing on the Bulldogs' weaknesses coming into the heavyweight matchup. Gonzaga had come in as one of the worst three-point defending teams in the country, as well as a squad that was susceptible to the press--as shown in the Bulldogs' game against the Texas Longhorns.
Villanova forced 12 of 19 turnovers in the first half, allowing the 'Cats to dart ahead. On top of that, the Wildcats had been shooting well from deep all night--converting on 10-of-21 (47.6 percent) shots from beyond the arc. A scoring slump in which the Bulldogs were scoreless for almost five minutes was an opportune time for 'Nova to take control of the game.
It started with back-to-back-to-back threes for the 'Cats to push their lead into double figures. From there, Villanova took a 43-30 lead at the break.
The Wildcats kept the Bulldogs at bay, most notably leading scorers Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson. Both had fouled out and scored a combined 14 points for the night.
Their absences didn't change much, as Villanova held a comfortable lead. The Wildcats never came close to letting them catch up, and even got to give the walk-ons some playing time.
Gonzaga was mainly paced Zach Norvell Jr., who scored 22 points off 8-of-12 shooting.
For the 'Cats, Mikal Bridges had 28 points, including five three-point baskets. He also had six rebounds, two blocks, and a steal. Booth had 20 points in the win.
The Wildcats improve to 9-0 on the season and will resume Big 5 action on La Salle on Sunday. They host the Explorers for a 1 p.m. game.
Three takeaways from the game:
Bridge(s) to Victory
In case it hasn't been clear already, Bridges has distinguished himself as a complete player. After having the reputation of being just a defensive asset and a catch-and-shoot guy, it's clear that he has evolved to so much more than just that. He had big games earlier in the season, but to do it on the floor of Madison Square Garden against a Gonzaga squad that's heralded as one of the best defensively around--provides some validity to that. Bridges scoring abilities and play on offense is rapidly catching up to his defensive prowess, and he's becoming a great all-around talent. His stats aren't just inflated from the not-so-great competition Villanova had faced to start the year. Bridges is the real deal, and it'll be interesting to see how far he can take his game.
Last year he deferred to the likes of Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, because it simply wasn't his turn yet. Now it is, and he's going for greatness.
In the Battle 4 Atlantis, it had been evident that Villanova was so reliant on two of its captains--Bridges and Brunson. The two carried their struggling teammates and helped pave the way to a title in the Bahamas. While Bridges had a great game against the Zags on Tuesday night, Brunson was fairly quiet. He was held to single digits until garbage time, shot an uncharacteristic 2-of-6 from the free throw line, and took the backseat for possibly the first time this season. Brunson was definitely expected to be one of the focal points of a tough Zags defense, and they did a good job on him. However, Villanova saw a couple of other players step up, dismissing the two-man team narrative for now.
Phil Booth had another nice game to follow up from his all-around performance against St. Joseph's. He finished with 20 points points off 9-of-14 shooting. Aside from that, this might be a moment where Omari Spellman turns the corner. The redshirt freshman hasn't exploded out of the gate and was benched from the starting lineup in the previous game. This time around, Spellman had a double-double--10 points and 10 boards--including some key rebounds when the game was still close. He didn't force the ball too much and played much more poised in the face of a tough team.
National POY conversation?
Josh Hart had that signature game that sprung him into the conversation for National Player of the Year. It came in the 2016 Never Forget Tribute Classic against Notre Dame. Bridges new career-high 28 points against a team that will likely be a well-seeded NCAA Tournament squad, can this be the start of a National Player of the Year campaign for Bridges?
"That's interesting, I'd really like that for Mikal, that would be nice," Wright said.
He is now averaging 19.0 points per game, shooting well above 50 percent from the floor and from deep, and this is on top of all his defensive prowess.