Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges stumbled off the court, clocking out after a hard day’s work. As the Big East Player of the Year candidates walked towards the sideline, their arms were completely supported by their teammate’s head, preventing the other from falling ground after accumulating 36 points in 71 combined minutes.
As difficult as it looked for Brunson and Bridges to make it to the bench, it should have been even harder. The Wildcats, having lost two of their last three, were playing in one of college basketball’s most difficult atmospheres without their starting shooting guard.
But depth becomes useful when adversity hits. Supporting players can start runs or stop momentum from swinging in the other direction when they catch fire. Eventually, the best ones become entrenched starters.
Donte DiVincenzo established against Xavier that he can no longer be considered a supporting player.
He was expected to be a super-sub heading into the season and was meant to enter the game and gun until Jay Wright called him back to the bench. During his redshirt freshman season in 2016, DiVincenzo led the scout team and played the role of Buddy Hield in preparation for Villanova’s Final Four matchup against Villanova. It was the first time he showcased his game changing scoring ability to his teammates.
After averaging 8.8 points in 25 minutes last year, he’s now the team’s third leading scorer. And when Phil Booth broke his right hand last month, the sophomore finally had a place in the starting five. DiVincenzo, who finished with 21 points and was 5-7 from beyond the arc, completed his star turn in a much-needed win against No. 3 Xavier with fadeaway jumpers and contested threes that shocked and silenced the crowd.
“I think if you press pause on your DVR, I would say out of the 11 (threes) they made in the first half 8 were highly contested,” said Chris Mack about the dominant team he faced. “So you tip your hat and you curse under your breath and try to change it at halftime.
And DiVincenzo frustrated Mack over again.
Late in the first half as Jalen Brunson attacked the lane, he hit the sophomore guard with a crisp pass, and DiVincenzo’s three extended the lead to 42-25.
He hit two more daggers in the second half– a pull-up jumper after shaking Quinten Goodin on the perimeter, which he followed with a catch-and-shoot three to make it a 86-73 game. Not long after DiVincenzo gave Brunson and Bridges the grace of heading to the bench because the Musketeers kept leaving him open.
“As I told our team in the locker room, when you play an elite level team, margin for error is razor thin,” Mack said. “When you make a couple of mistakes you might be able to get away with against some teams, that’s not the case with Villanova. A five-point deficit becomes an 11 point deficit.”
Keeping Jalen Brunson from getting to the basket looked to be Xavier’s point of emphasis. After the junior guard challenged Goodin in the post throughout January’s matchup, 6-foot-7 freshman Naji Marshall guarded him throughout and limited Brunson, who scored more than 20 in three of his last four games, to just 11 points. Bridges led Villanova with 25 points, but with the added task of guarding Trevon Bluiett or J.P. Macura he was at risk of being stretched thin.
Bluiett and Macura combined to finish with 40 points, but Marshall was Xavier’s only player to make a three point shot and Xaiver’s contributing pieces shot just 40 percent from the field.
The nation’s best teams have to share the load, even as they walk off the floor. DiVincenzo did more than that, taking arguably the biggest shots of the game and catching fire when Marshall and Xavier’s defense were looking the other way. It was the biggest difference between the third and fourth ranked teams in the country.