NEWARK, N.J. — Josh Hart wasn’t keeping track of how many points he was accumulating on Saturday against No. 23 Notre Dame.
All that was on the mind of the senior standout guard was doing everything and anything he could to help protect No. 1 Villanova’s unscathed record with a win over the Fighting Irish.
And, just as he has time and time again, Hart delivered for the Wildcats.
Hart poured in a career high 37 points, pulled down 11 rebounds and dished out four assists to lead Villanova to a late 74-66 win over the Fighting Irish in the Never Forget Tribute Classic at the Prudential Center (see Instant Replay).
Even more impressive than his career-high final scoring line was how efficient he was in getting there. Hart made all but five shots on the afternoon, going 10 of 14 from the field, three of four from beyond the arc and a perfect 14 of 14 from the charity stripe.
“I honestly didn’t know how many points I had,” Hart said. “I was just trying to make the right play.
“You have to take what the defense gives you. If all you want to do is get points and the defense takes that away then you’re frustrated and you’re not at your best. … I really attribute that to my teammates and my coaches for really helping me develop my decision making, definitely this offseason, and reading the defense and taking what I can get.”
Notre Dame gave Villanova all it could handle in the first half, building its advantage over the Wildcats to as many as 11 at 35-24 with under four minutes remaining.
With all of the momentum in favor of the Fighting Irish and the potential of an upset growing, Josh Hart began to take over.
Hart would score 10 of Villanova’s final 12 points in the first half, as the Wildcats kept Notre Dame in striking distance and trimmed their deficit down to five entering the break.
And after posting 19 of his team’s 36 points in the first half, Hart was nowhere near finished on the afternoon.
With Villanova still lingering on the short side of a 50-42 game seven minutes into the latter half, Hart scored 16 of the Wildcats’ next 21 points. Hart’s final two points of that stretch, a pair of free throws with six-plus minutes remaining, would give Villanova a lead it wouldn’t relinquish for the remainder of the game.
“His game is just matured and he makes the right play every time,” Mikal Bridges said of Hart. “If he sees an opening he’s going to go strong and aggressive. But if somebody steps up he’s going to make the right pass.”
It wasn’t just his scoring that propelled the Wildcats to their 10th win of the season, either. Hart finished with a team-high four assists, which was highlighted by a set-up on a Jalen Brunson transition lay-up that gave the Wildcats their first lead of the game at the nine minute mark of the second half. The senior guard was also active on the boards, pulling down a team-high 11.
Just two games after posting his first career triple-double, Hart, who entered the game as Villanova’s leader in points, rebounds and assists, flashed his improved all-around game once again against the Fighting Irish.
“He’s as good as any player in the country and he’s so complete,” head coach Jay Wright said. “He will do whatever it takes to win a game and he’s got the ability to do it and at the right time. He got big rebounds at the end of the game. He got offensive rebounds. He scored, passed it, made free throws. He defended [Steve] Vasturia. He did everything. He is as complete a player as we’ve ever had.”
“He’s got great strength,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. “Just from watching him last year and now seeing him live in front of me for two hours, there is a great mental and physical toughness and he really drives that group. He’s a great story. Here’s a guy that just got better every year.”
As Josh Hart continued to boost his campaign for National Player of the Year, the Wildcats cemented their No. 1 spot in the national college basketball polls for at least another week with a program-record tying 16th straight win dating back to last season.
Notre Dame showed that No. 1 Villanova isn’t invincible, but that’s something Josh Hart and the Wildcats were already more than aware of.
“Not at all,” Hart said when asked if Villanova feels as if it can’t lose. “We came in and they punched us in the mouth. When you’re down 11, 12 you don’t have the mentality that you can’t lose. So we know we have to keep getting better. We can’t get complacent no matter where we are, no matter what our record is. … If we do that and play a 40-minute Villanova basketball game and a team is able to pull it out at the end, we’ll tip our hats and the next day we’re going to go and get better.”